If you ask Nigerians, most would agree that they have little in common with their elected representatives. The first difference between elected representatives and the electorate that comes to mind is the significant wealth disparity. Earlier this year, the National Assembly passed a bill to raise the national minimum wage from N18,000 to N30,000 per month. For comparison, that’s how much one senator gets for an hour’s worth of allowances (salaries plus office expenses). Even excluding the generous allowances for office expenses, a senator’s salary of N750,000 ($2,000) per month is more than twice what a citizen would make in a year on the new minimum wage.
Although it is probably the most visible and talked about, money is hardly the most important factor separating the average Nigerians from their elected representatives. Demographically, Nigeria is a very young country. The median age is around 18, and youths below the age of 35 make up two-thirds of the population. Yet in the just-concluded presidential election, the two top contenders were well into their 70s. The current Minister for Youth and Sports Development is over 50 years old. In the outgoing National Assembly, the average senator is 59 years old and the average member of House of Representatives is 51. Half of the Nigerian population is made up of women, yet, women make up 7 of 109 senators and 22 of 360 representatives. It is estimated that around 12 per cent of Nigerians are living with disability, but persons with disability (PWDs) are invisible in Nigeria’s halls of power.
‘Representation’ is a word that gets thrown around a lot in our politics, but it is applied to a narrow set of criteria. It is hardly surprising then that the average voter has little in common with their lawmakers beyond religion, geography and perhaps ethnicity. Class, gender, disability and age differences are much more salient predictors of experience in Nigeria than religion or any of the criteria we typically focus on. A Muslim shoemaker in Kaduna has more in common with a Christian hairdresser in Calabar than either of them have with their elected officials.
The consequences of this lack of true representation are not merely symbolic. A legislature’s chief responsibilities are representation, lawmaking and oversight. None of these can be done effectively if the interests and identities of the country are not reflected in those who represent and make decisions on their behalf. Nigerian legislators cannot speak up on issues when they are unaware of the realities and problems faced by average Nigerians. At best, laws that are passed miss the priorities that need to be addressed and, at worst, cause unintended harm to most of the population. Because these elected officials lack any frame of reference as to how the average Nigerian spends or is being affected by taxes in their daily lives, these realities are not considered in the process of budget allocations and decisions.
Democracy is supposed to be government of the people, by the people and for the people. In Nigeria, the lack of representation in our politics begs the question ‘which people?’ Whose interests are being represented? If ‘people’ in this case refers only to a select group of ultra-wealthy elderly elites, then perhaps the lack of representation should not bother the average Nigerian. However, if ‘people’ is supposed to encompass all citizens in the country, the fact that majority of the population is excluded should make citizens concerned for the future of the country’s democracy.
WHO ARE OUR LEADERS?
Just how different are our elected representatives from the Nigerian population? Between July to October 2017, YIAGA AFRICA’s Centre for Legislative Engagement set out to answer that question. The Centre for Legislative Engagement’s enumerators mapped the representation of women, youth (under 35 years old) and persons with disabilities (PWDs) in Nigeria’s legislative bodies. The study looked at the Senate, House of Representatives, all 36 State Houses of Assembly and 485 Local Government Area Councils. In the Senate, women made up 6.4 per cent of seats and there were no members of the youth and no PWDs. In the House of Representatives, only 5.8 per cent of representatives were women, while youth made up 0.8 per cent. There were no legislators with disabilities.
The picture does not improve at the state level. Only 4.9 per cent of representatives across all the State Houses of Assembly were women; 5.8 per cent were youth and 1.4 per cent were living with a disability. Between the National Assembly and the State Houses of Assembly many decisions are made that determine the quality of life for average citizens. Legislation to criminalize child marriage, introduce quotas for women in leadership, reform university education, raise minimum wage, and more are reviewed in these legislative bodies. Significant segments of the population have effectively no say in the debates around these policies.
