September 25, 2022

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Vote-buying, apathy as threats to 2023 polls

Voter apathy and vote-buying have recently become points of discourse among many Nigerians who feel there should be an end to the twin problem ahead of the 2023 general elections, writes CHUKWUDI AKASIKE

Not a few believe there is a strange correlation between voter apathy and vote-buying. Both phrases are not new in Nigeria’s political lexicon, as they trend more during election periods. While Nigerians have sufficiently shown their unwillingness to vote, politicians appear to have devised a means of persuading some of them (voters) to come out from their homes and not only vote, but vote for their political parties. Political observers have linked voter apathy to the failure of the elite to fulfil their promises of a better Nigeria to the people. Again, the strong perception by the electorate that their votes will not count has made majority of them to stay away from polling units.

However, the recent governorship election in Ekiti State has shown that voter apathy and vote-buying are two debilitating factors currently threatening Nigeria’s democracy. In the recent past, elections were marred by violence, but there was equally a bizarre and brazen level of vote-buying in the recently concluded Ekiti State governorship election. Though some have continued to deny their involvement in the inducement of voters, it was alleged that the three major political parties; the All Progressives Congress (the winner of the poll), the Peoples Democratic Party and the Social Democratic Party, were part of the electoral misconduct.

In February 2021, the Independent National Electoral Commission said the turnout of voters for elections across the country hovered around 30 to 35 per cent of registered voters within the last two electoral cycles before that year. More than a year after, the Ekiti State election also recorded a mere 36.5 per cent with 360,753 people out of the 988,923 registered voters coming out to vote. This was seen as the lowest turnout of voters so far in the state. The situation was worse in last year’s governorship election in Anambra State where only 253,388 out of 2,466,638 registered voters exercised their franchise. Although, many may blame it on insecurity in the South-East, it is on record that the poor turnout represents only 10.38 per cent of voters that showed up at the polling units to cast their votes.

It is also imperative to note that in the previous governorship election in 2017 in the state, one of the political parties was heavily engrossed in vote-buying, including using special pairs of slippers to sway some willing voters. Surprisingly, this happened in the full glare of the public, with security operatives refusing to act and nip such avoidable malpractice by politicians in the bud.  The indifference displayed by security agencies and other stakeholders almost certainly worsened the issue of vote-buying in the 2021 Anambra State election. The action of the politicians, which has become habitual, was condemned by many, including civil society organisations. In some of the polling units across the 21 local government areas of the state, the unenviable mantra was ‘See-and-Buy’.

Many civil society organisations, including the Centre for Democracy and Development, had decried the spate of vote-buying and low turnout of voters. Though the failure of the Bimodal Voter Accreditation System during the 2021 governorship election in Anambra State was an issue, the poor turnout and massive sale of votes were obvious.

Earlier, in the September 2020 governorship election in Edo State, vote-buying took a different dimension as politicians gifted voters between N1,000 and N3,000 to sway their minds to the candidates to support. Despite the presence of over 30,000 policemen, inducement of voters was commonplace in the state. A particular political party, out of desperation, was giving N3,000 and some yards of cloth to women. As each person queued to take delivery of the token, they (voters) painted a picture of a weakened electorate ready to collect handouts from any politician and vote for the highest bidder on election day.

Recently, it was announced that the number of fresh voters registered by the INEC in the ongoing registration stood at 10,487,972. The commission gave the figure in its update for Week 11 in the Fourth Quarter sent to journalists. According to the short document, the number of completed registration stood at 8,631,696 (online – 3,250,449 and physical – 5,381,247). There are 4,292,690 males, 4,339,006 females, 67,171 PWDs and 6,081,456 youths. While this can be seen as a welcome development, with the increase in the number of registered voters, there is the fear that less than 50 per cent will come out to vote, a situation that may further point at the worsening level of voter apathy in the country.

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Threat to elections

Reacting to the malfeasance during the governorship election in Ekiti State, the Ohanaeze Ndigbo Youth Council Worldwide had condemned what it described as massive vote-buying, even as it expressed worry that the situation might repeat itself in the 2023 general election. The group had in a statement by its President-General, Mazi Okwu Nnabuike and the Secretary-General, Obinna Achionye, said the credibility of the 2023 polls would be threatened going by what transpired during the governorship poll in the South-West state.

