In 2015, Buhari defeated a sitting president with 2.5 million votes, while it took 3.9 million votes to halt the ambitions of a former vice-president in 2019.
At first glance, the 1.4 million increase in the gap between the two main candidates suggests a more definitive election. Dig deeper, and cracks appear in this theory.
Voter turnout for the 2019 elections was the lowest since Nigeria returned to democracy. In 2003, 69% of 61 million eligible voters participated in the presidential elections, and this number declined to 57% in 2007 and 54% in 2011, before dropping below 50% to 44% on 2015. This year, only 35% of registered voters turned up; less than 30 million out of a possible 84 million eligible Nigerians who could determine who would run the country for the next four years.
Nigeria’s elections look even worse when compared to her West African peers. The most recent presidential elections in Ghana recorded a voter turnout of 68%, while Liberia had a voter turnout of 56% in its 2017 elections.
Away from the continent, voter turnout at the most recent elections for Brazil, India, and the United States reads as follows: 80%, 66%, and 66%. In Brazil, citizens are nudged to vote through an automatic registration process that enrols them once they turn sixteen.
Blame INEC and the powers that be
Election planning in Nigeria looks like a country that is given only six months to host the Olympic Games.
The voter registration process was torturous; Nigerians were given barely half a year for that and faced long queues and disorganisation. Not to mention the uncompromising hours that registration centres were open for—is it any surprise that a commercial city like Lagos recorded a turnout of just 18%, the lowest in the country?
Meanwhile, switching polling units proved almost impossible. And of course, the eleventh-hour postponement of the elections by a week would have significantly contributed to low turnout on the day.
If we were to include the votes that were not counted due to the prevalence of card reader faults, cancelled votes and polling unit disruptions, then you can see how the final voter turnout figure may not reflect Nigerians’ desire to vote.
But even after all that, it is hard to dispute that the story behind Nigeria’s abysmal voter turnout number is one of voter apathy.
Do Votes Count?
Haunted by the memories of the military era, and the ubiquity of the generals that ruled them, Nigerians wrestle with the possibility that their votes might influence electoral outcomes and bring real change. Previous elections are weighed down by widespread malpractice and violence, discouraging even the most ardent believers in our democracy.
In 2007, President Musa Yar' Adua rode into power via an election described as a “charade” by international overseers. Years later, election tribunals continue to overturn suspect gubernatorial results.
Nigerians have become used to elections being decided before a single vote is cast, usually by a political godfather. Party primaries remain a shady arena, and the manner of the incoming Lagos’s State Governor’s rise to the State House evokes images of a successor being picked rather than elected.
Looking at the history of electoral violence in Nigeria, the Crisis group in its 2018 report stated that about 4,000 lives were lost in elections conducted from 2006 to 2015, with casualty levels increasing in each election cycle. Even with significant military and police presence, Nigerian elections are rarely peaceful. And some would say this is so because of military presence.
All of this breeds despair in the Nigerian voter, who begins to question the logic in partaking in this quadrennial democratic ritual. Why risk your life to cast a ballot that will not count? Why register to vote when your entire polling unit will be set ablaze?
Yes, some Nigerians abstain from elections as an act of civic rebellion. But most do so out of resignation or disinterest. Most simply refuse to play a game they have been losing for the last twenty years.
Does anything ever change?
Moreover, it is hard to argue that elections have promoted positive change in the country. Nearly every elected government has underperformed. Successive governments have failed to reduce poverty, build infrastructure, and maintain law & order. Instead, Nigeria seems to be regressing.
In reality, governance in Nigeria seems to be a zero-sum game producing leaders as winners and electorate as absolute losers. This pseudo-reality has shaped voter behaviour during election cycles, eroding the moral zeal to vote. With a long history of disappointment, individuals who choose not to participate in political activities can be forgiven for treating elections without reverence. It can be argued that those who vote do so out of moral suasion, selfish agendas, or a distant hope that their vote would somehow make a difference.
Changing this narrative of voter apathy will be tough. Electoral reforms would help encourage participation, but so would visible improvement in governance and socioeconomic outcomes. Nigerians would also need candidates that they can believe in and can inspire their confidence on a much larger scale than the third force attempted in 2019.
And the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) should explore practical ways of boosting voter turnout. It is still too difficult to vote in Nigeria. From registering to vote and switching polling units, to getting accredited and actually voting, Nigeria desperately needs a seamless process. With the way our population is growing, the logistic challenges will only get worse.
But, ultimately, Nigerians need to acknowledge the consequences of their actions. We must recognise that the only power in a democracy lies in our ability to enforce our collective will. Although Nigerians ought to hold leaders to account all the time, there is no better place to start than at the polling booth.
The need to be politically engaged has never been this urgent. In the last 20 years, we have witnessed flashes of good governance and paid the price for a lot of failure. We must persevere in the fight against apathy, and all those who benefit from it, lest we become our own worst enemies; because if politics doesn’t affect you, policies will.
Follow this Writer on Twitter @fadeseretobi.