Common Errors about Nigeria (IV): Vote-buying

SIMONKOLAWOLELIVE!, sms: 0805 500 1961

SIMONKOLAWOLELIVE!, sms: 0805 500 1961


Millions of Nigerians have been going through hell in the last few weeks as a result of the change in the colours of the national currencies. The Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) announced what it called “naira redesign programme” in October 2022 and said the new N1,000, N500 and N200 notes would go into circulation on December 15, 2022 while the old notes would cease to be legal tender on January 31, 2023. That would see the central bank withdraw nearly N3 trillion from circulation within weeks. Coming so close to the 2023 general election, the currency policy was always going to generate controversies, discomfort and economic hardships. I am not surprised at the chaos.

The original objectives of the policy, according to Mr Godwin Emefiele, the CBN governor, were to promote cashless transactions and combat counterfeiting with improved security features — in addition to replacing dirty notes in circulation. The CBN later said it wants to tackle illicit finance — which covers cash stockpiled by kidnappers, drug dealers and politicians. As the January 31 deadline (later moved and now in limbo) stared us in the face, we started hearing that the policy was targeted at a particular presidential candidate to curtail “vote-buying”. Nigerians, not unexpectedly, became divided: those who think their candidates would benefit from the CBN policy started supporting it.

I’ve been writing a series on the common errors about Nigeria. This instalment may be my most controversial take so far, but I want to quickly drop this here — the role of “vote-buying” in presidential elections is grossly exaggerated. I would not argue that vote-buying does not play any role at all — that would be disingenuous of me. There are voters who only decide who to vote for on election day based on financial and material inducements. But how many are they? I do not have the data (neither do you) but based on the historical voting patterns in Nigeria’s presidential polls, it will even be more disingenuous to claim that candidates always won elections based on vote-buying.

Before I proceed with today’s discussion, I want to summarise my three previous takes in this series on the “Five Common Errors about Nigeria” — that is, things we generally assume to be totally true about us which, unfortunately, do not match the evidence on the ground. One, I argued that Nigeria is not as rich as we claim, that we are only potentially rich. Two, Nigeria’s underdevelopment is not solely the fault of the president. All tiers of government have a share of the blame. Three, the 1999 Constitution is not responsible for our underdevelopment. The contentious “exclusive legislative list” has not been deployed to stop any state or council from implementing development initiatives.

We will now discuss vote-buying, which I consider to be a serious threat to our democracy. The phenomenon is not new — it’s been with us for over six decades — but we cannot sanitise our electoral system unless we tackle it decisively. Elections should never be won by the highest bidder, otherwise the underlining assumption of “free choice” will be undermined. There is, however, a false belief in Nigeria that only one party or one candidate buys votes. This line of thinking has been propagated by opposition parties since 1999. If they win any election, they will say it was “free, fair and credible”. If they lose, they will say the ruling party bought the votes or rigged outright.

If we assume that money always buys votes — as we tend to believe — I do not think President Goodluck Jonathan would have lost the 2015 presidential election. With the kind of information that later came into the public domain, I would guess that the PDP outspent APC by a ratio of at least 2:1 but still fell short. This was despite being the party in power, in charge of all the coercive agencies of the state that play key roles in the conduct of elections. The 2015 polls were more of a referendum on the PDP government than anything else, and Candidate Muhammadu Buhari was well placed to benefit from the public sentiments. There was no amount of vote-buying that could upstage that.

This takes me to my next point. There are several factors in the mix when voters make their choices at the ballot. To hold money solely responsible is to ignore a body of evidence from our history. I have written about these factors in times past, some of which are interwoven. Buhari won the 2015 presidential election because a lot of factors came together: the sitting president seeking re-election had been damaged politically; Buhari himself had a solid support base that had always backed him from 2003 when he first threw his hat in the ring; and he forged the right political alliances that could deliver the required votes to him. No amount of vote-buying could stop his momentum.

Now, has anyone ever been elected president of Nigeria solely because of vote-buying? I have been browsing my head and I am unable to click on a concrete proof. Candidate Olusegun Obasanjo was elected in 1999 mainly because of the massive support from the north, south-east and south-south. Despite the money the PDP spent in the south-west (and they spent plenty of it), Obasanjo did not win in any of the six states. Why? The June 12 emotions were still running in the veins of the voters. The Alliance for Democracy (AD) did not need to buy one vote. It helped that another Yoruba, Chief Olu Falae, was on the ballot and he was their preferred candidate. Vote-buying was of no value.

Regional sentiments were also evident in 2003, when Obasanjo — with no major Yoruba opponent to compete with — finally won the south-west states. Buhari, who was growing in popularity in the north, defeated Obasanjo in 10 out of the 19 states. He subsequently held on to his northern base and gained more support until he finally won in 2015, despite all the money pumped in by the PDP. No amount of money could buy Buhari’s loyal voters who clearly had an affinity with him. There were also regional sentiments in the north. Many northerners felt Jonathan should do only one term having benefited from the death of President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua and spent five years in office.