The group explained that Nigerians should be concerned that politicians were not ready to allow the democratic process to flourish in the country. “We are saddened by the news coming out from Ekiti State during the Saturday’s governorship election won by the APC. Ordinarily, we have no issue with any political party winning an election but our major concern is the heavy inducement of voters during that exercise. How can one explain a situation where political parties tried to outspend one another in order to buy votes?

“What it means is that the politicians have continued with the same fraud with which they conducted primary elections across the country. As youths, we declare that this is unacceptable and a big threat to the credibility of the 2023 general elections. We call on the youths to rise up and say no to the mortgaging of their future. Of what value is the sum of N10,000 for a period of four years? What is the credibility of an election that is sold to the highest bidder?”

Absence of legitimacy

Lending his voice to the issue of voter apathy and vote-buying, the Executive Director of Yiaga Africa, Samson Itodo, explained that vote-buying would never confer legitimacy on the supposed beneficiary of such malpractice. He said, “When you have purchased outcomes, it delegitimises the entire political process, and this is what politicians must understand. The fact that you invest in buying votes does confer legitimacy on you; it means you have compromised the choice of the people. So, people are not making that choice based on free will.

“The exercise of a democratic right is meant to be free and out of individual’s own conviction and decision. When they buy the votes, then the outcomes are not legitimate. The way to address this is, firstly, you need both the carrot and stick approach, and maybe we need to start having conversations about a reform agenda. As it stands, there is bribery and conspiracy within the Electoral Act.

“I think there is the need to look at the regime to make express provisions about trading votes on election day. The second is that the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission made some arrest in Ekiti; can the EFCC ensure diligent prosecution of the people and update members of the public about the actions it is taking against the vote buyers and vote sellers? INEC has reconfigured polling units, maybe to reduce incident of vote-buying but it will not eliminate it as long as you have a political class that is determined to secure political power at all cost.

Governance failure

On the relationship between voter apathy and vote-buying, Itodo said, “In terms of the correlation, the question is that, is vote-buying caused by voter apathy? All of these are symptoms; they are not the root causes. Why do we have voter apathy? Voter apathy is a symptom of a disease, and that disease is the failure of governance. When people’s lives are not transformed by their participation in the political process, then they will stay back. What you are seeing is not just apathy, it’s also resistance. People are resisting bad leadership.”

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He added, “When you look at vote-buying, the relationship you can actually establish is to say that politicians are now buying votes as a way of compelling people to come out even after the people have resisted them. Politicians are now weaponising poverty because when you have a socio-economic context where inequality is deeply entrenched and very high, what you see is a politician exploiting those vulnerabilities that people have to confer some legitimacy. Why are they buying the votes? They are buying the votes because they also want a semblance of political legitimacy. They know that authority derives from the people and so, whatever they can do to buy the people or force the people to come out, they will be willing to do that.

“A bill has been passed by the Senate; it’s just awaiting concurrence from the House of Representatives. So, it’s for the House of Reps to accelerate the process and adopt the bill. If there’s need for any modification, they will amend the bill, then pass it and then have the senators concur and transmit it to the President for assent. It is a bill on Electoral Offences Commission.”

Itodo noted that the more Nigerians stayed away from the polling centres, the more politicians would vote on their behalf. According to him, if Nigerians want quality leadership, then the same way people have shown up for voter registration, they should show up at the polls.

He added, “One vote can make a difference, but a lot more votes can make more difference in such a way that it will produce the leadership that Nigerians so desire at this critical point. Politicians are preparing votes because they know that the vote actually matters; votes are now counting and it is better to spend one full day trying to vote a competent leader than to sell your vote or stay away and suffer for the next four or eight years.”

Adding his voice to the matter, a professor of Political Science at the Ekiti State University, Ado Ekiti, Prof Femi Omotoso, said if all stakeholders – the people, INEC and security agencies – played the roles expected of them effectively, the trend of vote-buying and voter apathy in Nigeria would stop. Omotoso maintained that good governance whereby “people are not poor, the economy is in good shape, there are jobs, conducive environment for job and wealth creation” would discourage vote-buying just as making people have faith in election would encourage Nigerians to change their present attitude to voting.

