How Voter Apathy Kills Democracy

How Voter Apathy Kills Democracy

By Emmanuel Onwubiko

There is no better way to begin this reflection on how voter apathy is capable of killing constitutional democracy, than to review a few citations documented by Pope Benedict XVI in one of his widely recognized books.

He wrote that: “It is the specific task of politics to subordinate power to the criterion of law, thereby regulating the meaningful use of power.

It is not the law of the strongest that must prevail, but rather the strength of the law. The use of power to regulate and serve the law is the opposite pole of a power that knows no law or that flouts the law – and that is a power we call “violence”.

The departed Pope also wrote that: “This makes it vital for every society to remove everything that could cast suspicion on the law and its ordinances, because it is only in this way that arbitrary conduct on the part of the state can be eliminated and freedom can be experienced as something genuinely shared by all.”

He argued that a freedom without law is anarchy and therefore the destruction of freedom. The law will come under suspicion, and people will revolt against the law, whenever it is perceived, no longer as the expression of a justice that is at the service of all, but rather as a product of despotism, of an arrogance that is clothed in the garments of law by those who have the power to do so, he warned.

According to him, this aforementioned task of subordinating power to the criterion of law prompts a further question: How does law arise, and how ought law to be, in order to serve as a vehicle of justice and not simply be the privilege of those who happen to possess the power to make laws?

Pope Benedict XVI then proceeded to state that here we have two questions: the genesis of law, and the criteria inherent in law. The problem that law ought to be, not the instrument by means of which a few persons exercise power, but rather the expression of the common interest of all, seems initially at least to be resolved by democratic decision making.

“Since all collaborate in the genesis of the law, it is common to all. As such, all can and must. respect it. And as a matter of fact, democracy’s guarantee that all can work together to shape the law and the just distribution of power is the fundamental reason why democracy is the most appropriate of all political models, (VALUES IN A TIME OF UPHEAVAL By JOSEPH CARDINAL RATZINGER (POPE BENEDICT XVI).

In the aforementioned citations from one of the most profound Philosophical books of all times, we have been adequately educated on the emptiness of politics or democracy without putting the respect to due process and rule of law at the pedestal of governance.

These collective views by the late Pope Benedict XVI were necessitated as the beginning of my piece today, by the failings of a strategic democratic institution in Nigeria known as the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC).

The truth must be told as it is and that is to say that the official election management body in Nigeria-INEC, has on many occasions, disappointed Nigerians by failing to respect the laws on transparent, free, fair electoral process. For instance, in the February 2023 Presidential and National legislative houses elections, virtually ninety five percent of the positions contested for during those elections, were dragged to the election petition tribunal and most of these legal challenges ended up in the Supreme Court of Nigeria. 

The presidential election was brutally contested for up to the highest judicial forum.  Even at that, the petitioners and millions of their supporters believe that the decision of the courts not to hear these petitions on their merits but to dismiss them based on technicalities, is a demonstration that all that matters in any election is for any strong-willed contestant to use every available force at his/her disposal to corner and manipulated electoral victory since even the courts of competent jurisdiction will not deliver the right kind of justice to the aggrieved.

If you are reading this piece, a thought that could possibly be going through your mind is to read about the inevitable consequences of a mismanaged election in a Country such as Nigeria that is rated as the World’s largest black democracy.

Well, you need not go too far to realise that the immediate consequence of the serial manipulations of the outcomes of national elections, is that voters who have consciences and who are rational beings, will boycott future elections since they know now that their votes do not matter.

To compound this spectacular scenario, is the unfortunate development that even when INEC mismanages election and those whose expectations are short changed decide to contest what they perceive as irregularities in the said election, if they go to the court of law, there is no hope that the courts in Nigeria are the last hope of the common man in our Country. Some legal commentators had stated that courts have become the lost hope of the common man.

Therefore, the cumulative effect of the institutional failings in both INEC and the court system, is that the majority of voters may boycott any further elections. Secondly, politicians who realize that it is of little use going to election tribunal when they believe that they were duped by INEC, will no longer trust the court but will embrace self help measures which in effect means violence of unprecedented dimension. Importantly, the consequential outcome of voter apathy and heightened electoral violence is the eventual collapse and democratic rule.

By the way, democracy is the government of the people, by the people and for the people. So, if election in Nigeria now becomes a survival by the fittest whereby might become right and the wishes of voters are no longer accorded any legal protection, what follows is the immediate agitation for military rule which in any event is never an option.

