Election boycott falls within the context of the paradox of power. I refer to the asymmetric relationship between the ruler and the ruled by which the ruler loses focus on the ruled, acting in a self-gratifying manner to maintain and enjoy power. In Nigeria, many of our latter-day democrats who turned rulers have the inner instinct of despots because of their military background. They forget or seem oblivious of how they got into power in the first instance – that is, through empathy and social connections defined in democratic parlance as the power of the people. Yet it can be argued that power does not necessarily reside in an individual, but spreads in a social network that drives governance. It is also to say that political rights are constitutive and distinct. They are constitutive rights that go beyond causative factors and inhere from fundamental human rights.
In the literature of democracy and development, the relevant concerns of the people and the attention given to them determine the rate of development and ranking of democracies. Our present experience, however, puts this given into serious question. At the best of times, voter turnout has never been total or comprehensive, even in the best of democracies. Silent and dramatised boycotts are signs that all is not well with the system nor with the government of the people, by the people and for the people. It is also to say that this definition of democracy needs refreshing, if not recasting. I have read that “democracy” is the best of all the bad systems of governance. In that spirit, some have argued that political parties, as agents of governance, should be abolished. They argue that they are disruptive and unrepresentative. I tend to agree.
Election does not necessarily throw up the best and brightest in the polity. It favours mainly those who have money. It can turn a nobody today into a somebody the next day because of pecuniary influence. It perpetuates the influence of moneybags, who can even buy judges. This engenders a sense of deprivation and loss of faith in the system. This can lead and has led to voter apathy and other aberrations in the polity.
There are many other factors that could engender voter apathy and election boycotts. They include infractions against the constitution, disenfranchisement of people through the use of security agencies, selective implementation of the fight against those perceived to be corrupt. Poor governance and leadership deficits, including incompetence and lack of capacity in many areas of governance.
Voter apathy is enhanced where many voters complain of difficulty in getting in touch with the representatives once they are voted into power. Governance becomes controlled by the oligarchs and plutocrats who financed the election of the representatives. The latter take instructions, as it were, from the sponsor or godfather, as they are called, to the detriment of the poor masses who voted for him. Election boycott enthusiasts believe that if they vote they would be legitimising an evil system that muzzles the free will of the people and further marginalises them. Voting is seen as the consent to legitimise a system perceived as an imposition of the views of a few over the will of the majority – a system that relies on the monopoly of instruments of intimidation, violence, disdain, repression and vote-buying. Some may not vote because of the perception that the government is non-inclusive and is run by a cabal.
Election boycott is, therefore, a statement, a voice that “we also count, in a different way.” It might be a voice of desperation, but a voice all the same. Add this voice to that of the avowed anarchists who do not want any form of control by anybody over their lives. This category of people is in all sectors of the Nigerian geo-political space. It is possessed with varied reasons against rules of engagements arrived at without their input. Voting, as far as this class is concerned, is legitimising what it perceives as “a fraud constitution,” scripted by the military for the perpetuation in power of a section of the country to the detriment of others.
We must accept the fact that life is truly unbearable for many in our society and that a system in which the wealth and privileges are not equitably distributed deserves reform. This system will continue to be bashed and interrogated by the underserved and by concerned and enlightened social critics and a well-informed citizenry. A refusal to endorse what is perceived by a good section of the populace to be anti-people is also an expression of freedom of choice and self-apprehension. A repudiation of a public service system that has become more than an enlightened self-interest and that has now become an “insider” service may be gaining acceptance, if we go by the increasing number of people who boycott elections.
But we must serve an important caveat. Election apathy, which makes people who, though registered, refuse to come out to vote (voter turnout) encourages the emergence of dictators, leads to a heightened level of corruption, feathers militarism, debases human values and rights, leads to further distortion of the electoral system and popular sovereignty. It will further enhance arbitrariness and the perceived ethnic cleansing going on in parts of the land, a crucible for the total subjugation of persons from the minority groups in all parts of the country in the hands of those who believe they can continue to be in power perpetually without being right.
