In Nigeria, the history of voting rights is as complex as the diversity obtainable in the country. Thus, any attempt at x-raying the arrays of differences on the subject may be unhelpful to the corpus of the discussion herein. Consequently, for the purpose of our engagement under consideration, I simply will remind us that voting rights in the nature of universal suffrage evolved too rapidly in the country. That is to say, between the year 1954 when the general election proper commenced and the year 1979 when the universal suffrage was allowed nationally, there was a restriction on voting rights to a certain extent. As at 1954, the Northern Region of Nigeria did not allow women to vote in elections, and it was only in the western and eastern parts of the country that such discrimination did not exist.
It was not until 1979 when the new Constitution took effect that the women in the northern part of the country were allowed to start exercising the right to vote. Therefore, it can be said that universal suffrage became applicable nationally in 1979, close to three decades after independence. For the purpose of our analysis, it is instructive to compare the historical evolution of universal suffrage in advanced democracies such as the United States of America and the United Kingdom. I still use the word ‘advanced’ for American democracy, notwithstanding the recent unwholesome events instigated by the outgoing president, because I believe that if such incident had occurred in less mature democracies, the story certainly would have been different. I still give it to the country that, notwithstanding the misguided brigandage, the institutions were still able to arrest the violations from descending or drifting into total chaos and anarchy. Be that as it may, for the United States of America, it took centuries to have universal suffrage acknowledged. Between 1789 and 1966, so many qualifications were still attached to the right to vote. Within that period, there were times in which the right to vote was contingent on proprietary and tax status; in some others, racial condition played a significant role.
For example, in the early days, only white males were conferred with the right to vote. At another time, sex was a determinant factor in considering competence to vote, for example, only men were initially permitted to vote. At a point in time, literacy also played a prominent role, particularly in late 1870 America. In that period, only the literate and informed could vote in some states of the United States of America, notwithstanding the 5th Amendment to the Constitution of the country. Marital status of women was not left out at the initial period also. Similarly, in the United Kingdom, although the conduct of elections and by extension, the exercise of the right to vote started in the year 1265, it was not until 1928 that universal suffrage became generally adopted in the country. In fact, as at the year 1918, only men were allowed to participate freely in voting exercise. Thus, it was not until a decade thereafter, precisely 1928 that women gained the right to vote.
Again, in between the extremes highlighted above, that is the year 1265 and 1928, several qualifications were equally attached to the right to vote in the United Kingdom. Just as in the narrated case of America above, wealth, payment of tax, proprietary interest, race, color, and even marital status, at various times served as conditions precedent to the exercise of the right to vote. In fact, as at 1918, only men over 21 years in age and women of over 30 years old were competent to exercise franchise. From the above, it would be seen that it took substantial periods to adopt universal suffrage. This span of time enabled the democracy in those countries to be mature and take firm root, thereby enabling the people to appreciate the significance of their franchise. Although it may be argued that Nigeria need not wait that long, I agree, but still will insist that reasonable period of time is required for maturity of vulnerable voters.
The essence of the above story is to evaluate the unbridled right to vote in Nigeria and the seeming unpalatable consequences arising therefrom. The essence of democracy and by extension, the right to vote and determine the people’s representatives is rooted in the desire for good governance. This objective can, however, not be met except credible leaders emerge from the electoral process. Without fear of contradiction, I can safely assert that Nigeria’s electoral system has not met this objective for several reasons, conveniently subsumed under tainted elections.
