The issue of voter turnout is less about a general disinterest in elections and more about the process of elections, and the deteriorating situation of the country which has made many lose interest and belief in the leadership of the country.
Since its return to democratic rule in 1999, Nigeria has enjoyed uninterrupted democracy. The nation has conducted six successive electoral cycles. These elections, however, are occasionally flawed and often marked by violence. Additionally, a constant issue that has beguiled the process of electing leaders is the issue of low voter turnout and voter apathy. Registered voters in Nigeria are not up to half of the total population. Of the registered voters, the number of actual voters on election day has barely been above 50 per cent on average since 1999. Since 2007, the turnout of voters has seen a steady decline, with the 2019 election seeing the lowest turnout on record (34.7 per cent). In 2019, only a meagre 28.6 million votes were cast despite 84 million eligible voters. The winner, President Muhammadu Buhari, was re-elected with just over 15 million votes in a country of about 200 million citizens.
On the surface, this voter turnout may seem like a non-issue considering that declining voter turnout is not unique to Nigeria. Even countries with more advanced democratic institutions struggle with low voter turnout. Numerous countries recorded lower voter turnouts in recent elections compared to elections held 20-30 years ago. But when compared to the extent of socio-political and economic deterioration of Nigeria in these past years, and the real reasons this low voter turnout persists, the significance of this issue comes to the fore. More importantly, as we head into another election—a crucial one at what seems like a make-or-break point in Nigeria’s political history—the importance of voter turnout cannot be understated.
DISTRUST, FEAR, AND VOTER APATHY
Sometime last year, I was having a conversation with Rachael, a friend I had known since my undergraduate years. As is common these days when I’m discussing with friends, our discussion naturally drifted towards the topic of the forthcoming general elections. Racheal, who is based in Ibadan, although she grew up in Osun State, has never voted before. I asked her if she would be voting this time. She answered in the negative. When I probed further on why she won’t, she said she did not want to waste her vote. Her argument then was that there was no one she wanted to vote for among the candidates from the top parties and the increasingly popular third force candidate was an unlikely winner so there was no point wasting her vote during the election.
MaryAnn, another first-time voter who is based in Enugu, is sure that she would vote but she has fears over violence and insecurity in the South East. Rindi, on the other hand, has voted in previous elections but when I asked her if she would vote this time, she said she was not sure. The reason for this, she said, was partly because of the stress associated with switching her polling unit. ‘I am in Abuja and to be honest, it’s so stressful,’ she said. She added that she could have made extra efforts to transfer to a nearer polling unit, but she was not motivated. ‘I really don’t care about any of these candidates because at the end politics is still politics. Personally, I’m just hoping for the best out of even the worst.’
These statements point to seemingly crucial issues that have shaped the history of Nigeria’s elections. While these respondents do not represent the entire populace, their reasons are symptomatic of the larger issues causing low voter turnout in Nigeria, as affirmed by a report published in 2011 on this subject by INEC in partnership with Germany’s Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung.
The INEC-Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung on ‘Voter Apathy and 2011 Elections in Nigeria’ sought to ascertain the root causes of voter apathy and consequent election day low turnout. The most-cited reasons the researchers identified were apprehension by voters that their votes may not count including violence, failed promises, and corruption, among others. The distance many people had to travel to voting centres, according to the research, in some cases may contribute to low turnout due to reasons of cost and convenience. Also, there is the issue of rampant vote buying which gives many genuine voters the impression that, regardless of how they vote, the election results may be compromised.
Vote buying is a huge problem and has over the years compromised Nigeria’s elections and the legitimacy of elected officials. The redesign of the naira and the limit on cash withdrawals are two policies that may affect the extent to which vote buying occurs in this forthcoming election. While it is not guaranteed that these policies might impact voter turnout, it is likely to improve the credibility of the polls if it reduces the extent of financial inducement of voters by the political parties.
