Numerous features of the Nigerian diaspora, such as its size and economic power, would seem to strengthen the case for its electoral enfranchisement. Despite this, 15 years of advocacy around the diaspora vote have yet to bear fruit.
The explosive growth of democracy in Sub-Saharan Africa has been well-documented and much discussed. Since 1990, the number of countries on the subcontinent holding multiparty elections has increased from just two to over 40 today.
Less discussed is the equally remarkable expansion of Africa’s democratic franchise to its citizens in the diaspora. Before 1990, no Sub-Saharan African country extended the right to vote to any of its citizens living abroad. Today, a full two-thirds of sub-Saharan Africa’s 48 countries allow for some form of external voting. Noticeably missing from this list of countries is Africa’s largest democracy, Nigeria, which, along with Liberia, remains one of just two countries in West Africa without any form of, or legal allowance for, external voting.
The trend towards the enfranchisement of emigrants in African elections follows the broader trends of democratization and globalization following the collapse of the Soviet Union. African countries emerged from the international order of the Cold War, which placed more focus on their alignment with the duelling superpowers than to their domestic political institutions, and responded to a new Western-dominated global order by joining the third wave of democratization and beginning to recognize, at least in law, the right to vote for their citizens in diaspora, though de facto implementation lags behind this considerably. Social media and communication technology have accelerated these trends globally, providing diasporas easier connection to the politics and communities of their home countries, and giving governments interested in expatriate enfranchisement one more way to make it happen.
This has not, however, been Nigeria’s experience. Numerous features of the Nigerian diaspora, such as its size and economic power, would seem to strengthen the case for its electoral enfranchisement. Despite this, 15 years of advocacy around the diaspora vote have yet to bear fruit.
A POLITICS OF DEAD ENDS
The history of external voting in Nigeria’s Fourth Republic is arguably linked to developments that began two countries over, in 1992’s Ghana. During the last days of Jerry Rawlings’ military junta, the Provisional National Defense Council’s Representation of the People Act (ROPA) granted voting rights to citizens of Ghana employed in government and international NGO offices, as well as to Ghanaian international students on government scholarships.
It is worth noting that this expansion of the right to vote, which directly preceded the 1992 elections that would end military rule in Ghana, was limited only to members of the country’s diaspora appointed to their positions abroad by Rawlings’ junta. As such, this right to vote was built to exclude all members of the Ghanaian diaspora who chose to emigrate on any other terms. Many of such Ghanaians had left Ghana to escape abuse and repression experienced under Rawlings’ regime itself.
Large-scale Ghanaian emigration began in the early 1980s, after almost 20 years of successive coup d’états, and around the same time as the chaotic beginning of Rawlings’ rule, between 1979 and 1982. Expatriate enfranchisement, here, gave the vote to those appointed by Rawlings, and denied it to members of the Ghanaian diaspora likely to vote against his National Democratic Congress (NDC) in the pivotal 1992 election, which would determine whose administration would lead Ghana in the first years of its own Fourth Republic. Rawlings and the NDC would later go on to win this election with 60 per cent of the vote.
The exclusion built into this law was the focus of 2006’s ROPA amendment, which eliminated the role of government appointment in expatriate enfranchisement. It was in the context of these political developments in Ghana that advocacy for a diaspora vote in Nigeria first gained traction, with the Houston-based World Igbo Congress claiming as early as 2005 to have received promises from Olusegun Obasanjo’s government to ‘look into’ the matter of diaspora voting.
Four years later, under the Yar’adua administration, Nigeria’s Federal High Court granted a diaspora group’s plea to order the country’s Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) to facilitate diaspora enfranchisement in the 2011 elections. INEC initially acceded to these demands, but these efforts were limited by the House of Representatives’ rejection of a 2009 bill to grant voting rights to Nigerians in the diaspora. Lawmakers claimed that the bill contravened the terms of Nigeria’s 1999 constitution, which explicitly limits the right to vote to Nigerian citizens physically present in the country at the time of registration and elections.
