Trend of low voter turnout continues in Nigerian elections

Nigerians’ aversion to voting in elections is well documented, but the challenge hit a new low last weekend when citizens came out to elect federal lawmakers and the president in an exercise that was hotly watched in worldwide.

Since returning to democratic rule in 1999, Nigeria has enjoyed uninterrupted democracy, the first such long period since the country’s independence in 1960. Up to 93 million people in the country’s most populous and largest economy from Africa have registered to vote ahead of the 2023 elections. This was the first round of the seventh general election since the end of military rule in 1999.

Participation rate
Participation rate

In the run-up to the elections, a combination of a severe cash crunch and a prolonged shortage of gasoline, ensured that Nigerians, especially the youth, showed keen interest in participating in the 2023 elections.

But voter turnout was abysmal, the lowest since Nigeria’s independence. In 36 states, less than half of the eligible population turned out to vote, and no state had a turnout above 40%.

In the three largest states based on voter registration – Lagos, Kano and Rivers – less than a third of the eligible population voted. Rivers’ turnout was a shameful 15.6%, the lowest in the country, despite producing far more votes in previous elections.

Overall, the national participation rate was 29%; no election has had a lower turnout in Nigeria’s six decades of independence. Of the 93.4 million registered voters this year, 87.2 million people collected their permanent voter cards and the total number of actual voters on polling day was just 24.9 million. Barely 9 million people voted for President-elect Bola Tinubu who will now rule 220 million Nigerians.

Since 2011, voter turnout has steadily declined.

Prior to 2023, the 2019 elections recorded the lowest turnout of 34.75%. In 2019, only 28.6 million votes were cast despite 82 million eligible voters. The winner, President Muhammadu Buhari, was re-elected with just over 15 million votes in a country of more than 200 million citizens. More than half of the country’s population is of voting age.

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The 2019 rate was the lowest of any recent election held on the African continent. Data compiled by the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (I-IDEA), an intergovernmental organization that supports sustainable democracy around the world, reveals that voter turnout in this election was the second lowest in the history of elections held in African countries, and it was only slightly higher than the 32.3% recorded in the 1996 Zimbabwean presidential election.

This means that the 2023 presidential election in Nigeria has the worst turnout in Africa.

Several factors have been given to explain the low voter turnout in Nigerian elections. These include voter apathy and the poor economic situation. PREMIUM TIMES also reported how the electoral commission, INEC, contribute to low turnout in recent elections due to the late deployment of officials and materials to polling stations.

Overall, voter apathy is a major challenge in Nigerian democracy. There is a disturbing trend of public disinterest or indifference to electoral and democratic processes.

Commenting on the development, Idayat Hassan, the director of the Center for Democracy and Development (CDD) said the low turnout could be due to the failure of democracy to deliver development.

“Democracy’s failure to deliver development has made many unwilling to participate in elections,” she said, adding that “violence and voter repression also played a huge role in decline in voter turnout.

In 1999, the participation rate was 52.3%. Officially, it rose to 69% in 2003; and it has since fallen, first to 57.5 percent in 2007; then to 53.7% in 2011; before dropping to 43.7% in 2015.

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In the 1999 elections, 30.2 million people out of the 57.9 million registered citizens actually voted. Both the number of registered voters and the number of votes cast increased in the next election in 2003, with 42 million Nigerians registered out of 60.8 million voting (69% voter turnout). The 2003 elections still have the highest turnout since the end of military rule in 1999.

Voter turnout in Nigeria (1999 - 2023)
Voter turnout in Nigeria (1999 – 2023)

In 2007, despite an increase in the number of registered voters to 61.5 million, the total number of votes cast dropped significantly to 35.3 million (turnout of 57.5%). Registered voters and total votes increased further to 73.5 and 39.4 respectively in 2011. Then the numbers fell to 67.4 million and 29.4 million in 2015.

These figures place Nigeria among the 10 countries with the lower participation rate in the world. Rwanda recorded a 98.15 % of electoral participation in 2017, the highest in the world.

“These declining numbers highlight how Nigerian politics and state institutions continue to exclude rather than include,” said Leena Hoffmann, Associate Fellow in the Africa Program at Chatham House in London.

Ms. Hassan from the CDD called on INEC to improve its management of the elections and to undertake an audit of the electoral lists. “Nigeria does not have a voter register audit, an audit that removes those who are deceased and all other ineligible voters from the system.”

“The fact that a significant percentage of Nigerians are not participating in elections is a concern and perhaps indicates growing disillusionment with their ability to shape a more democratic society,” she said.

Nigeria will hold its gubernatorial election on March 11.

Turnout in gubernatorial elections varies across Nigerian states. Data 2019 gubernatorial elections show that many states had low voter turnout in their elections.

READ ALSO: The International Politics of Election Observation, By Owei Lakemfa

Turnout rates ranged from over 50% in Borno, Jigawa, Katsina and Taraba to a worrying 18% in Lagos State, the country’s most cosmopolitan city.

Only a few elections had higher percentages. Some recent by-elections recorded as weak like 3 And 8 percent the participation rate.

Only 10% of eligible voters voted for Governor Charles Soludo of Anambra in 2021.

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