LGA councils have less authority than either the National or State Assemblies. Yet, even there, representation of women and PWDs is poor. Only 6 per cent of councillors in LGA Councils are women, and only 0.6 per cent had a disability. On the other hand, 29.7 per cent of these councillors were youth. This was the only level of government where the share of youth in legislative positions even came close to reaching their share of the population. Councillors are also more financially representative of the Nigerian public since they are not so highly paid and, being new to politics, have recent experience with the realities of the Nigerian labour force. Since the jurisdiction for a councillor is so small, the pool of aspirants for the position is reduced making it relatively accessible when compared to state or national positions.
However, it does not help that the power of LGA councils is legally and illegally restrained at every turn. Allocations for LGAs are deposited into a joint account with state governments, over which governors exercise considerable control. A 2017 constitutional amendment to separate these accounts was, unsurprisingly, shut down by the state houses of assembly. On top of this is the fact that LGA councils are routinely dismissed or ignored. In 12 of 36 states, LGAs were being run by unelected councils or without LGA councils at all. The result is that the level of government that is most representative of the Nigerian public, at least in terms of age and wealth, is the most sidelined and ineffectual. One can imagine what Nigeria would be like if decisions on policing, electricity infrastructure, healthcare and education were made by people who lived in the affected communities. Politicians whose children attend the primary schools and use the hospitals that they are responsible for funding are likely to do a better job than those who live in mansions miles away in Abuja.
THE ILLUSION OF CHOICE
If the Nigerian electorate is mostly young, mostly poor, and with significant representation of women and PWDs, why is it that our elected representatives are so different? Of course, there is the possibility that these are the people Nigerians prefer in these positions. There are certainly many Nigerian women who hold conservative views on the public role of women, many Nigerian poor who want ‘successful’ (i.e. rich) leaders, and many Nigerian youth who are cynical towards members of their own generation. This narrative, however, misses the many ways that our political system filters out the types of people whose names can even get on the ballot to be selected.
Nigerian politics is defined by the supremacy of the political parties. On Election Day, voters are presented with party names and logos and not the name or picture of the candidates. A voter’s ideal candidate could be represented on the ballot paper and they would have no idea, as their identity would be hidden behind a logo and an acronym. While voter education could make more voters aware of the individuals behind each platform, there are simply too many parties and too many positions for any voter to know them all. Thus, a successful candidate needs more awareness of their party than they do about themselves. Without a nationally reputable party platform, a candidate’s chances of becoming elected are effectively zero.
Only a few of the 91 registered parties have come anywhere close to having national reputations. For example, in the 2019 General Elections, only nine parties gained representation in the House of Representatives: the All Progressives Congress (APC); People’s Democratic Party (PDP); All Progressives Grand Alliance (APGA); African Democratic Congress (ADC); People’s Redemption Party (PRP); Action Alliance (AA); Social Democratic Party (SDP); Young Progressive Party (YPP) and the Labour Party (LP). Even among these parties, the APC and PDP are particularly dominant, and in most parts of Nigeria they are the only two parties given serious consideration. Parties, especially larger ones, exercise a lot of power when it comes to deciding who can run on their platforms and, more than the general public, are responsible for who wins elected office in Nigeria.
These top parties require aspirants to purchase expensive nomination and expression of interest forms just to be considered. These forms can cost hundreds of thousands of naira, and aspirants are often subjected to additional fees by the party’s agents at the state and local levels. All this comes before the expenses of the party primaries, notoriously opaque contests where bribes to delegates are more important than any notion of democratic campaigning. These obstacles put politics firmly outside the reach of the poor or middle class, with the result that Nigerians do not have the option of voting for those who share their financial circumstances.
The gatekeeping role of political parties is similarly unkind to women, youth and PWDs. Women have recounted stories of sexual harassment prevalent in the ‘old boys club’ of most political parties as well as midnight meetings that are difficult to balance with the social expectations directed at women. Members of these groups are also less likely to be rich enough to afford nomination forms and the costs of party primaries. The passage of the ‘Not Too Young To Run Act’ in 2018, which reduced the constitutional minimum age for running for various positions, was an important step for encouraging youth candidates. However, the high cost of running for office means that only children of the elites or those who have some loyal connection to the established godfathers can truly take advantage of this opportunity.
