By Alex Otti
It was George Jean Nathan (1882-1958) who said that “bad leaders are elected by good people who do not vote”. Born on Valentine’s Day in 1882, Nathan was an American drama critic and magazine editor. He was concerned about the degree of voter apathy in the 19th and 20th century America. Being confronted with (otherwise good) citizens who thumped their chests and celebrated the fact that they didn’t participate in voting a failed leader, he argued that not participating in an election was actually a vote for the wrong candidate.
A lot of people must have been inundated with messages on different social media platforms and elsewhere urging citizens of voting age to step out and obtain their permanent voters cards by getting registered and also ensure that they vote in the upcoming elections. In fact, some of the messages are so funny and humorous that one wonders what the authors were thinking about while crafting them. One of such messages making the rounds in the social media goes thus “INEC will not count prayer points. Go and register and get your Permanent Voters Card (PVC) now and get ready for 2019”. It goes further to admonish that it is your responsibility to ensure that good leaders are elected at all levels. Kneeling down and praying cannot do it. What will do it is the simple action of ensuring that you vote and the additional responsibility of ensuring that your vote counts. Others have even suggested that the PVC should work like the identity card and that people who do not have it should be excluded from benefitting from government. To this, someone despairingly questioned, “What benefit does a Nigerian get from its government?”
One major problem plaguing Nigeria is the leadership question. We seem to be groping in the dark from one set of blind leaders to another. Sometimes, it would look like we made progress and subsequent leaders would emerge and take us further back, far behind where we were coming from. Some things we would have ticked off as being settled, suddenly appear on the front burner, assuming a more terrible dimension and mutating to torment us further. We therefore seem to be engaged in a macabre ballroom dance, one step forward, two steps backwards or more accurately, several steps backwards. Virtually all the problems we are dealing with are traceable to poor leadership. From infrastructural decay to the poor state of the economy and from a failed health care delivery system to poor educational quality are all products of bad governance over time. Surprisingly, we had managed to find all sorts of excuses for the failure of leadership. For a long time, we blamed the colonial masters for bequeathing us a fundamentally flawed nation state. Later, it was the turn of the military to take the blame. Since we have had relatively stable democracy in the last two decades, I believe we are now running out of excuses. The blame game now seems to be between the rulers and the ruled. It is very convenient for the electorate to sit in the comfort of their homes and pour invectives on politicians for all the failings in the country. They call them all sorts of names from thieves to corrupt people and even buccaneers. They are perceived to be selfish, insensitive and wicked. In some cases, the explanation is that the leaders are bereft of ideas and had little or no preparations before hijacking the instrument of coercion either by fair or foul means. People who make these arguments, seem to forget the saying that every society gets the leadership it deserves. These are people who are proud to dissociate themselves from politics. Sometimes, they claim that they do not want to be ‘tainted’ by politics as according to them, politics is a dirty game. They miss the salient point made by the 20th Century philosopher, Eugen Bertolt Fredrich Brecht (1898-1956) that “the worst illiterate is the political illiterate. He hears nothing, sees nothing, and takes no part in political life. He doesn’t seem to know that the cost of living, the price of beans, of flour, of rent, of medicines, all depend on political decisions. He even prides himself on his political ignorance, sticks out his chest and says he hates politics. The imbecile doesn’t know that from his political non-participation, comes the prostitute, the abandoned child, the robber and, worst of all, corrupt officials, the lackeys of exploitative multinational corporations”.
It is heartwarming that a lot of our citizens are finally showing interest in how they are governed rather than leaving the stage for the so called professional politicians. For instance, there has been quite some activity in the political space sequel to the letter written by Chief (Dr) Olusegun Obasanjo calling for a “third force”, even though some people have also argued that those showing interest in the third force are largely the same old politicians, dressed in new robes. That notwithstanding, I believe it is good news that there is an alternative to the two older forces in terms of political structures. Whether they will succeed or not is an entirely different matter. I, however, agree that younger people with ideas and who have been successful in either business enterprises or other careers should get involved and demonstrate that they are capable of replicating the success in the political space. Elsewhere in the world, we have the 40 year olds like the French President, Emmanuel Macron, leading countries and doing very well at it. I do not see why we cannot make that kind of transitioning in Nigeria. We seem to tolerate a throw back to the past every election season. I acknowledge that a few good people had shown interest in the past, but in most cases were denied the opportunity, either on account of vested interests or that they belonged to the ‘wrong party’. And talking about parties, it does appear that quite unlike other climes where parties have clear ideological leanings and stand for something, our own political parties seem to lack ideological persuasion, standing largely for nothing. This is even in situations where their very names should give them clear ideological identities. That is why politicians find it convenient to jump from one party to the other and back to where they jumped from.