On the issue of distance and convenience, some progress has been made to allow people to transfer to nearby polling units or register for their PVC. However, more still needs to be done to ensure these processes are seamless and hassle-free. While INEC has made great strides towards reducing electoral corruption over the years, other systemic issues which have historically decreased people’s interest in election persists.
RISING SPATE OF ELECTORAL VIOLENCE
The threat of violence scares voters and jeopardizes the electoral system. This violence not only occurs on election days but even several months before and after the elections. Nigeria’s political history is rife with electoral violence. In 2019, several cases of violent acts and human rights abuses were recorded, with about 626 persons killed during the electoral cycle. No less than 1,525 persons have been killed in election-related violence since the return to democracy in 1999.
As the country approaches this year’s elections, incidents of electoral violence have been on the rise. According to the National Security Adviser, Gen Babagana Monguno (Rtd), between October and November last year, 52 acts of electoral violence across 22 states. This included attacks on INEC facilities. Major political parties have also witnessed attacks during campaign activities. The People’s Democratic Party (PDP), for instance, saw attacks on their campaign convoy in Borno and during their October 2022 rally in Kaduna. Supporters of the Labour Party (LP) were also attacked during a 2022 rally in Nassarawa, occurred across 22 states.
Victoria Chintex, an LP women leader was killed last year in Kaduna, in a way reminiscent of the death of Salome Abuh, a women leader of the PDP who was burnt alive in her residence in Kogi during the 2019 elections. Another LP member and Imo State House of Assembly candidate, Christopher Elehu, was murdered in Imo by gunmen with his house burnt.
Political leaders are the major culprits that fuel electoral violence through inciting statements and crackdowns on opposition supporters. For instance, in Kano, Alhassan Ado Doguwa, a majority leader in the Federal House of Representatives was quoted saying ‘Vote for APC or we will deal with you’. The Chairman of APC in Kano, Abdullahi Abbas, was also once quoted to have said the party will capture Kano by ‘hook or crook’. Kano is the home base of Rabiu Kwankwaso, another top presidential candidate but is currently led by an APC governor. These kinds of statements, therefore, may fuel fear and prevent people from genuinely exercising their rights. It may also stoke loyalists to attack opposition members or their supporters.
Insecurity across the country, especially in the North East, and North West and the rising threats of violence in the South East could prevent people from stepping out on election day. According to INEC, the South East and South South account for over 70 per cent of the recent attacks on INEC facilities. This year, an INEC facility in Enugu was attacked; the security gatehouse of the INEC office was set ablaze, and one policeman was killed while another was injured.
Last year, there was an attack too in Enugu during local elections where gunmen set vehicles ablaze. IPOB has said it will not disrupt elections in the region but there are factions within the group which pose other challenges. The trend of attacks on party members and INEC facilities may raise fears of violence in the South Eastern region which may affect voter turnout.
Expressing her concerns, MaryAnn, a first-time voter who lives in Enugu, told The Republic:
I feel very unsafe judging from what has been happening especially in the east when it comes to all this sit at home…the rate at which they take it very seriously and for people that default those rules most people end up getting themselves killed. If they can do something like that for a very minor thing, then I can’t imagine what the election will be like.
The already tense atmosphere across the country could escalate if violence is not curbed.
ELECTORAL MALPRACTICE IS DEFINITELY NOT HELPING
Electoral malpractices have created a pattern of mistrust in the minds of Nigerians which, psychologically ingrained, make many people lack faith in the electoral process. Recent polls by Afrobarometer show that many Nigerians prefer democracy and consider elections a good way to choose leaders but do not believe that elections work well or reflect their choice to elect or remove a leader. In this regard though, some credit needs to be accorded to President Muhammadu Buhari. Even as a member of his political party and a strong political ally is contesting to succeed him, the president has repeatedly stated his commitment to ensuring a fair election. If anything, his signing of the Electoral Act 2022 and the CBN policies are a testament to his commitment.
