Political participation is one of the most important indicators of the democratic quality of elections and a prime criterion for defining democratic citizenship. Voter turnout is the most important form of political participation and crucially also is an important indicator of the state of health of any democracy.
Flowing from this, the significantly low voter turnout in yesterday’s governorship and state parliamentary elections in much of the 29 participant states and Council polls (in Abuja FCT) speaks to an alarming diminution of faith in the process. Undeniably, the scenario has firm linkages to what transpired in the presidential and national assembly polls two weeks earlier. This cannot be safely glossed over.
The February 23 polls were curiously defined by voter suppression, outright targeted violence/deaths, palpable militarization of the electoral space, targeted inflation of poll figures and a laundry list of other malfeasances. Add to this, the deepened sense of “my vote doesn’t count anymore” and it hardly needs a behavioural scientist to predict the backlash of voter apathy witnessed Saturday.
Reports from our correspondents from many states clearly indicate very low voter turnout for the governorship and state assembly polls held yesterday. In some areas in Lagos, like Akilo Road, Ogba, near Guinness, Olusosun area, off Oregun road close to Ojota, and parts of Anthony Village, some All Progressives Congress officials had to resort to comically resort to ringing bells, urging voters to come out and exercise their voting rights. Ditto for Ibadan in Oyo State. Clearly, this doesn’t approximate campaigning but simply begging voters to giddy up. By 9.30 am in Gaduwa Estate Polling Unit, Gudu, Abuja, the neighbourhood bean-cake (akara) seller drew more patrons than the handful of voters who turned up at polling units to cast their votes.
A drive-by the polling unit near Tantalizers in Lekki, Lagos, showed it was shockingly deserted. In contrast, on February 23, you could hardly swing a cat given the massive voter turnout.
Low turnout of voters was also witnessed in most parts of the polling units visited by correspondents in the South Eastern states of Enugu, Anambra, Abia, Ebonyi and Imo.
The PDP presidential candidate Atiku Abubakar, who is disputing and challenging the result of the February 23rd presidential election in court was quite blunt as to what he thought was the reason for low voter turnout. He stated the low turnout might not be unconnected with the outcome of the February 23rd elections, which he said was “rigged.”
“I particularly abhor the participation of the military in the electoral process. Their participation is absolutely unconstitutional,” the former vice president further opened up.
According to Atiku who cast his votes at his Unit 012 polling centre in Ajiya Ward of Yola North Local Government Area, yesterday, “The last elections were marred with a lot of malpractices and that have impacted on the turnout of voters today,” he told journalists adding, “I have just cast my votes and I did not see the large number of voters who came out to vote in this unit during the last election.”
Concerned, successive stakeholders have also noted and lamented the palpably low voter turnout in yesterday’s polls. According to a miffed Omoyele Sowore, the presidential candidate, African Action Congress, AAC, “Nigerians have practically abandoned polling units in today’s election. They’ve come to the realization that “voting” is done at the Collation Centers NOT at the Polling Units …Sad day for Demon-Crazy!”
The governor of Oyo State, Abiola Ajimobi, also decried the low turnout of voters in the state. Ajimobi who spoke at his unit 20 polling unit, Ward 11, Ibadan South West Local Government Area, after voting, told journalists the turnout was low compared to what was obtained during the presidential and National Assembly elections. His words: “The reason for the low turnout could be as a result of discouragement, fatigue, disappoint or other reasons.”
The Peoples Democratic Party, PDP, governorship candidate in Lagos State Jimi Agbaje, while voting at his polling unit; PU 004, Ward A, Hinderea Road, Liverpool, Apapa, Lagos West, stated that the low turnout in the March 9 governorship election could be as a result of inadequacies of the last presidential election. He correctly noted that the low turnout should be a concern to all those that want to advance democracy because the citizens must be part and parcel of democratic process.
In Niger State, former Governor Babangida Aliyu decried the low turnout of voters, observing “I see no reason why people would not come out to exercise their right.” Babangida, a member of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) voted at his PU 011, Umaru Musa Ward, in Chanchanga Local Government Area of the state.
For the Edo State chairman of PDP, Chief Dan Orbih, the low turnout of voters in his locality was a direct fallout from what he termed – derailing of due process in the February 23rd Presidential and National Assembly elections. According to Orbih, who voted at Unit 4 Ward 4 in Estako Central Local Government Area, the people were unhappy that their votes did not count in the last presidential and national assembly election.
His words: “There is very low turnout of voters. You can see it everywhere. A lot of people are not happy with what happened in the presidential election where there was deliberate derailing of the due process. The people’s desire to elect who they want was derailed. We need to look at the electoral process and review the system so that people can have faith in the ballot papers.”
Low turnout of voters was recorded in both Borno and Yobe states with high presence of security and military personnel observed at strategic points on major highways to prevent possible security breach. According to THISDAY correspondents’ reports, voter turnout was much lower than what was obtained during the presidential and National Assembly election as many voters did not come out.
Whereas former Head of State, General Abdulsalami Abubakar, expressed serious concern at the poor turnout of voters in yesterday’s polls, Speaker of the House of Representatives, Rt. Hon. Yakubu Dogara also lamented voter apathy in the area, observing the low turnout was as a result of fear by the electorate that their votes may not count after the conduct of the election.
For Abubakar, “I am short of words to describe the low turnout of today’s election because the difference is clear when compared to the large turnout of the last Presidential elections. Probably because people are tired or because they were disenfranchised during the previous elections but one thing that is glaring is that the turnout in today’s election is low.”
In Dogara’s words: “What I have seen here is that there is no mammoth crowd, like in the last election. I don’t know what happened and some of you who were here during the election saw the crowd, but I can’t see that kind of turnout here today. I don’t know what is responsible for that, may be voter apathy.”
Clearly, the low voter turnout flows from diminished faith in the process. Free and fair elections have been acknowledged as a cardinal pillar of a democratic political system. This is particularly so where polls satisfy acceptable democratic standards, namely competition, participation and legitimacy. Elections that fall short of these standards can only serve to undermine the consolidation of democracy. This is the danger facing Nigeria today, unfortunately so after 20 years of unbroken civil rule.
The unseemly underlying forces that nurture voter apathy and spawn sundry electoral malfeasances like compromised security, perceived partiality, militarization of the electoral space and unchallenged impunity by ‘untouchables’ have to be brought to the front-burner. Specific measures to deal with these surely would have important policy implications for improving turnout in future elections.
It’s worth noting here that Nigeria is the world’s fifth largest federation, after India, the United States, Brazil and Russia. Almost 60 years after independence, Nigeria’s political leadership has rather been incapable or unwilling to make the necessary effort to respond to the challenges encapsulated in her peculiar history. This history actually positions the Muhammadu Buhari presidency, warts, pimples and all – at a crucial cross-roads from which Nigeria and Africa must be rescued and reinvented.