Deepening Electoral Culture in Nigeria via Healthy Political Processes and Systems

Mahmood Yakubu
Chairman of INEC, Prof. Mahmood Yakubu

Richard Emmanuel analytically posits that the 2019 election draws similarity with that of 1999 due to voter participation

“An election is not by itself sufficient to institutionalise democracy. A strong civil society, ongoing peace building initiatives, protection of human rights, and transparent and effective governance are essential”. This was the advice given by President Jimmy Carter and his observation team after the conduct of the 1999 election in Nigeria. Since that 1999 election, there are many questions begging for answers. For instance, to what extent has the political class ensured that elections in Nigeria are peaceful or the rights of the citizens are protected and ultimately, how transparent and effective have governments at all levels been to positively engender the quality of lives in the country following electoral processes? Subsequent elections were supposedly expected to provide the answers.

Given to that, events in the country have shown that the Nigerian state and its political class are only satisfied with conducting elections only. To the political class, once elections are conducted, no matter how flawed, with rigging and violence, seem less concerned in as much as it favours their whims and caprices. It does not matter to this class of people the cost of conducting such elections (in human and financial terms) and the performance of the elected governments at state and federal levels and to some extent the local government level which appears non-existence.

The results of the 2019 elections – federal and state – as observed have shown that people are getting fed up with our democracy system. There is gradual but steady reduction in people’s interest in our elections. In a country where governments’ performance is abysmal at all levels, things can only get worse. Even members of the political class could be heard complaining about voter apathy in this year’s elections. As the results have shown, the election has produced the lowest turnout since 1999. Let us use what we consider the most important election in Nigeria – the presidential election – for this analysis.

In the 1999 presidential election, 1 in 2 registered voters voted. That is 51.5% of the 57,938,945 registered. In 2003, 2 in 3 registered voters voted. That is 64.9%. This election is still the highest we have attained in all our elections in Nigeria. In 2007, it came down to about 6 in 10 registered voters. That is 57.5%. The turnout success achieved in 2003 started its downward slope in 2007 and went further back in 2011 by 5.5%. In the 2011 election, 52% turnout was attained.

This figure reduced again by about 10% in the next election conducted in 2015 to 4 in 10 registered voters (41.5%). However, our election witnessed its lowest turnout in 2019 when 1 in 3 registered voters voted validly. That is about a third of registered voters. Not even the 1979 election had such a low turnout. In 1979, 35.3% of 47,700,000 registered voters voted. The 1983 witnessed an even higher turnout of 52.3%. Therefore, this year’s elections have been disappointing in terms of voter turnout.

Although there are lots of political movements within the polity, there is low interest in voting now among Nigerians. Below is the graphical representation of Nigeria’s presidential election results since 1999. The chart below shows our election results trends.  

Fig. 1: Presidential election trends 1999-2019

The graph shows the presidential election trends since 1999, using the valid votes only. In 1999, 29,848,441 voted validly. Chief Olusegun Obasanjo was declared winner having polled 62.78% of the total votes cast. In 2003, number of voters rose to 39,480,489 and remained the highest votes cast in Nigeria’s democracy. Again, Chief Obasanjo won by recording 61.9% of these votes. But there was a slight blip in the 2007 election outcomes with about four million less. In 2007, 35, 397,517 valid votes were recorded with late president Umar Yar’Adua getting 69.6% of the votes.

The 2011 election won by former president Goodluck Jonathan was the closest, in term of voter turnout, to 2003 election. The election recorded three million more votes than the previous one with 38,209,978. Since then, our election outcomes have been moving on a downward slope. In 2015 when General Muhammadu Buhari won for the first time, 28,587,564 people validly voted. This is about four million less and in 2019, the votes dipped further by about a million.

The 2019 election followed a similar pattern since 1999 where two big political parties always slug it out for the top position in the land. This year, there are 91 registered political parties and 73 of them participated in the election. Although some presidential candidates and their parties adopted some of their competitors, and Dr. Obi Ezekwesili particularly announced her withdrawal from the race shortly before the election day, it was a decision too little too late for such undecided candidates and their parties INEC still included them in the ballot paper. This number exceeded that of 2015 where only 14 parties fielded candidates.

More than in any other election in Nigeria, INEC registered 82, 344, 107 eligible voters for the 2019 election. It previously registered 68,833,476. That is 13,510,631 new eligible voters. This is an increase of 16.5%. Rather than translating to higher voter turnout, it produced a reduction to the degree that those who voted in this year’s election were not even up to those who voted in 1999, when the nation returned to civil rule after many years of military interregna. Let us examine voter registration trends since 1999.

Fig. 2: Registered voter trends 1999-2019


As the second graph shows, as more and more people registered to vote, the less and less the number of those who will be willing to vote. Since 1999, the number of eligible voters that were registered has witnessed upward trends, except in 2015 when the voting system was changed to full biometric registration. That reduced the number of registered voters to 68,833,476 from 73,528,040. It then increased to 82,344,107 in 2019.

This is an established case of dwindling voter’s interest. It has been called voter apathy. Mr. Jimi Agbaje, the PDP gubernatorial candidate in Lagos in the just concluded election even attributed his loss to it. Nigerian voters are enthusiasm for our elections. A number of reasons could be adduced to it. Violence, poor performance of governments at all levels, shrinking political space, sequence of election, complex electoral process, monetisation of election, attitude of politicians, personalities of the contestants, etc. are some of the reasons for the voter apathy.

However, the apathy was more pronounced in some areas than others. It also affected one party than the other. Further breakdown of the 2019 results shows that the apathy was only in the South. The South did not win new voter in 2019. Rather, the region lost 2,532,557 (Two million, five hundred and thirty two thousand, five hundred and fifty seven) old voters who voted in 2015 but chose to stay away from the polling booths. On the other hand, the North was able to win 1,152,430 new voters. The people who did not vote in 2019 in the South voted in 2015 but due to a combination of factors, some of which were highlighted above, chose to stay away. Among those who stayed away, most of them were in the South South region (1,813,249), followed by South East (498,898) and South West (220,410). In the North, only North West region lost 82, 188 old voters. North East and North Central gained 909,724 and 324,894 news voters respectively.   

The contest between APC and PDP was even more interesting. PDP lost more voters than the ruling party due to the fact that the South South which lost most of its old voters was the region where it was most popular. The region had been largely loyal to PDP. As a result, PDP lost 2,481,493 old voters in 2019. APC won 632,806 out of this number while 35,438 went to other parties. PDP also lost 771,421 old voters in South East and lost 44,746 in South West. For the regions that produced the President (North West) and his Vice (South West), APC lost more old voters than the opposition party.

For instance, APC lost 1,119,548 old voters in North West to PDP (940,756) and other parties (96,604). The remaining 82,188 did not come out to vote. In Katsina State where the President hails from, APC lost 113,308 old voters to PDP and the opposition party was able to win some of them. In South West, APC lost 396,743 people who voted for it in 2015. In Ogun State, the Vice President’s state, APC lost 26,528 old voters to other parties.

In Lagos, the home of the National Leader of APC, Asiwaju Bola Tinubu, APC lost 211,635 old voters. PDP gained new voters in all the states of North East region where the Alhaji Atiku Abubakar hails from more than what APC gained. PDP won many new voters in Adamawa State. The same cannot be said of Peter Obi as PDP lost old voters in all the South East states.

In conclusion, there is need for all stakeholders, particularly the ruling class, to build confidence into our elections by addressing some major inhibitors. After all, democracy is defined as the government of the people, by the people and for the people.

Richard Adeyinka Emmanuel is CEO, DataHome Research and Communications Ltd.