It is not in doubt that the average Nigerian has always possessed an appreciable knowledge of political happenings at the local, state and national levels. As a matter of fact, one may not be off the tangent to add “international” to these realms. From the cosmopolitans to the rustics, the Nigerian wants to know: the transistor radio, newspapers and newspaper stands and, lately, social media (particularly WhatsApp and Facebook) are willing tools that the Nigerian has adapted to his fulfilment of his quest of being politically savvy. For different reasons, Nigerians crave political knowledge and believe that information (particularly that of a political nature) gives some sort of power and respect to the possessor. This state of seeming political awareness may cause some to conclude that it would not be apropos to accuse Nigerians of political apathy.
Unfortunately, the political knowledge that the average Nigerian possesses is more often than not useless when it matters most: during elections. Due to certain factors, the Nigerian’s interest in political happenings (political awareness) suddenly translates to condemnable disinterest when it comes to choosing those that will represent them on the political stage (our so-called leaders). The irony lies in the fact that people that cannot be accused of political apathy are the doyens of voter apathy. This irony stems from the fact that voter apathy is considered a component of political apathy. This rather irreconcilable situation is, to an extent, understandable.
It would appear that Nigerians are okay with knowing but unwilling to participate. Many factors are responsible for the unwillingness to participate in the election process in Nigeria. We shall consider some of these factors anon. However, before considering the factors responsible for voter apathy in Nigeria, it may be appropriate to attempt an understanding of the phrase “voter apathy” and also see how deep the voter apathy cankerworm has eaten into the fabric of the Nigerian political space. It is this challenge we intend to interrogate towards major intervention.
Voter apathy, in its simplest form, can be described as lack of interest in or indifference to electioneering by persons that are eligible to participate in that process. It occurs when people that ought to participate in the voting process choose to steer clear of it. Some writers have sought to define voter apathy in terms translating to eligible voters’ refusal to vote on election day, that is, low turnout of voters. This description is rather too narrow and may not do justice to the phrase ‘voter apathy’ as it only considers registered voters. In my humble view, a broad consideration should also include the number of persons eligible to register to vote and the actual number of people that constitute the registered voters. This, to me, is the first level of voter apathy.
According to the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1999, every citizen of Nigeria that has attained the age of 18 years and is residing in Nigeria at the time of registration of voters for the purpose of election to the local government, House of Assembly, gubernatorial, National Assembly and presidential election is entitled to be registered as a voter. Please see Sections 77(2), 117(2), 12(5) and 178(5) of the 1999 Constitution of theFederal Republic of Nigeria (as altered). In the same vein, Section 12(1) of the Electoral Act, 2010 (as amended), largely restates the provisions of the Constitution on eligibility to register to vote. Knowing that all citizens of Nigeria that have attained the age of 18 years and are residing in Nigeria at the time of registration of voters are eligible to register to vote, the pertinent question at this point is this: how many of these eligible persons actually register to vote? For the 2019 general election, Nigeria had about 84,004,084 registered voters (see Premium Times of February 12, 2019 and <https://www.inecnigeria.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/2019-GE-PRESIDENTIAL-ELECTION-RESULTS.pdf>). According to a February 13, 2019, article in Reuters (Factbox: Nigeria’s 2019 presidential election in numbers), this was a 25% rise from the previous registration exercise four years earlier. Although there is a dearth of statistics regarding the estimate of Nigerian citizen over the age of 18 (the National Bureau of Statistics website was not helpful in this regard), based on the available materials, one can put the number falling within this demography at between 100 million and 120 million as at 2019. This would suggest that, between 70% and 80% of the persons eligible to register to vote actually registered. Many would describe the turnout as reasonable. This is, therefore, not necessarily evidence of voter apathy in that regard, assuming without conceding duplicity and multiplicity of registration.
The next level for consideration is the percentage of these 84 million registered voters that actually came out to vote in the last elections. According to the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) published data on the February 23, 2019, presidential election, only 35.3% of the 84,004,084registered voters actually came out to vote (see <https://www.inecnigeria.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/2019-GE-PRESIDENTIAL-ELECTION-RESULTS.pdf>). Of this percentage, a greater portion forms those who do not understand the reason for voting, much less the candidates they are voting for. They are the ignorant mass alluded to in my column of September 19, 2019, Nigeria: How did we get here? (3) https://www.sunnewsonline.com/nigeria-how-did-we-get-here-3. This, without a doubt, establishes the fact that the increase gained during the registration of voters was lost during the election. More worrying is the fact that there has been a downward trend in the turnout of voters for elections since 2003. According to Faeren Mercy Agaigbe (Voter Apathy and Voter Turnout In the 2015 General Elections: The Benue State Experience), statistics from the INEC capture the trend in voter turnout in the country: 52.2% in 1999, 69.08% in 2003, 57.49% in 2007, 53.68% in 2011 and 43.65% in 2015. In fact, a cursory look at the various elections all over the country shows an average voters turnout decline. In the governorship elections conducted in 2019, while the average voter turnout in the northern states was about 40%, in the southern states the average turnout was about 30% of the registered voters. A good example is Lagos State, where only about 20% of the registered voters actually came out to vote. The trend goes continuously downward.
If this downward trend does not occupy the primary concern of the polity, nothing will. Putting it in perspective, a 35% turnout in a presidential election undermines the essence of democracy itself. Democracy is, by definition, a representative system of government: it is supposed to be a government of the people, by the people and for the people (Abraham Lincoln duly acknowledged). In an elective process where 65% of the persons registered to vote fail to participate, the question arises as to whether the election should be considered representative. Interestingly again, of this 35% that actually turned out to vote, about 5% constitutes invalid/rejected votes. Another 2.5% or thereabouts constitutes accredited voters that ended up not voting at all. This becomes worse when one factors in the percentage of persons eligible to register to vote but did not.
However, it may be argued that the representative nature of democracy is not about compelling people to participate in the electioneering process but about giving them the opportunity to participate. In this regard, the choice of participating falls on the eligible persons. If one relies on this argument, the quantum of participation would occupy the back burner, the import of which will be the minority determining those that governs us.
Be that as it may, as I noted earlier, any state where 65% of eligible voters chooses not to have a say in electing the President of the country or chief executives at other levels is on the precipice of something untoward.