Pondering on the average Nigerian’s apathy to participating in politics
Growing up, my father always had conversations with my brother and me on many topics, many of which were beyond our understanding at the time. Politics featured constantly as that was his life’s work and he had written several books and articles on it. He noted one of those conversations, which had taken place while we were in primary school, in the preface of his third book Poverty of Politics.
He had asked us to explain the meaning of politics. We had responded by saying politics was about the tricks played by Polly the parrot. Of course, we had no idea what politics was about then. Our reference to Polly the parrot must have been inspired by the “Polly put the kettle on” nursery rhyme. He had referenced that conversation in his book to highlight how politics could be viewed as a dirty game, played by people who deployed various tricks to achieve their ambitions. I think about this conversation now and I wonder, the more things change the more they remain the same.
Whilst many Nigerians like to talk about politics, many more refrain from participating in it. As far as we are concerned, it’s ok for us to conduct political analyses and make postulations. Voting at elections, probably the citizen’s most basic electoral expectation, is not highly engaged in. Contesting for an elective post is not a thought many entertain, nor is getting involved in politics in any other way.
As averse as many are to participating in politics (from community level to the federal level), you find that people participate in politics of groups such as estate associations, alumni associations, and social clubs. One then wonders why it is easier to galvanise interest in those kinds of platforms as compared with those that affect societal governance. I think it could be because the barriers to participation are much lower and a greater level of accountability is expected. There could also be the belief that more impact is achieved in such groups hence greater value for participation.
Our apathy for national politics is obvious when we consider voter turnout. For example, at successive presidential elections since 1999, voter turnout has been on the decline. In 2019, it stood at 35% which was down from 44% in the 2015 presidential election and way down from the 54% turnout in 2011. What could have caused this decline? Could it be that we believe our votes won’t count and thus don’t bother participating in the electoral process? Could there be other issues we haven’t considered?
I believe the reasons may be multifaceted covering various issues such as shared and relived experiences across our nation’s history, the nature of our local politics especially the costs of participation, disappointments regarding results of previous election cycles, and systemic issues relating to the electoral body to name a few.
Starting from pre-independence till date, many recollections of political activities are tinged with stories of disruption, violence, and bloodletting. From “Operation Wetie” to the Nigerian civil war, then the military incursion into governance and their handling of politicians and the political process, all the way to the various pockets of pre and post-election violence across the years. Many people may now be more concerned about personal security (and rightfully so) than exercising their electoral right.
Also add the general notion that politics is a dirty game, especially the Nigerian variant and the need for deep pockets often accessed through willing godfathers ever eager for their future payday could be a notable constraint to participation. Tales of corruption, sacrifices and rituals, understood under the context of our very religious societies, may also be another factor dissuading likely electoral participants.
Issues with voter registration, PVC collection, changing electoral wards when moving house, and election management also present some challenges. I was unable to vote in 2015 as I had been out of the country for a significant period which dovetailed into the collection of PVCs. On my return, it proved a herculean task locating my PVC and I eventually gave up at some point. Ironically, a friend had seen my PVC when he collected his but mine had suddenly developed wings. Some alleged that party touts could have picked up on my behalf to prevent me from voting as a form of voter suppression. Apparently, this is quite popular. In 2018/ 2019, I put in more effort, all of which came to nought. I made several rounds from my ward to the local INEC office and the regional office and still could not locate my PVC. I was advised to register for a new one when the registration window becomes open. Hopefully, I can sort that out this time around.
Considering all of these hindrances, how then can we increase interest and participation in politics and the electoral process? Both government and the citizenry have roles to play in encouraging greater interest in politics. We all stand to benefit when more people get involved in politics and not just as political contestants.
What government can do
- Make the teaching of civic education compulsory at all educational levels as this will enhance political awareness
- Provide a greater level of autonomy to the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) especially regarding funding
What INEC can do
- Ensure voter registration becomes an ongoing activity as people become of age daily
- Enable citizens to change their electoral wards every time they change location so that they do not have to return to their initial places of registration just to vote
- Adopt greater use of technology especially regarding voting, vote capturing and documentation, and election results dissemination
What political parties can do
- Address the financial costs of political participation and eliminate the selling of nomination forms to enhance inclusivity
- Adopt more ethical practices in the conduct of their affairs to avoid issues such as voter suppression
What citizens can do
- Join political parties or interest groups
- Volunteer for their preferred parties, candidates, and elected officials thus reducing administrative costs
- Galvanise support for their parties, candidates, and elected officials working through traditional small groups where they have influence: estates, community associations, alumni groups, etc
- Turnout en masse and protect their votes during elections
- Hold their party members and elected officials accountable
As we celebrate Democracy Day, let us remember our role as citizens. Many people have sacrificed a lot for our democracy and we must all continue to defend it. We must understand the power we can wield standing united in groups irrespective of any cultural or religious affiliations.
With more political awareness, citizens are better able to organise themselves in support of their preferred candidates. Let us take our place in the office of the citizen. Let us inspire the change we want to see in our communities. United we stand, divided we fall, and that is the way I see things today.