Today, we are going to dwell on the inaction and apathy of the electorate that give rise to the election of the ‘incompetent and clueless’ politicians in the first place. In the last few elections, many of them marred by irregularities, also condoned and tolerated by docile electorate, voter turnout had been very poor. Statistics shows that the 2015 Presidential election did not depart from this tradition. Like I had noted in this column (August 15, 2016), the most important factor in any election is the electorate that cast the votes which the politicians ride on to get to power. Because a lot of us don’t seem to have an interest, those who are interested offer themselves and it is only those that offer themselves that can be voted for. You will be surprised that a lot of the elites do not even vote in elections. Some of them see election days as public holidays, so they just watch television sets, sleep the whole day or visit friends within the neighborhood, since movement is usually restricted. Some do not even have voter’s cards as they are not registered voters. Some are so insulated from their environment that they have no clue who the candidates are and sadly, really don’t care to know. So, if this is your lot, how do you think you can make a difference in the affairs that concern you the most? The issue of voter apathy is demonstrated by data from the last election conducted in the country. In the 2015 general election, out of the 91.7million voting age population, only 67.4million people offered themselves to be registered. Of this number, the average voter turnout was just over 43%”. Compared with the voter turnout in advanced countries of 70% and above, it is no doubt that we have a long way to go. Breaking this number further down to the geo political zones, some startling revelations would come to the fore. The South South led other regions with a voter turnout of almost 58%, followed by North West at 55%. North East follows with 45%, North Central 43%, South East 41% and South West 40%. Why do I think these numbers are startling? Simply because the regions that are perceived to have more educated people than others came last. Ordinarily one would expect that the South West and South East would be some of the regions from where the highest voter turnout would be recorded. Alas, the reverse was the case. May be this may also have something to do with the high number of elites that stay in those regions. The point being made here is that voter apathy has little or nothing to do with education.
The Independent National Electoral Commission, (INEC) had launched the continuous voter registration some time ago. The exercise is aimed at getting everyone within the voting age bracket to register. Information coming out from that exercise shows that even though it can be adjudged to be fairly successful in some parts of the country, a lot of people seem not to be interested. While one cannot overemphasize the need for every citizen of voting age to register, one thinks that INEC still needs to do a few things to make the exercise less cumbersome. In some states, INEC conducts the exercise only at the local government headquarters. This makes it very difficult for people as some local government headquarters are very far from where many people live. Because over 70% of our people live below poverty line, it is counter intuitive that they may not be able to afford the fare to go to the local government headquarters and would rather stay away. I believe that INEC should be able to at the minimum, move down to the ward level, if it cannot get to the polling booth level. In any case, elections are conducted at the polling booths and I believe that registration should actually happen there. There have also been reports of INEC officials not being available at the designated locations leaving a lot of people stranded and in some cases where they are available, they may not have all the work tools that would enable them carry out hitch free exercise. All these lead to delay at the registration centers and in some cases, people are made to visit several times before they get registered. It is important that INEC makes it as easy as possible for citizens to get registered in order to exercise their fundamental human rights of voting.
The education and sensitization of voters is another issue that needs serious attention. Even though this is the primary function of INEC, it is good to observe that organisations like churches, mosques and even politicians are getting involved and encouraging people to register. Those who had hitherto registered in areas where they no longer live have also been encouraged to transfer their registration to booths closer to where they live.
All said and done, I believe that the awareness being created is important to ensure that many more of our people participate in the next election come 2019. I also believe that the amendment of the electoral act that has just been passed by the National Assembly will help to move us closer to the era of free and fair elections.
May I also use this opportunity to wish readers happy Valentine’s day.
Alex Otti was the Governorship candidate of All Progressive Grand Alliance in the 2015 General elections in Abia State