Voter apathy speaks volumes about democracy in Nigeria

Bola Tinubu, 70, was on Wednesday declared the winner of Nigeria's controversial presidential elections. [AP photo]

It is a moment of pride for Africa and the globe that peaceful transfer of power has ultimately found a home in Africa, especially in Nigeria.

However, declining voter participation and the legitimacy of electoral outcomes will require urgent attention. Otherwise, just like the Biblical Israelites who pleaded with Moses to give them a King to lord over them, we will see a rejection of democracy, the solemn right by free people to determine the fate of their polity, for autocracy.

During the general election last year, Kenya had 22 million registered voters. Of greater interest, however, is that Kenya has a voting-age population of 27 million people. This implies that long before August 9, five million adults were not 'not fired up enough' to vote. Matters got worse on the election day when eight million voters kept off the polling booths, with Nyanza being one of the worst affected.

In Nigeria, with just 26 per cent voter turnout in a country of 93 million voters, it is certainly a vote of no confidence in their democracy.

The big question is, why are so many people not enthusiastic about participating in elections today? Is it a coincidence that democracy seems to be in a downward spiral precisely at the same time when the global economy is in a tailspin?

A bit of context. Even before Covid-19 struck in 2020, the global economy was in a pretty precarious place. The International Monetary Fund warned in 2014 that the global economy may never again experience the growth levels witnessed before 2008. It has been posited by economists that for a country to double per capita income in one generation and meaningfully put a dent in poverty, an economy needs to be growing at 3 per cent per year.

By 2020, the majority of countries were growing far below that important number. The United Kingdom registered a growth rate of 1.4 per cent while Germany posted 0 per cent in quarter four of 2019. Meanwhile, the bulk of the emerging markets, including the BRICS countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa), were growing at around 1-2 per cent annually.

Now, let's cut to the chase, at stake is not only individual citizens' livelihoods but also the ability of the people to become active citizens in democratic processes. Man ditched the state of nature into a social contract to guarantee himself the highest form of security available. It, therefore, goes without saying that if governments do not, with great ingenuity, seek to increase the GDP pie and pursue economic growth, the delivery of public goods would become so materially impacted that a huge swath of the populace would become irredeemably disillusioned with political processes.

The disillusioned masses then choose to abstain from political participation. This is where the rubber meets the road. Among those who vote, the section whose candidate(s) did not win can then easily combine forces with the abstainers to challenge the mandate of government.

Quick math. In Kenya, with a voting age population of 27 million, when the president has only 7.1 million in his corner, it means about 20 million people would legitimately say they did not give their mandate to the government. It's worse in Nigeria, where the president-elect garnered 8 million votes in a country of 93 million voters. Those who believe in democracy as the best form of government must rethink strategies of enhancing voices and increasing participation or else the paradox of 'popularly elected but unpopular' will be the norm in most democracies.

It is therefore an imperative for the two presidents to avail strong social protection platforms even as they work on the economy for that is the only real potential of enhancing their mandate. Failure to prioritise this will not only give political fodder to the press but to their adversaries as well. If the citizens are unable to feel the effect of their interventions in their pockets, a natural disaffection would easily ferment and present a political headache for them.

-Mr Kidi Mwaga is a governance and policy expert. [email protected]