That Nigeria battles with the conduct of free and fair elections was recently attested by the electoral umpire when the Chairman asserted in a statement that the impending amendment of the Electoral Act can still not guarantee the conduct of free and fair elections in the country except there is cooperation amongst the stakeholders. The statement is indubitably pregnant with meanings. The fact of the statement, however, lies in the realization that several factors influence outcome of the country’s elections. It ranges from money politics in which votes are seen as products and traded. This is besides the use of money to compromise the process, including compromise of officials of the umpire; the influence of religion on who to vote for; the consideration of tribe and ethnic group in the determination of the candidates to vote for; use of thugs to manipulate and truncate elections and the role of ‘godfathers’ who fall into several categories. These factors usually gain preeminence in the Nigerian electoral process. In my view, why the factors have become a permanent feature of our electoral system lies largely in the level of literacy and poverty in the country. Due to these factors, the country continues to suffer from the emergence of bad leaders, impairing the delivery of good governance in the country. I have, in several of my deliveries, verbally and in writing, contended that more than seventy percent of those voting in Nigerian elections do not understand the reason for voting, much less the rationale behind voting a particular candidate or party.
This indiscretion has continued to impact the country negatively. It is against this background that I intend to trigger a debate round the issue of curtailing the absolute right to vote by Nigerians. It seems to me that the time is ripe to reconsider this universal suffrage in the light of the gory picture painted above, and develop some parameters round the entitlement to such right; as hitherto obtainable during the evolution of universal suffrage in the advanced democracies. It is obvious that most voters are not well informed enough, or enjoy free will to exercise their franchise. The effect of this continues to endanger the collective interest of the people and the nation generally. Although it could be argued that enlightenment of the voters, rather than abridging their rights, could serve as an antidote, experience has shown over time that this has not been able to remedy the situation, possibly due to several constraints of the primary agencies such as the Independent National Electoral Commission and the National Orientation Agency charged with civic education on one hand, and the recalcitrant nature of the concerned voters notwithstanding the efforts of other stakeholders in instilling civic education. It is no news that political education of the populace in this connection is poorly funded.
As said earlier, except there is massive empowerment of majority of the poor and vulnerable in the country, an effort that appears still a mirage, not much can be achieved in terms of responsible exercise of franchise by the hoi polloi of vulnerable voters. In view of the catalog of woes countenanced above, particularly the inability of the present arrangement to birth transformational leaders, it is now a must that we must review the absolute enjoyment of the ‘privilege’ to vote. It already constitutes a menace in the way of its exercise by the poor, the vulnerable and the ignorant. I consciously used the word, privilege to denote the fact that I do not consider it a right, much less a fundamental one.
This is a subject for another day. Let me confess that I am not seised of the exact proposition in this regard, as such I am putting forth this piece as a catalyst of further discussion of the subject. The point being canvassed is that the time is ripe to start considering some sort of qualifications to the right to vote in the country. For example, it is common knowledge that vote buying prominently features in the country’s electoral process. Not only are the electorate compromised and corrupted through the use of money, officials of the umpire are not exempted from this vice. That there is nothing exceptional about this call for a revisit of the franchise system is best appreciated by recalling the disenfranchisement of the women in the Northern part of the country in 1954 and 1959. In addition, that there is nothing undemocratic about the abridgment of the franchise exercise as reinforced by the multiple variants of democracy globally. For example, in America of today, the determination of the victor in presidential elections is premised on the number of electoral seats obtained by a candidate/party than the popular votes, which is the practice in Nigeria.
This explains the emergence of Trump in the contest against Hillary Clinton then. Again, while the Vice-President of the United States heads the Senate, the President of the Senate is an elected member in Nigeria. In the United Kingdom, the practice is parliamentary democracy that is distinct from the Nigerian model. Thus, different types of democracy are practised all over the world. I have gone this far to demonstrate the different species of democracy practised in different countries.
Each country seems to design the kind that is suitable to its peculiarity. It is in this context that one advocates that Nigeria modifies her present model. In further justification of this call, several countries today ban felons and other convicts from exercise of franchise. This has even been extended to persons of unsound mind in other jurisdictions. These are qualifications, no doubt. It may not be far from reality, and also contended, that voters without free will for one reason or the other, or those uninformed may fall into the category of people with unsound mind.
In the circumstances, abridging franchise can be a way of sanitizing the country’s electoral process. It is not expected that this will be without its attendant challenges, but further interrogation and sharpening may render it a suitable alternative. In the light of all the foregoing, I hope this will be a stimulus for more discussion and thoughts on the issue.