Oyeniyi Oluwapelumi highlights the legitimate desire of Nigerians living abroad to participate in the choice of leaders in their home country
The perennial clamour for diaspora 0voting is upon us once again. Few weeks back, it reared its head in a parley President Muhammadu Buhari held with Nigerians who reside in the North African country of Ethiopia. The yearning of Nigerians residing abroad to be able to participate in the choice of leaders in their home country during elections is one that will not go away soon as it is legitimate but these yearnings however legitimate they may seem are not without some challenges. While some of the challenges have been tied to logistic failure (including a lack of the database of people in the diaspora, non-preparedness of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), there remains a moral question which is tugging at the fabric of this laudable and seemingly progressive initiative and should moderate the discussions on the matter going forward.
This most recent clamour is particularly noteworthy as it is coming on the heels of the diverse forms of celebrations which were put together to mark the twentieth anniversary of the nation’s return to civil rule. After two decades of uninterrupted democratic governance, it cannot be disputed that the most pressing demand of us as a people is to strengthen our democracy so that it yields for all Nigerian citizens (at home and in the diaspora), a more inclusive government and ultimately better life for all. A democracy that exists to serve only a few knavish politicians is not so much more desirable than a dictatorship form of government and its validity and acceptance can therefore not be guaranteed for too long.
In a democracy, voting is one of the processes that confer on it the superiority it has over dictatorship. The quality of the voting process determines to a very large extent the legitimacy of any democratic experiment. It is therefore within this context that one can situate the renewed demand by Nigerians in the diaspora to be allowed to participate in the election of leaders at various strata within our polity. While the demand is legitimate, there are several hurdles to making this a reality, one of which is its cost implication on our elections. Another is the validity of the results; as elections held on our own home soil are still fiercely contested in courts several months after the ballots have been counted and the due (and even sometimes undue) winner of the election returned. There are several other hurdles which will surface as we move from the theoretical phase to practical implantation as is the nature of things.
Two concepts of voting as an exercise in political freedom have been identified. First is voting at the ballot, second is foot-voting. There are several arguments for and against both concepts, regarding how they function in the service or disservice of exercising individuals’ political freedom and rights in an election. Ballot box voting is the most widely acknowledged mode of voting in most liberal democracies but “voting with one’s feet” which is guaranteed by the constitutional provision of the freedom of movement is also accepted as a voting mechanism in political theories. It is even believed that the latter concept is a far more superior mechanism in political freedom.
The fact of the matter is that Nigerians in the diaspora have voted already, albeit, with their feet. That they take this for granted or do not realize it at all is the reason why the cacophonous demand for diaspora voting lays somewhere at the top on the list of the agenda whenever they are able to get the attention of the leaders, be it at the executive or parliamentary level of government.
There is a well-reasoned agreement that democratic voting processes exist to empower the citizens in choosing their leaders. This is very true if one situates voting right as a fundamental democratic right which has its moral equivalence in the freedom of movement, which is another right guaranteed in the constitution of the federal republic of Nigeria. But if the constitutional right being sought to allow diaspora voting is granted, it would have undermined our democracy rather than strengthened it, for the simple reason that those in the diaspora would be allowed to make a particular choice twice.
Nigerians in the diaspora should be made to understand that they voted with their feet when they decided to move abroad in search of better living conditions and to settle in better governed societies. And since their freedom to move was not in any way impinged upon, they cannot bulwark or blackmail the democratic government they fled from into according them the right to choice of leaders for those who either willingly chose to remain at home or are patiently bidding their time as they await their own chance to flee.
Considering the benefits of voting with one’s feet, Ilya Somin (a Professor at George Mason University, U.S.A.) has reasoned that “when a voter casts a ballot, his choice is unlikely to affect his life. If he votes with his feet, there is a good chance that he will change his life dramatically.” Agreeing that foot voting could be done for diverse reasons, a person voting his/her feet is judged to be better informed than a voter at the ballot. We must therefore respect and recognize the choice of Nigerians who have moved abroad by allowing them to simply be. It stands outside the bounds of reason therefore, that a Nigerian who for instance, has carefully considered the option of relocating to China (a communist country where most citizens would themselves prefer a democracy), or Saudi Arabia (a monarchical kingdom), would still be eager to participate in a democratic process back in Nigeria.
However, naysayers of the idea of foot-voting may question how we can joyfully claim the economic benefits those who have moved abroad willingly dole out to us from time to time and yet, shut them out of the decision to choose leaders back at home. We must therefore be willing to consider the objective fact that repatriations are made purely for personal benefits and consequently, do not take away from the truth that their financial contributions to the society, however large that seems, are purely incidental as their obligations are tailored towards their kin alone.
If the National Assembly decides to forge ahead, in a bid to amend our constitution, to allow diaspora voting, it is pertinent for it to specify what categories of people whose interest should be protected in our national elections, to avoid the tyranny of those who willingly left the shores of the country in search for better governance. For instance, individuals on foreign mission and military personnel who might be abroad for peace intervention in other parts of the world could be granted the constitutional leave to vote during general elections. This is necessary to stave off the conundrum that might result from people “voting with their foot” and still voting at the ballot. Clarifications like these are invaluable needs of our democratic experiment rather than populist responses that would create further intractable challenges in the long run.