The 2007 elections that produced Yar’Adua were a joke, but I can confidently say he did not buy the votes. The PDP was a monster in those days. I think they were controlling about 27 states, so they were everywhere, swarming on us from every corner and every direction. Also, I would not say Jonathan won in 2011 by buying the votes. Regional sentiments favoured him in the south, where he won 16 out of 17 states (with only Osun not getting the memo). Up north, Buhari won in 12 states while Jonathan took seven, mostly in the north-central zone. And as I have pointed out, it would be extremely difficult to prove that Buhari bought votes in 2015 — or for his re-election in 2019.

At this point, let me clarify two things. One, I am not saying you can win a presidential election without spending money. For starters, there are 176,846 polling units across Nigeria. Every candidate is expected to have an agent at every unit. Transportation and feeding for 176,846 agents will cost money, even if you are giving only N1,000 to each of them. Campaign souvenirs, posters, rallies and advertising cost money. Politicians have mobilisers who share food and gifts before and also on election day as logistics or entertainment to mobilise supporters to come out and vote. We can lie all we want, but there is no major party that is not spending heavily on this electioneering.

A second clarification: I have deliberately limited my argument to vote-buying in presidential elections because that is thought to be the motive behind the naira redesign. It is much easier to buy your way into winning house of assembly, governorship and national assembly polls because of the geographical coverage which makes vote-trading more effective. True, you can win the presidential ticket of your party by bribing delegates. The numbers are manageable. But I insist that during presidential elections, the role of retail vote-buying is exaggerated. I admit you can induce the INEC and security officials to manipulate things for you — but you don’t need the new naira for that.

If I were to summarise my argument, I would do it this way: the perception that voters make their choices on presidential election day based on financial inducement is not only problematic but also highly debatable. Voters are motivated by more than one factor. Many people vote out of loyalty to a party, an individual or an alliance — what I call “political affinity”; some because of ethnic, regional or religious sentiments — which are “primordial”; some because of ideological leanings — they look out for manifestos, personal character and track record; and some because of material gain — they are only after the cash and the rice. No doubt, more than one factor can also be at play.

Over all, I still do not think vote-buying trumps political affinity, primordial sentiments and ideological leanings in the scheme of things. From the historical examples I have given as per presidential elections, it is logically impossible to argue that anyone has been elected president in the last 24 years solely through retail vote-buying. That is why I think this naira redesign policy may not be the ultimate cure for vote-buying and Nigerians will have suffered for nothing if the “unwanted” candidate wins based on his political alliances. Not everybody who buys votes wins an election and not everybody wins an election by buying votes. There are many elements in the mix.

I almost forgot to add this: there are other ways of inducing voters. You can give them rice, garri and bread. You don’t need the new naira to do that — you can simply transfer funds to the suppliers. It is also wrong to think only one candidate will be hurt by the policy, except the CBN surreptitiously makes the new naira available to his major opponents. In that case, that would mean the objective of the policy in the first place was not to check vote-buying but just to make sure only one candidate is disadvantaged in the 2023 vote-trading market. Still, I reject and condemn vote-buying in any form — but I assert that it is not the sole or key determinant of why voters vote the way they do.




Many of my friends have been worried about the unfolding events in Nigeria and how these will impact on the general election. There is the unending drama around the naira. There is the crippling petrol scarcity. There are pockets of violence here and there. “Are you sure the elections will hold?” someone asked me. I said I am sure the polls would take place. “Are you sure there would be no excuse to postpone the polls or cancel the outcome?” another asked. My response was the same: we will go to the polls, someone will be elected president and there will be a handover ceremony at the Eagle Square on May 29, 2023. Call me a reckless optimist and I won’t argue with you. Positive.


I thought 2015 presidential election was the most toxic ever, as APC supporters hurled all kinds of insults and lies at President Jonathan. It turned out I was wrong because the 2019 poll was even more toxic, with all kinds of propaganda directed at President Buhari. Some even said he was dead and it was one Jibril Al Sudani, of no fixed address, that was impersonating him. I would now rate the 2023 presidential election as the most toxic ever, with lies, propaganda and insults — fuelled by ethnic and religious hate — flying around daily. Let me predict that 2027 will be the most toxic ever, and 2031 will even beat the record. Except the thugs on social media change their ways. Noxious.


There is, understandably, outrage that INEC will move electoral materials on election day in Lagos state through the transport unions. The complaint is that one of their leaders is an associate of a presidential candidate. Although INEC uses transport unions across the country, I wish they would use other means in Lagos for whatever it is worth. I am happy that universities have been closed for students to be able to vote where they registered. Personally, I do not think all these things would amount to much, but it is imperative to address complaints and grievances as much as possible so that nobody would have enough excuses to reject the outcome of the elections. Transparency.


Recently, I expressed worries about how courts are displacing voters in choosing their leaders. There is an update: the Supreme Court has decided that the senatorial candidate of the APC in Yobe North is Senator Ahmad Lawan who did not participate in the primary. Lawan had been busy chasing the APC presidential ticket. I think Lawan can still have it both ways. Since the courts now decide who should be candidate and who should be declared winner, there are chances that Lawan can still become president of Nigeria. All it takes is for someone to file some suit and the courts will declare Lawan president. As they say in Warri, by special arrangement, even devil can see God. Ridiculous.

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