Let us for the purposes of providing empirical evidence, conduct a quick review of reactions that have trailed the recently conducted off-season governorship elections in Kogi, Imo and Bayelsa States.

These off-cycle elections in the above mentioned states, witnessed violence, votes buying, ballot box snatching including the participation of police operatives in election malpractices in a place like Imo state.

The Nigeria Police Force says it will be investigating allegation of electoral malpractice against one of its officers in Imo state.

A video of an officer being manhandled by some youths who accused him of ballot snatching at the Amakohia Ikeduru collation center during the November 11 governorship election went viral.

Reacting to the video, the spokesperson of the Nigeria Police Force, ACP Olumuyiwa Adejobi, said;

”The Nigeria Police Force is aware of the allegation regarding this supposed police officer purportedly involved in ballot snatching at the Amakohia Ikeduru Collation Centre in Imo State. We do not take this issue lightly as it bothers on the integrity of the force and the capability of its members to maintain election integrity.  We therefore assure the public that a thorough investigation will be conducted, and we will update you asap. It requires a thorough investigation. Thanks”

The pledge by the police to deal with this case is a red herring because there is no guarantee that the process of investigation of this crime would be transparent and accountable. In any case, the wish of Nigerians is that all anti-democratic tendencies that would push Nigerians who are registered to vote not to participate in elections going forward, must be stamped out.

These factors include political violence such as armed thuggery, ballot box snatching, police manipulations and manipulations of the electoral process by INEC.

Already, the Governorship Candidate of PDP in Imo, Sen. Samuel Anyanwu, has cried foul over some alleged electoral malpractices in Saturday’s poll.

Speaking on the reports from the party agents in the field, Anyanwu alleged incidents of vote buying, ballot box snatching and other irregularities in some polling units.

He spoke in an interview with newsmen in his Amaimo residence in Ikeduru Local Government Area (LGA).

He accused party agents of the ruling-APC of “coercing voters to vote for the party”.

He further alleged that some PDP agents were shot by political thugs.

According to him, one of the PDP vehicles was burnt at Inyishi Community in the LGA, while the agents were trying to resist the thugs.

He, therefore, called for the cancellation of the results of the poll in the areas allegedly rocked by thuggery and violence.

He also urged INEC “to beam its searchlight on Ikeduru LGA”.

He said: “I have evidence that one of the thugs is a member of the House of Assembly.

“In the process of snatching the ballot boxes, the lawmaker’s Identity Card fell off and I have it here with me.

“I call on INEC to consider the available evidence and cancel results of elections in the affected areas. “

The News Agency of Nigeria (NAN) also learnt that there were cases of vote buying and coercion of voters in Polling Units 003 and 004 located at Chief Obi Primary School, Emekuku in Owerri North LGA.

It was also learnt that some thugs invaded the Umuokoro Village Hall, Iho, also in the LGA, where they allegedly snatched and destroyed ballot boxes and ballot papers.

An eyewitness account said that the reinforcement of security personnel in the area helped to restore normalcy in the area.

However, INEC’s Head of Voter Education, Mrs. Emmanuella Opara, said the commission had yet to receive any official reports of vote buying, ballot box snatching or other irregularities as alleged. Economic and Financial Crimes Commission seized millions of Naira from politicians in Imo, Bayelsa and Kogi whilst they tried to influence voters by bribing them.

“People go on social media to say anything but we need documented evidences or reports. “We have not got any of these reports,” Opara, Imo state sookesman of INEC who is living in self denial told the media.

She further said that the commission deployed EFCC personnel to arrest any person caught indulging in vote buying.

Similarly, the candidates of the Labour Party and Peoples Democratic Party in the last Saturday’s governorship election in Imo state, Athan Achonu and Samuel Anyanwu, have given the Independent National Electoral Commission a seven-day ultimatum to review the poll.

INEC had on Sunday declared Hope Uzodimma of the All Progressives Congress the winner of the election but the two candidates had continued to allege that the election was marred by gross electoral irregularities.

At a joint press conference in Owerri, the state capital on Monday, the two candidates asked INEC to respect the Electoral Act by using the seven days window provided by the law to review the election.

Anyanwu said that there was no election in the state rather allocation of votes to Uzodimma by INEC in collaboration with security agents.

He said that the results in the INEC’s portal is different from the results announced at the state collation centre which were used in returning Uzodimma as the winner of the poll.

Anyanwu, said, “I feel so ashamed with what the INEC has done. INEC promised a free, fair and credible election. But empty vehicles were moved to Owerri for voters from Orsu LGA. They used armoured vehicles,  security operatives to carry out these irregularities.  How come Orsu gave about 18,000 votes.  This election is a charade. There must be a review of these results. How come a police officer was caught on video carrying ballot boxes.

