Voter apathy is the next big challenge

The elections in Anambra State are done, and by the time this is published, it would likely be that former CBN governor, Charles Chukwuma Soludo would be the next Agu

Awka. While Soludo’s win appears to be a victory for the people of Anambra against a perceived attempt by outside forces to impose a leader on them as happened in neighbouring Imo, there needs to be a discussion about something else that is even more important: voter turnout.

I am writing this on Sunday, the day after the vote, but based on some of the results I am seeing, voter turnout in yesterday’s vote hovered at around 15%, which would be a major decline from the 22% recorded four years ago, and one of the worst in any election in Nigeria’s history, national or subnational. It tallies with a survey that SBM Intelligence published five days before the election, warning of a very low voter turnout, because of a myriad of issues, security being chief of these.

No matter who wins an election, a scenario in which less than 1 in 6 voters show up to the polls raises fundamental questions about the legitimacy of the newly elected leader and how much the people care about the outcomes of elections. It also paints a picture of a growing disconnect between the leaders and the citizenry.

A scenario in which less than 1 in 6 voters show up to the polls raises fundamental questions about the legitimacy of the newly elected leader

Multiple factors are responsible for this growing apathy in Nigeria. The specter of violence is often a major factor that keeps many people away from polls. In fact, many people have lost their lives while trying to vote in elections in Nigeria. More than 626 people, for example, lost their lives in the 2019 general elections in various parts of the country from the start of campaigning to actual elections.

Security was highlighted as a major reason for most people who opted not to take part in the Anambra governorship election and stay away. 0.6% of the SBM survey respondents were not registered voters, but of the 99.4% who were, 68% said that they would not vote in the 6 November 2021 election. IPOB was cited by 54% of respondents as the reason they would not vote, and it looks like most made good their threat.

Read Also: INEC declares Anambra election inconclusive

Away from the secessionists, Nigeria’s political class sees winning elections as ‘do or die’ affairs, and so foment violence where they cannot buy votes. Lack of consequence for the violence is also an issue. In so many cases, law enforcement officials fail to arrest the perpetrators of violence. This lack of integrity has diminished confidence, leading to the apathetic disposition of the electorate. If the state cannot provide security for its citizens, how should that state expect the citizens to participate in elections and give it legitimacy?

INEC’s inefficiency is also a cause of low voter turnout. So many people experienced challenges in registering to vote, and INEC failed to deliver PVCs until a few days to the election.

Since elections have failed to provide good governance and security; and many government officials are leading by bad examples, citizens are abandoning their civic responsibilities in ever-greater numbers. The much-expected ‘dividends of democracy’ have not materialized. Rather, what obtains are worsening socio-economic conditions, including rising unemployment and poverty. The most damning statistic to come out of Anambra in recent times is the 44% unemployment rate.

It is vital that Prof Soludo forms a government that meets the desires of the people of Anambra, particularly in terms of economic development and job creation. It is evident, however, that there is declining faith in elections specifically and democracy as a whole among the electorate due to a lack of free and fair electoral processes and the inability of successive administrations to deliver on the expectations of the people.

In the ideological struggle over what political system is the most optimal for delivering economic and human development as well as improved welfare and human rights for the people, democracies have tended to emphasize their ability to mobilize mass participation primarily through elections. Part of the democratic creed is that it is the ideal form of social organization that ensures that the greatest number of people feel a sense of ownership in the decision-making process by choosing the decision-makers.

What becomes of democracy – and by extension the policies that emerge from that system – if more than half of the people consistently fail to participate in the process of selecting their decision-makers? Many advanced democracies are grappling with ongoing democratic discontent. For many of these countries, rising inequality, structural unemployment, and right-wing populism are among the factors at the heart of the apathy conversation. In the case of Nigeria, socio-economic and political headwinds now constitute strong drivers of political discontent.

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