By Tonnie Iredia
Over the years, opinion moulders and analyst have at one time or the other, found cause to make a case for free and fair elections in Nigeria. As a result, almost everyone has always harped on the need for intense voter education in the country. The term voter education simply refers to the political education of the voting population of a given community. Through it, the relevant features of an electoral system are laid bare. This includes issues such as type of election, those qualified to vote and be voted for, the number and nature of political parties as well as the strength and weaknesses of the contestants. Explaining these along with sanctions on any breach of electoral rules can properly position voters to make rational decisions.
There are two issues which in a general sense, strongly support the argument in favour of voter education. First, there are people who are unaware that their political rights constitute their highest rights. Such people show no interest in politics and elections thereby inadvertently allowing wrong hands to get into government. Second, there are people who waste their ballots by wrongly handling them because they do not know how to vote. Nigeria’s large illiterate population and those voting for the first time fall within this group. They need to be educated, otherwise there would be voter apathy or invalid ballots. In 1979, when the presidential system of government was introduced in the country, the average voter turn-out was about 30% – a situation that is yet to significantly improve.
Similarly, many of our elections have for quite some time recorded a high figure of invalid ballots cast at each election. Against this backdrop, the daily call for voter education appears rational. Only last week, President Muhammadu Buhari himself joined in the call for better voter education. Interestingly, voter-education is a general duty which ought to receive the support of all. Political parties and their candidates are expected to take the lead because except they secure majority of valid votes they cannot win an election. Civil society groups, the media and the electoral body also have major roles to play in the subject. The latter unlike the political parties are expected to undertake public interest voter education programmes so that the electorate can be empowered to make rational decisions which can lead to the emergence of visionary leaders that can transform society.
This tends to justify the call from several circles for Nigerians to ensure that they collect their permanent voters’ cards (PVC) so as to effectively perform their civic duty in the forthcoming general elections. However, each time the call is made, it means different things depending on who the caller is. When the call is made by the opposition party, there is the belief that the incumbent has not done well and as such citizens need to pick up their PVCs and vote out the ruling party. Such a viewpoint is usually supported by a long list of what the government has not been able to achieve. But when the call is made by the incumbent, there is the subtle suggestion that the people need to be careful of opposition politicians who are presented as too desperate to change the government. In support of the incumbents, achievements of the government are often well publicised to encourage continuity.
Voter education can therefore assist voters on which way to go. To that extent, it is a positive development which might increase not only the voting population but also the total number of votes cast at an election. But it is not hard to observe that voter education is hardly ever properly done. For example, although those who greatly need voter education are in the rural areas, most voter education schemes are urban based. In addition, they are hardly voter friendly as most jingles and enlightenment materials are presented in foreign languages which the people do not understand. Yet, ours is a cumbersome process involving hundreds of political parties and their candidates that are hard to differentiate. Besides, the programmes are not sustained for long enough to make everyone internalize the messages.
What this suggests is that even if there are increases in the number of persons that now show interest in politics and elections, free and fair elections may still not be guaranteed. This is because there is no evidence that our votes which never counted in the past, may count in future. To start with, there have been reports in the past that people who didn’t have PVCs were allowed to vote, just as logistic challenges have quite often disenfranchised those who have PVCs. There have also been cases where certain candidates found a way to score more votes than are available, just as thousands of votes have at different elections been recorded for election centres where voting did not hold. Under the circumstance, how can our votes count? Indeed, how can valid votes count when contrary to the rules of engagement, many voting centres are located in and around homes of powerful individuals.
Top ranking politicians particularly those in the executive arm of government who control the public treasury know what to do for our votes not to count at any election. In local government elections for instance, state electoral bodies are merely a decoration as results of elections are usually compiled and released from government houses. There is no state where this has not happened. The same is true of under-age voters. They are everywhere, hence, we kicked in this column the last time the Independent National Electoral Commission, INEC, purported to be investigating allegations of under-age voters in Kano. We knew that INEC was wasting its time because voting by children in many states of the federation is one of the norms of Nigerian elections.
More importantly, there are relevant societal institutions that will not let our votes count. The police for instance would always assure citizens of its readiness to combat all forms of election malpractices, yet in their full glare, a few miscreants would snatch ballot boxes at election venues. How can our votes count if some of the votes are snatched? Although, Nigeria boasts of seasoned judges, decisions in some election petitions are worrisome. The other day, one judge ruled that over voting can only occur where votes are more than the registered number of voters and not where the number of votes in a centre exceeds the number of voters duly accredited to vote at the centre. Can someone please tell me whose votes are likely to count?