Still, just a year later, in 2010, President Goodluck Jonathan came on the record to affirm his government’s commitment to ensuring ‘that Nigerians in diaspora exercise their right to vote’ in the upcoming 2015 elections. Later, in 2012, six members of the Nigerian House of Representatives sponsored a bill amending the 2010 Electoral Act to grant citizens in the diaspora the right to vote in general elections. This bill, too, failed to garner sufficient legislative support, with some legislators pointing again to constitutional provisions on voting rights as the reason for this outcome, and with a senate committee ruling out the possibility of diaspora voting in the 2015 elections. The build-up to 2019’s elections followed a similar trajectory, with INEC expressing ‘readiness’ for diaspora voting in 2016, but walking back from these claims in 2017 with a statement that ruled out the possibility of diaspora participation in the 2019 elections.
This same song and dance has continued through 2021, with multiple statements from INEC officials affirming, once again, their readiness to ‘roll out’ diaspora voting. INEC has been careful now, however, to make clear the role of the legislature in these plans, explaining to Premium Times that any extension of the right to vote would require an amendment of the 2010 Electoral Act and, presumably, an amendment to the clauses of the constitution that barred passage of 2012’s Electoral Act amendment.
TOO FOREIGN FOR HOME, TOO FOREIGN TO VOTE
Current discourse around the diaspora vote provides some insight into what factors have influenced the lack of progress towards expatriate enfranchisement in Nigeria. Due to the persistence of advocacy in the diaspora, and the allies of such advocacy at home, the prospect of diaspora inclusion has been seriously considered for all Nigerian general elections since 2011. This advocacy and these alliances are no doubt strengthened by the size of Nigeria’s diaspora, with a population estimated at around 20 million in 2020, as well as the economic value of the remittances and investments that Nigerian expatriates send back home. In 2018, Nigerians sent around $25 billion home in remittances. This was almost double the federal government’s earnings from tax revenue in 2019 ($13.5 billion), a year that saw the introduction of particularly stringent tax enforcement measures. The influence of both factors is likely to increase as the diaspora continues to balloon in its size and relative wealth.
The diaspora’s already significant involvement in Nigerian politics adds to this. In ways both constructive—such as through socially-minded investment, and in projecting Nigerian soft power abroad—and destructive, by stoking socio-political tension, funding crime and supporting sectarian violence, the Nigerian diaspora already plays a significant role in shaping political realities back home. Not to mention the large number of Nigerian returnees from diaspora who take on prominent roles in government and other organizations. That Nigerians in the diaspora are able to assert their citizenship in these profound ways strengthens the argument for their electoral enfranchisement as means of recognizing this reality and encouraging civic engagement through action that occurs within and strengthens the Nigerian political system, instead of through rival means that might pose risks to that system’s legitimacy.
Some have also criticized the 2012 bill for failing to make clear what types of elections expatriates could participate in, what, if any, restrictions or requirements with regards to length of stay abroad would apply, and what system voters in the diaspora would use to cast their votes. The bill also failed to establish what criteria, if any, should be used to determine where external votes are held, such as if they should be held in any foreign jurisdiction with resident Nigerian citizens, or if some sort of numerical threshold should determine which diaspora communities see INEC-organized polls. Taken alongside the crawling pace of action in Nigeria’s legislative houses, as well as some lawmakers’ openly-expressed disdain for Nigerian expatriates, these types of problems with previous bills meant that legislatures could not pass them quickly enough to implement diaspora voting before any of the last three general elections.
Another limiting factor has been low political will. It is worth noting that, in the Ghanaian example, the external right to vote was initially only provided to expatriates who were considered highly likely to vote for the same regime that was giving them the right to vote. Similarly, in the 2006 expansion of that right, some have argued the New Patriot Party (NPP), which spearheaded the legislative effort, saw potential benefit in the inclusion of a voter bloc that had, two decades earlier, left the country due, in large part, to the actions of the leaders of their rival party, Jerry Rawlings’ NDC. Similar trends have been seen in South Africa, where, in the 1994 elections that marked the end of apartheid, the right to vote was extended to every South African of voting age resident abroad. In order to accommodate South Africans who had been denied ID by the apartheid regime, identification requirements for South Africans voters abroad were made particularly permissive, such that any form of South African identification was sufficient to vote. The diaspora vote was supported by $4 million for the vote itself, and $3 million for advertisements. All of this reflects the African National Congress(ANC)’s alignment, at that time, with a South African diaspora that had been created by the brutality of apartheid, and that was likely to reward the ANC’s success in dismantling that repressive system with votes at the ballot box.
