The quest to ensure the participation of Nigerians living abroad in the nation’s electoral process received a boost last week as the leaders of an association of Nigerians living outside the country, the Nigerians in Diaspora Organisation (NIDO), flew into the country to press home their demand for the participation of their 17 million members across the world in Nigeria’s elections. The Chairman of the organisation, Mr. Kenneth Gbandi, at a press conference in Abuja said that its leaders would also interact with members of the National Assembly to help them achieve this goal. He was optimistic that the voting rights of Nigerians in the Diaspora could be actualised through institutions like the National Identity Management Commission (NIMC), which would ensure the biometric documentation of qualified voters. The organisation also urged the National Assembly to include Diaspora voting in the Electoral Act and amend the 1999 Constitution to pave way for Nigerians abroad to vote.
We support the case for the enfranchisement of Nigerians in the Diaspora, to enable them exercise their citizenship rights. It is long overdue. They are undeniably Nigerians who happen to live in foreign countries for various reasons. Secondly, it has become the practice all over the world to accommodate bonafide citizens in their country’s general elections. Indeed, in many countries, the final results are not declared until the votes of voters abroad are counted and added to demonstrate that Diaspora votes matter. These Nigerians are entitled to that participation by the fact of their citizenship. It is not complicated at all. If they are of voting age, they must enjoy the suffrage. It is part of their civil rights. Denying them this right is nothing short of disenfranchisement. Nigerian embassies are all over the world to cater for the interests of Nigerians, including their civil rights. These embassies must now be equipped to facilitate the voting of Nigerians in those countries.
The common concern over citizens voting abroad has been the reliability of the voter-register and possibility of voter fraud. But, the science of biometric identification has reached an advanced stage where there is little room for the manipulation of voters’ identities. The move to establish a unique identification number for all adult citizens by 2018 is a move in the right direction, which would enable Nigeria to have the equivalent of America’s social security number. This would further make assurance doubly sure on the identity of voters.
It is heartwarming that the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) and the Senate Committee on Diaspora and Non-Governmental Organisations are working in tandem on this issue. INEC Chairman, Prof. Yakubu Mahmood, is urging the National Assembly to expedite action by amending the relevant sections of the Constitution and the Electoral Act. INEC, he said, “believes that Nigerians living outside the country should have the right to vote for a variety of reasons: they are citizens of Nigeria interested in the affairs of their own country; they make considerable contributions to the economy through huge financial inflow to the country; there is a sizable amount of Nigerian citizens living outside the country; and Diaspora voting is consistent with global best practices.” Dr. Rose Oko, Chairperson of the Senate committee, also spoke in support of Diaspora voting, saying “We in the Senate believe Nigerians in Diaspora should be given an opportunity to exercise their franchise to vote in the countries where they are domiciled…”
Nigerians in Diaspora can no longer be ignored. Their economic muscle is such that by pumping an average of $20 billion a year into the Nigerian economy, they are the single biggest contributor in terms of cash to the stability of the economy. That alone ought to entitle them to not just a hearing but a major stake. Secondly, in a 2006 study, it was found that 116 countries in the world have a system that allows their citizens residing abroad to vote in their general elections. Indeed, in many countries, many seats are allocated to represent citizens living abroad. In the French National Assembly, for instance, eleven seats are allocated to citizens living abroad. The Italians allocated 18 spots, six in the Senate and 12 in the lower house. Nigerians should do a headcount of Nigerians in the Diaspora and allocate an appropriate number of legislative seats to them so that they can contribute maximally to the development of Nigeria.