Less than one week to the presidential and National Assembly elections, the Nigerian army is spitting fire against dissent by the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB). This is unfortunate and will no doubt increase apathy and low morale in the South East. Boycott of elections is not the same as disrupting of the election process itself. There is a law that handles civil infractions wherever they happen. Issuing a threat by the military where police action will do the needful is totally uncalled for and is akin to killing a fly with a sledgehammer. It can be seen by many as political and uncalled for. And, by the way, how will the military distinguish a member of the IPOB from other citizens in Igboland? With this threat, how many parents will encourage their children and wards to go out and vote? The military is meant to defend the citizenry and not to intimidate and disenfranchise them. It is totally indiscreet to do so. It is all part of the systemic corruption in the country, which President Muhammadu Buhari recently alluded to.
It is also apposite to add that it is not only the IPOB that is calling for election boycott in Nigeria. The Lower Niger Congress is doing the same. For this group, voting in the next election and, indeed, in any election, is tantamount to legitimising a system that derives its powers from a constitution that is written and imposed on the people by the military.
Our election has external and internal implications. Getting it right is, therefore, a moral burden. We must ensure that power is used for public good. We must communicate and dialogue and stop proxy wars. A comedy of errors does not grow democracy nor enhance voter participation. Voter apathy in the 2015 election cost the incumbent President his seat as the results from the South East revealed. According to statistics available to me and drawn from the Internet, a total of 67,422,005 voters were registered. Thirty-one million seven hundred and forty-sixty thousand four hundred and ninety (31,746,490) were accredited. The total number of votes cast was 29,422,083, which is less than 50 per cent turnout. The incumbent lost with over two and half million votes (or 2,671,759 votes) which could have been provided by the South East alone with proper motivation and education.
The total votes in the south-eastern states were as follows: Abia registered 1,349,134 voters. A total of 401,049 votes were cast. Anambra registered 1,963,427, but only 703,409 votes were cast. Ebonyi registered 1,071,226 and only 393,337 votes were cast. Enugu registered 1,381,563 but only 585,632 votes were cast. Imo registered 1,747,681. The votes cast were 731,921. These figures are not stone cast. There is a little variation in the statistics, depending on the source of information. But they all represent the same trend of low voter turnout and apathy. Less than three million votes were recorded in a zone that registered officially over seven million voters.
These are troubled times. There is fear in the land. Says the Holy Book: where there is fear there is no love. The enthusiasm we witnessed in 1999 following the return of democracy has been whittled down considerably. In the 1999 presidential election, the number of registered voters was 57, 938,945. Voter turnout was 30,995,171, representing some 49.3 per cent. The enthusiasm for return to democracy continued in the 2003 election with President olusegun Obasanjo winning over 61 per cent of the total votes cast. Ditto for the 2007 presidential election. There were 61,567,036 registered voters with a voter turn out of about 58.5 per cent. The April 2011 presidential election had 73,528,04 registered voters with a voter turnout of about 53.7 per cent. With so many permanent voter’s cards (PVCs) uncollected presently, it is not easy to ascertain what the voter turnout will be in this year’s election.
Gun-toting soldiers don’t induce faith and confidence in the system. Their ubiquitous presence alone can dissuade people from coming out to vote. Yet people must come out to exercise their right to vote. The reasons to do so are multiple. Voting is an important social and utilitarian engagement that helps policy formulations and governance. The voter empowers himself by putting into power persons who are people-focused and friendly. It is, therefore, important to know the candidates who aspire to govern you. This is where participation in rallies, where possible, and endorsements become important. It helps us to distinguish the real contenders from mere pretenders to public office. Voting increases social ties and connectivity. Its positive outcomes help advance sustainable development, improve life expectancy through policies that grow our economy and provide employment for our teeming unemployed youths. A good and inclusive government would necessarily implement polices that impact on social welfare, lifelong education, and relevant infrastructure that conduce to a better society. Voting is our power to change an errant government, just as it enables us to hold it accountable to the electorate.
Nigerians of all persuasions must be encouraged to collect their voter’s card and be allowed to vote. That is their response to that variant of the power paradox that has lost focus on the people and tends towards authoritarianism.
• Dr. Madubuike is former Minister of Educarion