He said, “The issue of vote-buying has to do with the poverty in the land. I think there is a deliberate policy on the part of government to impoverish the people. When the people are poor, they collect money to vote; at least it will sustain them for some time. That is not the best way to go, but that is the reality on the ground. There is the need for political education for everybody, including the people in the village to know that you don’t need to take money before you perform your civic responsibility, and that by the time you take money, you have already mortgaged your future and you cannot ask questions anymore on good governance or that somebody is not performing.

“INEC must go beyond what it is doing. The cubicles they have as polling area is not ideal for secret voting; secret ballot presupposes that nobody will know who you voted for, but what INEC has is susceptible for people to view what you are doing. Again, vote-buying is done with the connivance of the security agencies, in most cases, the security agents are the ones reporting to the buyers with signs who a particular voter voted for. All stakeholders must come together for us to enthrone good governance. We cannot have democracy without credible, free and fair elections.”

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The don, who said voter apathy would be around “until there is free, fair and credible election and when people have faith in election”, added, “What encourages voter apathy is that people know that when they vote, their votes will not count; so, they ask why they should waste their time.”

UK, US example

Similarly, the Resident Electoral Commissioner in Akwa Ibom State, Mike Igini, described vote-buying as a factor that ‘‘devalues the ballot,’’ adding that the menace had assumed the level of an epidemic. Igini maintained that Nigeria must learn from countries like the United Kingdom and the United States if the inducement of voters by politicians must end.

He added, “Vote-buying constitutes a devaluation of the ballot as the best means of expression of the will of the people in a democracy. It is not just a menace but has assumed the level of an epidemic. Vote-buying is a betrayal of democratic principles because a vote is a share of a citizen’s public franchise, an instrument to participate in collective self-governance. It cannot be left to the moral judgment of individuals. That is why it is prohibited by law but enforcement is the problem.

“We must adopt the approach of countries like the UK, USA and others that were once notorious for vote-buying and how an outright ban of vote-buying and heavy penalties of banning politicians from participating in election for several years and in some cases for life as well as the introduction of the secret ballot system first in Australia in 1856, then the UK in 1872 and thereafter in the United States in 1895. These ended the menace of vote-buying in those countries. Every civilisation has a primitive past, maybe we are in the primitive stage. Politicians  buying votes must be prosecuted as part of sealing the leak in the dyke to prevent inequality from flooding the equality of democratic franchise.”

For the Chairman of Rivers State Civil Society Organisations, Enefaa Georgewill, continued sensitisation of the people to the need to put an end to voters’ inducement and voter apathy was imperative. He added that most voters stay away from the polling centres on elections days because of the poor quality of candidates before them. Georgewill expressed the need for government to always encourage credible elections so that the electorate would have confidence in the system.

He said, “To solve the problems of voter apathy and vote-buying, the media, civil society organisations and other relevant stakeholders should do well to increase sensitisation, use dramas, movies to sensitise people to the fact that vote-buying and voter apathy must stop. At some point, why people don’t come out to vote is because people just think the choices are between the devil and the deep blue sea. So, they see no need to come out.

“Since there is no room for an independent candidate, and the people must vote for political parties, some of them stay at home and refuse to vote. Again, government should do well to allow for free and fair elections. That way, people will have confidence in the electoral umpire. People also feel that if they vote and the votes won’t count, the best thing to do is for them to stay away from such exercise.”

‘Bar party agents’

The Secretary, Inter-Party Advisory Council in Osun State, Dr. Tosin Odeyemi, said it would take a collaborative effort of INEC, security agencies and political parties to prevent vote-buying during Osun poll.

Odeyemi, however, suggested that during the election, party agents should be barred from polling units, describing them as agents purchasing votes at the poll. He said political parties should leave polling units for only INEC officials and security agents on the day of the poll, adding that failure to do so would encourage vote-buying. According to him, vote-buying may mar the Osun State governorship poll.