“It was not an election. it was a war.  Over 70 percent there was no collation of results.  This a PDP state, where governorship election took two days to conduct. The INEC has seven days to review these elections or cancel outrightly.”

Also speaking, the governorship candidate of the LP said that he would head to the court if the electoral umpire fails to review the election and cancel it

Achonu said, “Where there was accreditation, results were already uploaded before 10 am that is even when voting was ongoing. From the information available to us is even the electoral officers that were sharing money to other INEC officials and at the same time gave them already written results to upload.

“We have written to the INEC Chairman calling for total review of the election or outright cancellation of the election. That was why the chairman of LP, called on the INEC to check their IREV for authentic results. They did not listen to him because they had planned it.”

Hope Uzodimma, Alhahi Ododo and Diri who coasted to victories in the rigged off-cycle polls, have however praised the electoral umpire even when there are overwhelming evidence pointing to the gross mismanagement of the just ended polls.  Let us read what some international scholars concerned about the effects of poor management of elections in Africa are saying.

In a well written piece titled: what’s Happening to Democracy in Africa? Firmer United States diplomat Mr. John Campbell and Nolan Quinnpenned this piece since May 26, 2021.

They wrote as follows: “A democratic decline, accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic, is underway in sub-Saharan Africa. More Africans live under fully or partially authoritarian states today than at most points in the last two decades.

Even before the pandemic, an increasing number of African heads of state had moved to undermine term limits or rig elections to remain in power. But COVID-19 has given them greater leverage, providing further pretext for postponing elections in Somalia and Ethiopia, muzzling opposition figures in Uganda and Tanzania, and imposing restrictions [PDF] on media across the continent. The enforcement of pandemic restrictions by security services has often been brutal, provoking demonstrations in Kenya and even in more advanced democracies such as South Africa.

As governments across the continent become, with some exceptions, more authoritarian, Africans will be increasingly alienated from those claiming to represent them. Political instability can manifest itself in severe episodes of violence, as is already being seen in Ethiopia, Mozambique, and Nigeria. Such turmoil will grow as elites compete for power and citizens resist oppressive regimes, and will, in turn, inhibit social and economic development, to the disadvantage of the continent’s rapidly growing population.

Taken together, these forces also drive internal displacement and outward migration—both to other African countries and to Europe. Addressing these issues will require grappling with long-standing grievances left untreated and often exacerbated by the poor, sometimes brutal governance that is all too common across the African continent.”

Some policy analysts penned a piece titled “Nigeria’s 2023 elections: policy options to address voter apathy”, and therefore made the following far reaching recommendations which i have taken the intellectual liberty to use here as citations.

The policy think-tank stated thus: “Voter apathy is a major challenge to Nigerian democracy. There is a worrying trend of public disinterest in or indifference towards the electoral and democratic processes.

This lack of interest is a major factor influencing lower voter turnout in elections where voting is optional. Electoral participation is a critical aspect of democracy since it allows citizens to get involved in the political process. Analysis of political science literature shows that electoral participation is a key indicator of democratic performance. The impact of citizen nonparticipation can be broadly categorized by three distinct phenomena: the accountability effect, the representative effect, and the legitimacy effect.

The think-tank stated further: “Historical data indicate low citizen participation in the voting process since Nigeria’s return to democratic governance in 1999. The data reveal that while Nigerians consistently participate in voter registration, they are less enthusiastic about casting their votes on election day.

In 2019, for example, the country recorded the lowest voter turnout in Africa, despite the increase in registered voters. Voter apathy is even more evident in the National Assembly representative elections; more Nigerians participate in presidential and gubernatorial elections than in the National Assembly and the local government elections. The implication is clear: Nigerian voters believe executive positions are more important than legislative seats.”

Nigeria must address factors making voters to stay away from voting. There is therefore the immediate need to reform INEC and establish the election offences commission and creation of a specialised courts for prosecuting election offenders, must be actualized by the National Assembly.  There is need to change the law on the appointment of management members of INEC to domicile this power to the people of Nigeria through an independent body and public scrutiny of would-be appointees so the powers of the sitting president to influence the composition of INEC is whittled down. These fundamental steps are crucial and all relevant authorities must be up and doing to implement these reform measures in the electoral system of Nigeria. 

These reforms will put a hold to the growing voter apathy which if left unchecked could imperil constitutional democracy in Nigeria. 


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