This particular gesture and the increasing political awareness and involvement of youths point to a changing political landscape which might impact the turnout of voters and the overall outcome of the election. But at the same time, the undue stress the naira redesign and fuel crises have caused many Nigerians may discourage several voters from turning out on election day.
James, who is based in Abuja, has voted several times in the past. He told The Republic, ‘often times, I don’t trust the electoral processes in Nigeria, and I believe my votes have never counted. But the commitment of INEC this time, I believe there are changes that the INEC has put in place that will make my vote count this time.’
A few months after our initial conservation, I asked Rachael again if she had changed her decision to not waste her vote. She answered in the affirmative. I asked her to explain what had changed. She said:
Few months to the 2023 election, I was very certain that I wouldn’t participate in the voting process. The only reason I registered for my voter’s card was for identification purposes. I believed my vote would not count as there were powers that would make sure that it was their candidate who wins the election. Then, I had a discussion with my friend on this and he explained why it was wrong not to vote. I was a bit convinced, but I still wasn’t interested in voting. Not until Osun’s Governorship Election happened and I realized how technology and social media has made it difficult to rig elections and it is possible for the people’s candidate to win. This convinced me and I have since made up my mind to vote in next month’s Presidential election. It is possible that my vote will not be wasted, even if my candidate does not win.
This was a few days before the election tribunal overturned the election results of Osun State and declared Gboyega Oyetola the winner of the election. The tribunal claimed there was over-voting in some polling units. When the excess votes were deducted, Oyetola’s votes were more than Ademola Adeleke’s votes.
Shortly after the news of the Osun Election tribunal’s outcome, I asked Rachael again what this means for her and her trust in the electoral process. Her answer was less optimistic than the one she gave a few days before. ‘I’m discouraged, really,’ she said. ‘It’s a proof that they’ll always make sure that their candidate wins.’
While the matter of voter trust is not yet conclusive, this issue brings to the fore an important point which is the integrity of the Bimodal Voter Accreditation System (BVAS). According to INEC, BVAS was introduced to address errors that arise during the computation of results, the falsification of votes, overvoting and the forging of election results sheets, among other issues. On one hand, the availability of BVAS indeed ensured that the error of over-voting in the Osun election could be exposed but, on the other hand, the Osun case has also shown that even with BVAS, elections are still susceptible to manipulation.
CHANGING POLITICAL LANDSCAPE AND THE FORTHCOMING ELECTIONS
While I expect the voter turnout levels to improve this year, it might not be by a wide margin. Some factors beyond fear of violence and mistrust may still affect turnout. One such factor is the distance to polling units. University students who are studying far away from their polling units may particularly be affected by this. Traders and itinerant business owners based away from home in different parts of the country, too. There is also the demographic of Nigerians who have recently migrated or have travelled to study abroad who will have to miss the elections given our lack of diaspora voting. Nonetheless, the elections might see an increase in the turnout of voters, at least compared to the immediate past election.
For one, the number of registered voters has risen by 11.3 per cent from 84,004,084 in 2019 to 93,469,008. An increase in the number of registered voters of course is not new. 2019 saw the registration of 15 million more voters than the previous election in 2015 which had 68 million registered voters. Yet the 2019 total votes cast were abysmally low. This signifies that the issue of voter turnout is less about a general disinterest in elections and more about the process of election, the quality of candidates sponsored by political parties and the deteriorating situation of the country which has made many lose interest and belief in the leadership of the country.
What is different this time around is the diversity in the pool of candidates to be elected and a renewed youthful vigour and optimism backed by increased sensitization. Several things have led to this renewed optimism. One is the rebirth of youthful agitation for political change–an agitation which isn’t uncommon in Nigeria but whose scale is unprecedented, even if as a result of sheer population growth. This development and the emergence of a strong third candidate, Peter Obi, and, if we include Kwankwaso, a viable fourth candidate, make the coming poll unpredictable.
With the youth population making up the majority of the newly registered voters, these factors may well have a significant impact on the turnout on election day. But the outcome remains an interesting one to look forward to⎈
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