By Emmanuel Aziken Political Editor & Clifford Ndujihe
With Nigerians storming many of the campaign venues of the leading presidential candidates, concern that the enthusiasm may be misplaced has come to the fore in the face of progressive decline in voter turnout over the last four election cycles.
Voter turnout for a general election reached its lowest ebb in 2015 when 43.65 per cent of the 68.8 million registered voters turned out to vote. In 2011, the percentage turnout was 53.7 per cent, 57.7per cent in 2007 and a peak of 69.1per cent in 2003.
The progressive decline was of concern to civil society activists at the weekend with few showing any optimism of an increase despite assurances to the contrary earlier given by the chairman of the Independent National Electoral Commission, INEC, Prof. Mahmood Yakubu.
Yakubu’s confidence may have flowed from the significant increase in the country’s electoral register.
Samson Itodo, head of the Youth Initiative for Advocacy, Growth & Advancement, YIAGA, told Vanguard at the weekend that voting has become a very expensive venture for many ordinary Nigerians that they simply overlook the effort.
“It is difficult and expensive to be a voter in Nigeria. First, you must show up to register, then show up to collect your Permanent Voter’s Card and then show up to vote.
“We expect citizens to show up three times to exercise their franchise. Studies have shown that the more we complicate the voting process, the more we increase apathy. Voting should be simplified and interesting to encourage citizens to vote.”
The difficulties associated with voting is one that many Nigerians simply decide to avoid and hence, the first barrier to the exercise of the democratic franchise.
Mr. Abiodun Akinosi, an Otta, Ogun State-based private driver is one of such who will not be having a say in who becomes the next president of Nigeria or governor of his native Ogun State.
He told Vanguard that he could not register to vote.
“I went to the registration centre at the local government headquarters twice but on both occasions, the queue was damn too long,” he said.
He added that further efforts were not possible on account of his working condition given that he has to always be with his boss.”
Besides the challenges of the logistics, Awal Rafsanjani, executive director of the Civil Society Legislative and Advocacy Centre, CISLAC also pointed at other barriers that have worsened the apathy.
According to him, electoral fraud, violence and undemocratic processes are responsible for voters’ apathy in Nigeria.
“After the 2015 elections, Nigerians expected President Buhari and his party, APC, to ensure electoral transparency and deal with electoral impunity but unfortunately, neither his party nor his government initiated any positive electoral reform that would encourage Nigerians to participate in our electoral process.”
One of such acts expected of President Buhari to promote transparency of the electoral process was the Electoral Act Amendment Bill which the president turned down four times from the National Assembly.
The National Assembly which had initially shown enthusiasm to push forward the amendment, however, failed to do so as partisan political considerations overwhelmed the process in the last quarter of last year.
Mr. Rafsanjani also pointed out the level of violence, an issue that was aptly showcased by the killings that followed the 2011 election in many parts of the north.
He also cited the issue of accountability.
“Many voters don’t want to vote because of the absence of political accountability by the elected politicians,” an issue he said was fuelled by the imposition of candidates by political parties forcing many voters to stay away from voting.
Itodo gave verve to the issue. According to him: “The decrease in the level of voter turnout during elections is largely attributed to the failure of political leadership to deliver development to the people.
“Despite going through hardships to exercise their right to vote, sometimes voters don’t get the desired outcome from their investment in election. It is discouraging when leaders are voted and they shut the same people that voted them in power out of governance.
“Secondly, the do-or-die nature of our politics and the desperation of politicians to get power is another issue. This desperation in the quest for power has led to violence, intimidation and electoral heist.
“In fact, it increased the temperament of politics in Nigeria, making elections look like war and not a civil affair. This pathology of electoral contests is a turnoff for most voters. Voters are concerned about their security and so if voting stations become hotbeds or theatre of violence, they have no option but to stay away.”
On how the apathy can be reversed, he said: “Increased voter and political education. Citizens need to appreciate the value and implication of voting at elections. To do this, government, civil society, academic and media will require increased investment in voter mobilisation.
“Democratic institutions should function properly so they can deliver on their mandate. For instance, if the security agencies uphold non-partisanship, patriotism and professionalism in their management of election security operations or INEC conducts free and fair election, citizens will be confident that their votes will count and turn up to vote.”
The unprecedented 14.5 million voters added to the electoral register is believed to have been fuelled by the determination of Nigerians to put forward their preferences on who governs them in their respective constituencies.