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Voter turnout is concerning

The first leg of the 2023 general elections in Nigeria has been concluded: votes have been cast, tallied and winners have been declared by the…

The first leg of the 2023 general elections in Nigeria has been concluded: votes have been cast, tallied and winners have been declared by the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) for both the presidential election and down-ballot federal legislative elections. Nigerians await the second leg of the elections this Saturday, March 11th, as 837 candidates contest governorship elections in 28 states and 10,231 state Houses of Assembly candidates vie for the 991 state legislative seats all across the 36 states of the country.

Daily Trust congratulates Nigeria for reaching its seventh general elections, and thus recording 24 years of unbroken democratic rule, the longest ever in our political history. As a culture and way of social organization all its own, democracy takes years of continuous practice to mature and entrench in a society, particularly one such as ours where post-independence years under democratic government are roughly equal to years under military authoritarian rule.

Of the many categories of stakeholders—voters, election officials, security, media, observers, etc—who participated in various ways or played different roles in the election penultimate week, the performance of the police and other security agencies stand out by popular acclaim. We join Nigerian voters, media and local and international observers in commending the conduct of the police during the elections. We can only hope that the police will not quickly revert to type, but instead build on the generally civil attitude by which they conducted themselves as the standard model in police-citizen relations in Nigeria henceforth.

Also, as many local and international observers have already noted, the elections were generally peaceful throughout the country, even though there were incidents of violence and thuggery in a few places, and even if the outcome of the election still leaves some tension in the air. The election was held in an unprecedented state of insecurity. Before the election, 33 Nigerian states were categorized by several expert observers as being either ‘amber’ or ‘red’, the colours denoting high levels of conflict triggers. Only three states were recognized as ‘green’, denoting very low or no risk of conflict breaking out. That all-out conflict did not break out in most states as was feared is itself a testament to the resilience and resolve of Nigerians to do right by their own country. We, therefore, commend Nigerians for remaining generally peaceful during and in the immediate aftermath of the voting process, despite the skirmishes in a number of places. We also hope Nigerians will sustain this peaceful and law-abiding attitude in the following weeks, as the contests move from the polls to the courts typical of our elections.

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Furthermore, as voters and observers alike have noted, there were late arrival of officials and materials—and thus late commencement of voting—at many polling centres throughout the country. This perennial decimal in our election is not only regrettable but unacceptable, since INEC is one of the most resourced institutions of government in Nigeria. However, there have been no reports of rampant misconduct by election officials during voting, collation or announcement of results at polling units or at local government and state levels of the process. We, therefore, also commend the over one million Nigerians reportedly deployed for duty as officials during this process.

Still, we believe that INEC has a duty to explain clearly to Nigerians and the world why it did not proceed with the electronic transmission of results from the polling units, as it promised before the elections, and why failing to do so did not impinge on the integrity of the final results declared. Equally important, INEC must address the concerns of transparency raised by some of the election observers.

We are encouraged by reports that politicians who lost out in various contests are heading to the courts. This is not just the right way to go; it is the only way to go. And when the cases do reach the courts, we implore the judges to take a long and hard look at only the evidence before them and adjudicate cases without fear or favour, whichever way it goes. Meanwhile, in the court of public opinion, we implore politicians to recognize that few things are more corrosive of democracy than baseless attacks against an election. It breeds political cynicism, depresses voter turnout, robs the incoming government of legitimacy to govern and implement its programmes, and above all, weakens our country’s status among the community of nations.

Nigeria’s democratic institutions, still nascent, cannot withstand the damage that a barrage of baseless accusations against an election can do. Americans are still grappling with the effects of that experience in their latest presidential election; what more of Nigeria with much weaker democratic institutions. All candidates must, therefore, be reminded of their duty of preserving the democratic order and use only verifiable facts and figures to contest the results in the public space, rather than inflammatory or facts-free rhetoric.

We are alarmed, however, that the polls show, once again, that Nigerians are not voting. Of the approximately 93.5 million registered voters, and 87.2 million who had Permanent Voter Cards (PVCs), just about 25 million voted in the presidential election, a woeful 27% of total registered voters in the country. The President-Elect won with less than 9 million votes or just about 10% of Nigeria’s registered voters. These figures reflect the general trend over the past four presidential elections whereby turnout has consistently decreased even as voter registration rises.

This is most troubling for Nigerian democracy because if voter turnout continues to shrink, Nigeria will end up as a democracy without voters, an anomaly of the highest proportions. We, therefore, call on the next President to recognize shrinking voter turnout as a national emergency and work towards resolving it before the next general elections. Finally, if the courts affirm his victory, the President-Elect must recognize the voices of the larger number of Nigerians who voted against him than for him, and appoint to his government the most capable Nigerians regardless of political affiliation. Meantime, congratulations to all Nigerians for a peaceful election.

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