Muhammadu Buhari won the 2019 presidential elections by a margin of 3.9m votes, up from 2.5m in 2015. Looking at his first-term reviews, you may be surprised. After all, under his leadership, Nigeria has ascended to become the world's poverty capital, partly as a result of his restrictive economic policies, some would say. At the same time, the President was publicly criticised several times, first for sexist remarks, then for dismissing half his electorate as lazy, and finally, for a perceived attack on Nigeria's democratic ideals. Canvassing opinion—usually on social media—gave the impression that Nigerians were fed up.
But, many of these Nigerians did not vote.
If you are one of those people, then you are likely to be a student, graduate, professional, or a business/property owner who understands the issues in Nigeria. You sit in the middle class by most measures, an avid social media user and, interestingly, many people in your circle probably did not vote too.
We can begin by looking at the record-low national voter turnout of 35%, then proceed to the abysmal 18% turnout in Lagos State, where a decent portion of the middle class resides. And social media gives further direction. This Twitter poll of people living in Nigeria showed that 57% of 1,300 respondents did not vote. Of course, we cannot infer much from a single survey conducted in this manner, but there are other polls like it, targeting the same online demographic.
This is a problem.
There are many reasonable reasons why people did not vote in Nigerian elections. For one, the fear of violence always lurks as voting remains risky in violent hotspots, though it is notable that these are not usually areas that middle-class Nigerians reside (with the notable exception of Port Harcourt, Rivers State.
So even though there are reasons for the depressed turnout, it can be argued that more Nigerians would have collected their Permanent Voter’s Card (PVC) and voted if they cared enough.
Nigeria is a lifelong boot-camp that trains its citizens to navigate dysfunctional systems, from completing a university degree to engaging with law enforcement, to registering and running a business. Middle-class Nigerians survive by developing their own complex ecosystem of privately provided security, electricity, education, healthcare and other basic needs. Where they need to encounter the public sector, they navigate these dysfunctional systems—renewing a passport, for example—with their economic power.
If a middle class Nigerian really wanted to vote, she/he would find a way to, as she/he does for everything else Nigeria throws at them.
However, Nigerians have an odd relationship with their democracy. One would hope that Pastor Osinbajo remembers to say in his next sermon that “we war not against corruption or incompetence, but against cynicism, defeatism, fatalism and the other persistent powers that conspire to make us think that our votes do not count.”
The likes of Generals Babaginda and Abacha may be behind Nigeria, but their legacy lives on: many Nigerians are still not convinced that there is any point in participating in politics.
On one hand, this is somewhat understandable. Historically, political activity in Nigeria was a capital offence, and when it did not pose a mortal risk, it thrived at deeply frustrating you, as it did to many Nigerians on June 12th, 1993.
Nigeria’s wily military oppressors carefully managed the transition to democracy on their terms, only slightly tweaking the system so they could swap their fading uniforms for starched Babanriga, maintaining their influence, wealth and power. It is no surprise that two out of four rulers in the Fourth republic are not just ex-Generals, but ex-military presidents.
Furthermore, most Nigerians did not have to fight to reach this point. Since the June 12 elections, Nigeria has never really had its South Africa moment where millions of adults who have never voted in their lives, realise the real significance of having and exercising this powerful right.
But Nigerians must understand that voting is powerful, whether elections are rigged or not. Simply showing up to vote in numbers will show the rulers that the people are aware of their influence, that their needs need cannot be ignored.
Some have argued that voting is only a worthy pursuit in a system that works, but it is essentially the only purely peaceful way to unsettle a system that doesn’t work. Legendary leaders like Lee Kuan Yew will not simply fall out of the sky to fix the system for Nigeria.
The perception that the ruling class used cash to sway voters in many parts of the country led Nigeria’s middle class to theorise that poverty was the weapon of sinister rulers used to manipulate poor Nigerians into selling their votes.
In the same way, apathy is the tool used to stop “enlightened” people from coming out to influence the system. Whether they vote for an opposition or fringe party, the best form of protest is at the ballot box. Our present capacity to vote, with all the flaws in our democracy, remains the most potent tool we have ever had.
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