Apathy In Nigeria’s Democracy, By Dele Agekameh
With a section of society not showing up at the polls at all and another section in serious danger of selling their voting rights for porridge, political outcomes will likely continue to be poor at all levels.
Democracy, as a system of government, is rooted in the idea of mass participation of people in the electoral process. However, mass participation requires mass interest in political outcomes, and the erroneous supposition has always been that this interest is enough to ensure participation. In Nigeria and around the world, we are now learning that whilst people remain interested in political outcomes, this interest does not always lead to participation during elections.
In Nigeria, the reasons for voter apathy are no mystery. The stress of the process of voter registration and voting in elections, lack of faith in the process or security of the process, and general lack of confidence in government, are amongst the leading reasons why people do not participate in the electoral process. In earlier years, there was evidence of the outright fabrication of election results, and the credibility of official voter records was highly suspect. That was the era that witnessed the entry of thousands of names like “Michael Jackson”, “Nelson Mandela” and others into the voters register.
The biggest participants in Nigeria’s elections are within the section of society that bear most of the brunt of the failure of government and society. They are the low-income earners, the unemployed, the uneducated, unskilled workers, rural dwellers, and deviants. They form the most oppressed and vulnerable section of society. The paradox is not subtle. Although one expects this ‘voting majority’ to make better decisions because of their social state, they are indeed their own tyrants, through the choices they make during elections. These choices sometimes include active participation in electoral malpractice and, more rampant in recent times, the outright selling of votes.
For context, a look at the electoral data in the United States of America (U.S.A) shows that the most comfortable members of U.S. society are the most involved politically. Voters in the U.S. tend to be older, wealthier and more educated, and more women voters have taken part in every presidential election since 1980. One could say that this section of the U.S. society understands the need to protect their interests and investments through political participation and active engagement in the electoral process. If this is true, why do the corresponding demographic in Nigeria not participate more in the electoral process?
As recently as 2009, national attention was drawn to the existence of a section of the Jibu tribe who live up the mountains around Gashaka Local Government Area of Taraba State, away from civilisation. Some missionaries claimed to have ‘discovered’ the people in their remote dwellings, with only fresh leaves covering their genitals, similar to the Koma hill-dwellers of Adamawa. With no government presence, people like the Jibu are the only ones with a real claim to lack of interest in the electoral process in this country, because of their willful or inadvertent ignorance of modern structures. Yet, the most successful and educated members of our society have chosen to align their political interests with the blissfully ignorance of mountain dwellers.
Voter apathy in Nigeria is not a product of the lack of interest in the political process or political outcomes. Rather, it is a product of orchestrated disruption by the political class to make the electoral process inconvenient. This plan spreads into the bureaucratic choke of voter registration, violence at the polls and the volatility of party politics.
The problems of the electoral process that deter the more exposed or comfortable members of society are heightened by politicians of questionable morals and character, in league with vulnerable individuals who assist them to pervert the process. Our democratic system is therefore caught in a loop where perversion of the process discourages large participation, and the lower turn-out of voters facilitates the manipulation of the system.
The reform of the electoral process carried out by Attahiru Jega, former head of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), has made the manipulation of electoral data in Nigeria more difficult, thereby forcing the manipulators to corruptly engage the electorate directly on poll day, as it has been reported in recent elections. There is progress here somehow, as corrupt money is no longer being offered to INEC officials, adding a bit more credibility to the process from that end.
In a country with large numbers of the citizenry living below the international poverty threshold, there will be difficulty stopping the unholy transaction at the polling units. Faced with the offer of amounts that exceed their daily income, poorer people will be tempted to sell their votes to the agents of corruption. With a section of society not showing up at the polls at all and another section in serious danger of selling its voting rights for porridge, political outcomes will likely continue to be poor at all levels.
Voter apathy in Nigeria is not a product of the lack of interest in the political process or political outcomes. Rather, it is a product of orchestrated disruption by the political class to make the electoral process inconvenient. This plan spreads into the bureaucratic choke of voter registration, violence at the polls and the volatility of party politics. All these work together to exclude the enlightened voter from participation, while the ropes of religious and ethnic sentiments continue to tug at the gullible, even within the ranks of the intelligentsia.
The journey to apathy is thus an incredibly short one. One can arrive there after meeting a discouraging process of voters registration or after hearing news of election violence. It could also happen during the surprisingly difficult process of obtaining a membership card for a political party. The odds are stacked against political participation in every angle, so much that only the very determined or desperate can withstand the trying obstacles. In a country where one’s determination is tested in everything, the resulting apathy is hardly surprising.
One of the greatest dangers of the democratic system is the tyranny of the majority. In Nigeria, whether the tyrants are the ‘voting majority’ who go to the polls to make the decisions that bind the rest of the citizenry or the greater ‘non-voting majority’ that steer clear of the electoral process altogether, one cannot say for certain.
Whether through determination or desperation, 84.2 million Nigerians have now registered to vote, according to INEC. This figure has risen from the 69.7 million registered voters of 2015. Average voter turn-out in Nigerian elections since 1999 is 49.7 per cent of registered voters, and this does not take into account the suspected falsification of electoral information and other maladies in previous years. The authorities now need to embark on a sensitisation campaign to encourage more registered voters to turn up for elections in 2019.
To achieve this aim, there will be questions to be answered about security. By and large, this is still one of the biggest deterrents to voter turn-out during elections. In other climes, elections are conducted in the course of a normal day (or number of days), where people do not necessarily have their movements hampered. The Nigerian experience already creates tension, where there is official and unofficial restriction of movement, except to and from polling centres.
Exploring the possibilities of easing the sense of insecurity during elections is important in the short term, especially in the less volatile areas, in so far as corresponding security arrangements and exigencies will allow for this. In the medium term, making voter registration and the process of actual voting easier and faster will go a long way. This will involve efficient logistics in the movement of materials, punctuality of officials, further incorporation of relevant technology, and establishment of more polling units and registration centres. In the long term, however, more transparency in the membership and running of political parties, with regulations that allow for a level playing field will encourage participation and more enthusiasm in the political process.
To achieve all these, there is need for a re-orientation of citizens on their importance as electorates and their role in the processes of government, not only in elections. Until we find a common purpose that cuts across religion, ethnicity and social class, there is little chance of changing the mindset of electorates. We all need a narrative of common ownership of the country and the processes of government that may perhaps aid in our decision making at the polls.
One of the greatest dangers of the democratic system is the tyranny of the majority. In Nigeria, whether the tyrants are the ‘voting majority’ who go to the polls to make the decisions that bind the rest of the citizenry or the greater ‘non-voting majority’ that steer clear of the electoral process altogether, one cannot say for certain. Although some may have a different view of who the ‘tyrant majority’ are, what is for sure is that the country needs a change of course in political and electoral matters to escape the tyranny of the majority.
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