The Need for a Constitutional Amendment to Improve Voter Participation in Elections in Nigeria

A lot has been said and written about the February 23 and March 7, 2019, Federal and State Elections. There is a general feeling of disappointment with the elections. The disappointment is not misplaced, considering the huge resources put into the elections. The way forward is not to despair as some have done, but for stakeholders to undertake an audit of the entire electoral processes and institutions with a view to understanding what went wrong and how to prevent a reoccurrence. 

Having reviewed most of the reports and results of the election, what is particularly disturbing is the level of voter participation. According to INEC,  a total of 82, 344, 107 voters were registered for the 2019 general elections. Of the over 80 Million registered voters, only a little over 29 Million participated in the Presidential Election. The same scenario played out in the state elections. In Lagos state for instance, out of a total of 6,313,507 registered voters, only 1, 196,490 voters participated in the elections.

Without going into the debate on why voter participation was poor and who is responsible, whether INEC or the political parties; there is something fundamentally wrong with 1, 122,416 deciding for 6.570.291. An election that allows for whatever reasons a minority of registered voters to decide for the majority cannot produce an acceptable outcome.

The conditions for declaring a candidate elected in a Presidential/Governorship election is provided for in sections 134 and 179 of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria 1999 (as amended). I have read both sections and feel extremely disturbed that they emphasize votes cast and not registered voters. For ease of reference, I will reproduce 179 especially subsection (2) which deals with conditions for declaring a candidate elected in a governorship election. It provides as follows:

 – “A candidate for an election to the office of Governor of a state shall be deemed to have been duly elected where, there being two or more candidates – (a) he has the highest number of votes cast at the election; and (b) he has not less than one-quarter of all the votes cast in each of at least two—thirds of all the local government areas in the State”(UNDERLINING MINE).

From the above provision, it does not matter how many registered voters participated in the election. What appears to be important is that there is an election, a candidate secured the highest number of votes cast at the election and the votes cast are evenly distributed in at least two-thirds of local government areas in the state.

This requirement explains the general lack of interest in voter turnout and complaints about disenfranchisement. It is ironic that sections 69 and 110 of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria 1999 (as amended) which provides conditions for the recall of Federal and State legislators emphasized registered voters and not votes cast. Section 69, for instance, provides as follows:

 – “.A member of the Senate or of the House of Representatives may be recalled as such a member if – (a) there is presented to the Chairman of the Independent National Electoral Commission a petition in that behalf signed by more than one-half of the persons registered to vote in that member’s constituency alleging their loss of confidence in that member; and (b) the petition is thereafter, in a referendum conducted by the Independent National Electoral Commission within ninety days of the date of receipt of the petition, approved by a simple majority of the votes of the persons registered to vote in that member’s constituency” (UNDERLINING MINE).

The cornerstone of elections is participation; the ability of citizens to determine freely how they are governed or who governs them. It is a right guaranteed by Article 21 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), which provides: “ Everyone has the right to take part in the government of his country, directly or through chosen representatives”; Article 25 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) which provides: “every citizen shall have the right and opportunity “ to take part in periodic elections…..; to vote and be elected at genuine periodic elections” and Article 13 of the  African Charter on Human and People’s Rights (ACHPR), which provides: “ every citizen of a country shall have a right to participate freely in the government of his country, either directly or through freely chosen representatives…”

I imagine that some may argue that political participation is not obligatory. In other words, a citizen can choose to participate or not participate in a political process.  That may be true, but if elections are not mere rituals and the object of elections is the participation of citizens in the government of their country then an effort should be made to ensure sufficient participation.

The sparse voter turnout in the 2019 general election is not sufficient participation. The National Assembly needs to alter the constitutional requirements for declaring a candidate elected especially for the presidential and governorship elections in Nigeria by replacing the words “highest number of votes cast at the election” with “highest number of registered votes”. That way, the voter can be a god again – Vox populi, vox Dei.

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