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The lowest voters’ turnout in Nigeria’s election history: What happened?

The 2023 presidential election is the 10th and the lowest in voter turnout rate in the country’s history. More than 93 million Nigerians registered to…

The 2023 presidential election is the 10th and the lowest in voter turnout rate in the country’s history. More than 93 million Nigerians registered to vote but only about 25 million of them showed up at the polling booths.

Contrastingly, there were 25.4 million Nigerians that voted in 1983. But roughly 40 years later, less than this number turned out: 25.2 million in 2023, even though the current population size of the country is about three times what it was then. What is happening to democratic participation in the largest democracy on the African continent? What is puzzling is that – according to observers of the election from Europe, North America, and Africa – this is the most enthusiastic electorate they have seen in recent times in that voting time stretched into the early hours of the following day because voters were determined to cast their votes against all odds.

So, what happened? One or two of these factors are possibilities at the root of the dismal voter performance. First, either BVAS – Bimodal Voter Accreditation System was effective in detecting, rooting out and cleaning the electoral process of voting fraud such as over-voting, a situation where the total number of votes cast exceeds the total number of registered voters and voting by proxy, a setting where unclaimed and uncollected PVCs (Permanent Voter’s Cards) were used by dubious electoral officers and political party agents in inflating vote counts.

The second possibility behind the reported “low” turnout rate is the suppression of voters and their votes. In this case, the voters showed up at the polling booths but were unable to exercise their franchise. Some were prevented by pseudo technical glitches, logistical issues (e.g. delay in the arrival of voting materials) and intimidation/violence. In other instances, with unabashed defiance, the voters triumphed over the obstacles on the paths to the polling stations and voted, but sadly, their votes were not counted. They were repressed and counted out. And as a result, we expect to see a decline – equivalent to the total number of suppressed votes – in the total number of votes cast.

Decriers of the election results share the second view: the election was utterly rigged, if at all there was an election. It is on this ground that one of the leading presidential candidates is determined not to be blown off course in pressing legal charges in court over the outcome of the election, thereby holding the touch and breeding confidence in his relentless supporters.

It is important to note that one of the big drivers of a high turnout rate is when the election’s stakes are high – the extent to which the winning candidate can influence policies that most voters care about. There is no question that the stakes in Nigeria’s 2023 election are high given that two candidates on the ballot are rife with questionable antecedents and that Nigerians are in desperate need of change in the current status quo as far as the country’s economy and security of its citizens are concerned. To many, this election is a battle between two forces: on one hand the youths yearning for a brighter future and on the other hand the deeply entrenched corrupt old system that has been feeding off the back of the commonwealth of the nation.

However, since the return of democracy in 1999, the tapestry of history has been woven with records of a systemic decline in voters’ turnout.

The highest turnout was 20 years ago during the 2003 general elections. Since then, the rate has been on a steady decline from one election cycle to another. In this year’s election, based on calculations using data from INEC, only 12 (out of 36) states led by Osun, Jigawa and Plateau recorded turnout rates of 30 per cent and above. Rivers had the lowest (15 per cent), followed by Taraba (16 per cent). Borno and Bayelsa had the same rate (17 per cent), trailed by two South East states: 18 per cent and 20 per cent in Abia and Ebonyi respectively; and then 20 per cent in Lagos, Nigeria’s commercial capital. Regionally, the turnout rate was highest in the North Central and lowest in the South West. Overall, the turnout rate in the North – made up of 19 states and the FCT – is approximately 10 percentage points higher than the turnout rate in the South, a region with 17 states.

The low turnout rate is likely a pointer to diminishing claims of lack of confidence by the people in the process that produces elected leaders and the democratic institutions being manned by the leaders that emerge.

One way to boost the confidence of voters and consequently increase their turnout rate is to earn and build their trust in the electoral process. That cannot happen without transparency and the dispensation of impartiality by three key institutions of the government: the electoral body, INEC; the military (police, army, etc) and the judiciary.

However, the executive branch of government headed by the president wields significant power over these bodies. Therefore, to achieve fairness, the incumbency powers of the president must be reduced because the president is either on the ballot seeking re-election or his party’s candidate is. Please note, the Nigerian president has more powers over his citizens (Nigerians) than the US president has over Americans even though the US president is deemed the most powerful office holder in the world.

Why the stark contrast? The US constitution was drafted and framed in such a way that it gives more power to the people (the governed) than to the president and other elected officials. Tellingly, the Nigerian constitution concentrates more powers in the hands of the president. For instance, the Nigerian president has the sole power (without the approval of the parliament) to appoint and fire all the military chiefs in the country, 14 of them, including the army, air force, navy, police, customs, immigration and civil defence. This is enormous power at the disposal of the president with which he can, if he so wishes, use it to clamp down on political foes and intimidate members of the judicial and legislative branches into caving in to his agenda.

If indeed democracy is for the people and by the people, then let the people have the power so that every elected official will always derive his/her powers from the people.


Dapel can be reached via Twitter: @dapelzg

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