OPINION PICK OF THE WEEK
How many Nigerians will vote in 2019?
The 2015 election, particularly at the presidential level, was one of the most hotly contested in Nigeria’s recent history. It was a momentous one that climaxed with the defeat of the incumbent, something almost novel in this part of the world. Despite the divisions, and the ethnic cum religious tensions that election generated after it was concluded, and the final tally computed, it turned out that less 17 per cent of the Nigerian population had turned out for the election. In a country with a supposed population of 180 million people, how come less than 30 million people voted the President? Out of those putative 29 million votes, if we adjust for the disproportionately (and suspiciously) high voting in states like Delta, Rivers, Kano, Kaduna, and Katsina, we might come down to probably 25 million votes (or less).
If with the high stakes of that election, people could not be motivated enough to go and vote, what will happen in 2019? With the 2015 election, people bought the mantra of change and pushed so forcefully to change the baton of power from the Peoples Democratic Party, the party that thought it would rule for 60 years. Participation in the 2011 election was relatively better. There were 75 million registered voters, and some 40 million people participated in that election. In 2007, there were 61.5 million registered voters and about a half of them voted. Between 2007 and 2015, Nigeria’s population increased by more than 36 million, yet the number of voters declined. A quick and necessary caveat though: Nigeria is a notoriously difficult space to trust when it comes to the integrity of empirical data. The fact that that number of registered voters were documented does not mean that was the actual figure of those that were either registered or who voted. Since Nigeria’s process of computing figures is not always a reliable exercise, and an objective means of evaluating voting patterns in Nigeria has yet to be developed, one has to work with what one is given. That observation does not change the point though: not enough people are participating in elections in Nigeria, and few(er) people are making the choices for the majority.
Given the triumphalism of the All Progressives Congress officials who act as if they have already won the election, one is suspicious that voter apathy is one of the factors they are banking on for victory. That will not be surprising. Indeed, there are examples of how the lack of energy and despondency on the part of the voters have made electoral candidates a shoo-in. In Russia where Vladimir Putin had another unsurprising win recently, voter apathy had been predicted as one of the factors that would widen the gap of his victory against his already repressed opponents. In Malaysia where a nonagenarian recently won an election despite the incumbent’s desperate efforts to retain his office, analysts also concluded that apathy on the part of the voters who did not see a headway between their prime minister, Najib Razak, and his contender, 92-year-old Mahathir Mohamed, was also a determining factor.
In some ways, the Malaysian election mirrored Nigeria’s 2015 electoral choices – a younger incumbent and an aged contender with a history of jailing dissidents when he held the office 30 years ago. The latter won the election and who knows if their own Buhari years are ahead of them? Even the 2016 election in the USA, with all the attention it generated was still marred by apathy. Out of 231.5 million registered voters, only 109 million people voted. While the number of participants in the US elections has been declining over the decades, the one in 2016 saw a startling number of indifferent voters. Across countries and political climes, the issue of voter apathy is one of genuine concern and Nigeria’s case in 2019 might not be too different. The process of voting can be excruciatingly difficult and younger people, whose vast demographics form the bulk of the voting bloc, are often the first to stay away. They have enough existential challenges to deal with, and they tend to get quickly cynical about whether their participation in the democratic process will change anything, and whether such change holds any potential for turning around their reality. They are the ones who can make a meaningful change at the polls and they are the ones who might not turn up, except of course, the ones that will be paid to do so.
Despite the APC’s frequent boast of having effectively changed Nigeria for the better, they have probably sensed that at the local and national levels, people are disillusioned, and they are losing the will to continue to devote their energy in a democratic process that uses up their blood but gives little back in return. In March, the Egyptian president, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, had to start mobilising voters to the polls to save himself from a looming embarrassment after his party sensed that the voters would not show up to legitimise his impending victory. el-Sisi had treated his opponents with a heavy hand, and people thought that the election would be a sham. They did not see the point in participating in what was essentially a foregone conclusion. In Nigeria, the APC will probably have to pay people to vote so they are not shamed at the polls.
Except for the chronic Buharists, Nigerians have realised that the APC is the PDP, and the PDP is APC. It’s the same devil in different costumes, and it did not take long for the APC to unravel. There is an atmosphere of cynicism that is being created as a consequence of the realisation that neither party has much to offer regarding viable candidates with the philosophical vision and the managerial acuity necessary to create the change that the country needs. If both of the parties run for elections next year, it would merely be more of the same. That means except for considerations such as religion, ethnicity, and the dynamics of local politics, it would make little difference who Nigerians vote for at all levels. People will question if they need to expend their energies on a farce created by a government that needs the charade of an election to validate its project of self-perpetuation. In this case, apathy becomes a wilful choice of political participation. Apathy becomes a protest against the façade of democratic rituals. Apathy is a vote that was cast but not cast; a vote that speaks just as loud as the one people queued for hours to cast.
While people on their part might be too frustrated, disillusioned, and alienated from the political system that is meant to serve them and therefore refuse to vote, it is also possible that the government itself is counting on voter apathy as a part of their strategy to win. Now and then, an APC official reminds us that we are their only choice. President Muhammadu Buhari’s supporters, particularly, tell us that it is either Buhari or Buhari. Why else would they present a candidate as a Hobson’s choice other than to remind those who will want to invest their effort into pushing for a change or some kind of paradigm shift not to bother? For now, all the candidates – regardless of the political platform they represent – are miniaturised versions of the President who embodies the structural incompetence that defines governance at all levels. To try to run from him is to run into him elsewhere and therefore, the refusal to vote begins to look like the most enlightened choice. Unfortunately, those who refuse to turn out to participate in civic processes pay for their non-choice in many other ways. The amount of physical, mental, and emotional energy they save from not voting is sapped from them in other ways.
Abimbola Adelakun is a writer for the Punch newspaper
The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and not of MediahangoutNG