A lot of issues have been attributed to the increasing decline in voter turnout which has continue to diminish the quality of Nigeria’s election. The 2019 Presidential elections witnessed lower turnout with only 32percent of registered voters coming out to vote and the situation was even worse for other state and off-cycle elections. This poses a lot of questions around the legitimacy of mandate where returns are made for polling units that elections were not held thereby undermining the principles of inclusion, free and credible elections.
In this vein, citizens right to determine who lead them are directly or indirectly suppressed by either the tedious nature of the process or dubious nature of the actors. Thus, prospective voters become disinterested in the process since the outcome may not reflect people’s choice or citizens may not feel the impacts of governance due to concerns around legitimacy.
In recent times, voter suppression has become a strategy used to influence the outcome of an election by discouraging or preventing specific groups of people from voting. The November 2019 Bayelsa and Kogi States gubernatorial elections, climaxed the issues of voters’ suppression suffered in the 2019 general elections. Similarly, the Kogi governorship election was greeted by unprecedented violence which indeed prevented voters from voting or led to cancellation of their votes thereby suppressing their choices. Whilst the election day process in Bayelsa was relatively peaceful, report by election observer body, Yiaga Africa revealed that elections were not held in 26% of polling units and Southern Ijaw LGA suffered the biggest fatality as in 5% elections were either not held or cancelled.
This is in no way a negligible figure since election is strictly a game of number and every digit is important to measure emergence of political candidates to position of authority. Unfortunately, those percentage simply meant that thousands of eligible voters were suppressed and prevented from making decisions that affect them. Cancellation of elections is just one out of numerous ways which citizens’ right to elect their leaders have been suppressed either deliberately or otherwise.
Apart from cancellation of ballot either due to violence or non-adherence to electoral guidelines, a tedious pre-election process of voters registration, display claims and objections, collection of Permanent Voters Card (PVC) , transfer of voter register have hindered a lot of people from participating in the process. For instance, registration of voters that usually happen at the ward or Local Government Area level has proven to be difficult in capturing prospective voters as individuals may not necessarily be willing to travel the distance to get registered. The same may be applied to collection of PVC where prospective voters right to vote is being suppressed due to lack of availability of voters’ card or difficulty in collection. Transfer of voter registered have proven to be another herculean task especially for students who registered in school and most times are at home during elections. The fact that citizens must vote where they registered means a lot of votes will be suppressed as even the few that went through the staggering process of transfer of registration may not necessarily get their voters card before election.
It is indeed profound to know that the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), Security agents and Political parties are major culprits when it comes to voter suppression in Nigeria’s election which basically means all key stakeholders need to chart a pathway to tackling voters suppression in Nigeria’s election. During a recent conversation hosted by Yiaga Africa on tackling voter suppression in Nigeria’s election, National Commissioner of INEC on Registration and Election Review Committee, Professor Antonia Simbine admitted the challenges of voter suppression saying all stakeholders need to be involved in the fight against voter suppression. According to her, “If the legal framework has gap where we can fill to ensure that vote is not suppress, this is a good time for this discussion so that it can be included in the Electoral Act Amendment,” Simbine said adding that INEC will do everything to ensure that Nigerians are satisfied with the process.
No gainsaying that election stakeholders have called on the National Assembly to fast track the electoral act which will further legalise certain provisions to ease the process thereby mitigating voter suppression. Electoral reform provides an opportunity to strengthen election legal framework to which lack definition of what voter suppression is all about and the implications, which should be captured in the new amendment of the electoral act.
Security who seem to be the major culprit of voter suppression need to understand their roles, especially during elections. The Nigerian Police as the lead security agency for election must understand that their constitutional role during elections is to provide support for the electoral commission to allow peaceful elections rather than serving as tools in the hands of principals of the states as witnessed in recent elections.
Political parties have been severely accused for always finding ways to manipulate the process for their own selfish interest. As a matter of fact, politicians have become a threat to Nigeria’s democracy by way of circumventing measures to prevent electoral malfeasance and this goes a long way in causing voter suppression. It is time to put national interest first and play by the rules to ensure the citizens alone decide who governs them. While it is expected that if the security, INEC and political parties put their houses in order, it will reduce electoral litigation, it is important to call on the judiciary to be consistent in their judgement especially on electoral matters.
Moshood Isah is the Media Officer of Yiaga Africa
He tweets @moshoodpm