Democracy for Sale

Almost every election in Africa comes with heightened tension because of the possibilities of post-election violence that most of the time leads to the destruction of lives and properties. Elections in most African countries have historically been blighted by fraud, intimidation, and politically motivated violence. As a result, many organizations and governments put a lot of resources into trying to stop or minimize the challenges that come with elections in Africa.

It is a tradition to have a barrage of awareness and advocacy campaigns appealing for a violence-free election and for citizens not to sell their votes. As usual, during the election season, both local and international organizations are doing a tremendous job of pushing these campaigns with the hope that the 2019 Nigerian general elections will be free and fair with little or no violence.

These campaigns are, however, targeted mainly at the masses because it is perceived that they are the key perpetrators of election violence and are also the ones that sell their votes. While this perception based on past elections is true, the fact is that the increasing incidence of election violence is not being addressed. Furthermore, the root causes of buying and selling of votes is completely overlooked.

Poverty is Gold

There is a close relationship between poverty, election violence, and vote buying/ selling. For the politicians, this is gold. Poverty plays a crucial role in vote selling and post-election violence in Nigeria and the politicians are aware of this fact. They know that the poor standard of living has driven majority of the people into extreme poverty to the extent that the people are willing to sell their future for a paltry amount. 

According to the World Data Lab, an estimated 87 million people in Nigeria now live below the extreme poverty line of $1.90 a day.  This number makes up about 44 percent of the country’s population. Based on that data, nearly six Nigerians fall below the extreme poverty line every minute. 

Vote buying and selling originate from the fact that there is a failed system that makes it possible for the politicians and their agents to buy, and for the people to sell and make some quick money. Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be any campaigns that appeal to the politicians not to make such offers for vote buying.

In Nigeria, vote buying and selling also involves obtaining people’s permanent voters’ cards (PVC). In this case, the voting card becomes the property of whoever paid for it and is used exclusively to vote for that aspirant. You might wonder how that is possible since only the rightful owner is able to use the PVC, as it carries the biometric data of the owner.

During the 2015 elections, there were lots of irregularities that were overlooked by both local and international organizations. The most visible of them was the failure of voting tools to function in full capacity. While most of the card readers identified PVCs as original cards, registered in specific voting units, most frequently the biometric part of the card readers failed to make a match between the card and the thumbprint of the card owner. As a result, most of the election officers abandoned the biometric verification process because the thumbprint recognition part of the biometric equipment simply didn’t work. The malfunction of the biometric verification machine opened the floodgates to multiple voting by any individual in possession of PVCs.   

One is therefore left to wonder if some aspirants and political parties had foreknowledge about the deficiency of the biometric verification part of the card readers and as a result stocked up on PVCs. Agents of aspirants and political parties bought PVCs before and during elections for as low as N5, 000 (approximately $34 then). In some cases, stealing and selling PVCs became a brisk business, while others willingly and intentionally sold theirs and saw it as “the only dividend of democracy they will ever enjoy”. Some thought the money was better than standing under the hot scorching sun for an election that has already been decided by the powers that be.

Recently, the governorship election in Ekiti, a south western Nigerian state, was characterized by a pervasive buying and selling of votes. There were reports of political party agents and affiliates openly buying votes on Election Day in voting units. Agents bought, people sold, and everything went back to being normal.

In addressing part of the challenges that give room for vote buying and selling, the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) has to rectify the malfunction witnessed with the biometric verification of voters in 2015. Local and international organizations and groups must insist that only voters whose biometrics has been verified will be eligible to vote.

Fix It

Vote buying and selling as well as instigating and financing election violence are criminal acts that obstruct and undermine the Nigerian democracy. This criminal act is not new to Nigerian elections and politicians but the fact that this criminal act is now a normal phenomenon means the fragile democracy in Nigeria will continue to be obstructed and undermined.

As long as perpetrators of these heinous acts are not held accountable and brought to justice, they will brazenly continue to take advantage of the people and drive the democratic process into a quagmire. Both international and especially local groups and organizations are saddled with the responsibility to stand against any form of vote buying and election violence and must demand justice for anyone caught in the act.

Election campaigns should target the masses but also the politicians, political parties and agents. If politicians don’t instigate and finance election violence there will be none. If they don’t offer to buy votes and provide the funds to buy votes there will be no selling of votes. To minimize the challenge of vote buying and selling INEC needs to fix the biometric part of the card readers and ensure that only individuals who have successfully gone through the card and biometric verification are eligible to vote. So, while it is important to enlighten and engage the masses, it is also more important to engage politicians and their platforms.