After the ANC came to power, the demographics of the South African diaspora changed dramatically, with the return of people who had historically been victims of apartheid, and the emigration of white South Africans uncomfortable with the new egalitarian racial order. This change motivated the ANC to repeal, in 1998, all provisions for external voting. South Africa would not organize another diaspora vote until 2014, after a 2009 court ruling in favour of diaspora enfranchisement, albeit with far more stringent voter registration requirements. Reflecting this, while almost one hundred thousand South Africans voted externally in their 1998 elections, just under twenty thousand did so in 2014.
In this same vein, one way to explain the lack of political will for a diaspora vote in Nigeria is through ruling party perceptions of the partisan alignment of diaspora groups. Evidence suggests that African political parties, as shown in the examples of Ghana and South Africa, are typically more willing to enfranchise diaspora voters if they believe that those voters will support these parties in elections. With a Nigerian diaspora that is likely as ethnically, politically, and economically diverse as the country itself, the political leanings of Nigerians in the diaspora become difficult to predict. Additional factors include poor data on the size and demographics of this diaspora, and no shortage of controversial figures in either of Nigeria’s largest parties, the PDP and APC. This difficulty in predicting diaspora leanings limits political will substantially, as a party that pushes for diaspora voting has no real way of knowing how these efforts might affect electoral outcomes.
Further complicating matters are ethnic and religious differences in the global distribution of the Nigerian diaspora. This distribution has been strongly influenced by Nigeria’s North-South divide, with Nigerians from the Christian-majority South making up a large part of Nigeria’s diasporas in the West, and those from the largely Muslim North constituting the majority of the country’s diaspora in the Middle East and wider Muslim world. More complicated still are patterns of Nigerian emigration to other African countries, which includes large diaspora communities in regional economic hubs, like Ghana, South Africa and Kenya; market and trader communities across West Africa; as well as refugees of violence and socioeconomic instability all along Nigeria’s Northern border. Granting a diaspora vote without serious effort to include Nigerians in these diaspora communities, which are less likely to pursue formal cultural and political organization than their compatriots in more distant locales like the US or UK, risks systematically marginalizing these members of the Nigerian diaspora in elections, worsening already chronic sociopolitical violence, and undermining already-troubled confidence in the Nigerian electoral process.
WHICH WAY IS FORWARD?
Progress towards expatriate enfranchisement in Nigeria has followed the same indolent course as much of the rest of Nigerian legislation. It is no surprise that a legislature that has failed to pass a bill as popular and widely supported as the Petroleum Industry Bill, despite 20 years of effort, would also stymie progress towards diaspora enfranchisement. That lawmakers might feel uncertain about the potential consequences of a diaspora vote on their own chances of success at the ballot box further limits progress and hinders coalition-building around a diaspora vote in Nigeria’s legislative houses.
One way to a diaspora vote, then, could be to deny lawmakers the opportunities they have so far enjoyed to delay action on diaspora voting bills. This would mean collaboration between diaspora groups, legal experts and lawmakers to write a comprehensive bill, that: includes a constitutional amendment; defines explicitly what elections the diaspora could participate in; how diaspora votes would be cast and tallied; what, if any, criteria would determine which foreign jurisdictions would see INEC-organized votes; and what, if any, restrictions would apply to this extension of the Nigerian electoral franchise.
Work has already been done on some of these fronts, with the House of Representatives currently debating a new diaspora voting bill, which seeks to give Nigerians in the diaspora the right to participate in the upcoming 2023 elections.
This new bill would amend the Nigerian constitution, eliminating the requirement for in-country registration and establishing explicitly the right to participate in Nigerian elections for ‘every citizen of Nigeria, who has attained the age of eighteen years residing within or outside Nigeria’. Though this approach seems to address the largest constitutional concern with regards to a Nigerian diaspora vote, it remains to be seen whether this, too, is the setup for the death of yet another bill by legislative foot-dragging⎈
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