Yet even when parties give discounted and free forms to under-represented groups in the name of affirmative action, they are blocked by an even more powerful disadvantage: a lack of connections. Party elites or ‘godfathers’, including serving and former politicians, use their influence to disqualify candidates, refuse to sell them forms, frustrate primary contests or substitute their names if by chance they win. These godfathers have the power to impose their preferred candidates, and given that they are mostly older, male, wealthy and abled, it is no surprise that their preferred candidates are often just like them.
When certain groups are marginalized from politics long enough, society begins to see it as normal. Members of these marginalized groups internalize these limitations and do not see electoral politics as a possibility for them. In this way, a lack of representation is a vicious circle, contributing to depressed political involvement for those who see themselves as outside. At the extreme, members of these groups become so sidelined that not only do they not contest elections they also stop voting, tune out of political news and consider it useless to petition their elected representatives. The gulf between the priorities of government and those of the people it claims to speak for only grows wider.
Ensuring that the Nigerian government is representative of its public ought to be a priority for anyone seriously invested in democracy in this country. Our own recent experience shows that marginalization and apathy of ethnic groups and regions can lead to insurgency. We have seen the same script unfold with Biafran Separatists, Niger Delta Militants and Boko Haram. It is likely that marginalization of identity groups will lead to a different type of insurgency, one not contained to any geographical zone but expressed as a populist distaste for democracy and willingness to disrupt the system in favour of something new.
REFORM OR RUIN
Securing representation will require breaking up some of the gatekeeping power of political parties. The Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) set a positive precedent ahead of the 2019 elections by removing APC candidates from the ballot in Rivers and Zamfara due to improperly conducted primaries. In the future, INEC should issue the same punishment to all parties that are proven to have not held primaries, refused sale of forms to aspirants, or engaged in candidate substitution.
INEC should also be empowered to target ‘mushroom parties’ that exist with no intention of winning elected office. Somewhat counterintuitively, the large number of small parties limits the real options of Nigerian voters by making it impossible for serious parties to rise above the fray. In the 2019 presidential election, 12 presidential aspirants endorsed President Muhammadu Buhari and the APC despite being on the ballot themselves. Two parties, the Allied Congress Party of Nigeria (APCN) and the Social Democratic Party (SDP), endorsed Buhari despite having their own candidates on the ballot. Meanwhile, 39 parties formed a coalition to endorse the PDP and its candidate Atiku Abubakar. These were dozens of parties that competed for voter attention despite having no real intention of being elected into government. In the future, INEC should penalize parties that engage in this kind of horse-trading at the expense of the Nigerian voter.
A reduced number of parties would make it possible to add candidate information on the ballot. This way, candidates can leverage their personal brands and identities to attract voters, not just their party logo. Instead of being presented simply with a choice of ‘broom’ or ‘umbrella’, a voter could identify candidates who appeal to them in terms of age or gender.
Any attempt at including representative voices in government will need to weaken the outsized role that money plays in Nigerian politics. This means enforcing and strengthening existing laws on campaign financing that are currently ignored. It also means reducing the attractiveness of these positions by bringing down salaries to reasonable levels. The high cost of running for office is a direct result of the rewards of government; high salaries and opportunities for corruption. Reducing political salaries would also ensure that even long-serving politicians are not insulated from the economic realities of the Nigerian public.
Finally, Nigerians should consider empowering levels of government that are already more representative. If the data shows that the National Assembly is not representative, Nigerian civil society and reform-minded politicians should advocate for more decisions being made in the State Houses or even the LGA Councils. These groups should similarly examine how both state and local legislatures can be empowered to act independently of governors, one of the most powerful and least representative political positions in the federation.
If Nigeria is to develop into a mature democracy, the crisis of representation must be treated with the urgency it deserves. Beyond religion, geography and language, most Nigerians intuitively understand that our political leaders are very unlike us. Many are equally aware of how much this difference is costing the country in bad policies, ignored priorities and public frustration. Given the fates of the first and second republics, we would do well to remember that in a country as diverse and large as Nigeria, democracy is only as secure as it is representative⎈