One of the basic element that differentiates Democracy from other forms of government is the ability of citizens to choose their leaders in a periodic, free and fair election.
Eligible voters are expected to exercise their franchise in a manner devoid of malpractices such as voter inducement, violence, intimidation, discrimination and rigging.
It is important to note that Nigeria’s democratic experience right from the first republic has been characterized by one form of malpractice or the other with vote buying or voter inducement becoming a re-occuring decimal. This trend of giving voters money or material inducement to sway their voting pattern is nurtured by the high rate of poverty and illiteracy in the country. According to reports from the World Poverty Clock, 105 millon Nigerians live in extreme poverty, representing 51% of the total population. Also, 76 million adults, representing 38% of Nigeria’s population cannot read and write, according a recent report by Malam Adamu Adamu, Minister of Education.
Therefore, desperate politicians, in their quest to capture power or remain in office against the will of the people have weaponized poverty and illiteracy through vote buying. Some electorates now sell their votes to the highest bidder while others receive as low as N500 to give up their right to determine who governs them. Items such as wrapper, rice, sugar, salt,
seasoning cubes are also used to induce voters by candidates through their agents.
Voter inducement reared it ugly head again during the recently held Ekiti state governorship election. Multiple sources reported how some electorates sold their votes between N5,000 to N10,000 to the major parties in the race. It was so glaring that the anti-graft agency, the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) mobilized its personnel to arrest those involved in act.
WHAT ARE THE DANGERS OF VOTE BUYING?
Vote buying has resulted in the emergence of leaders who do not enjoy the support or legitimacy of the people. These leaders may not be answerable to the electorate because of the understanding that the mandate they hold was bought and not freely given. A political office holder that emerges from vote buying will most likely not provide the needed dividends of democracy to the people, because of the need to recoup moneys spent during the electioneering process. Vote buying also legitimizes corruption and the embezzlement of government funds which, in turn, result in people living in abject poverty and deplorable conditions.
SO WHAT CAN WE DO TO STOP VOTE BUYING?
Vote buying is on the verge of destroying the sanctity of Nigeria’s nascent democracy if something drastic is not done to nip it in the bud. It is almost inconceivable, however, to think the trend can be totally eliminated before the 2023 general elections. But this anomaly can be drastically reduced through the following measures:
1. STRICT ENFORCEMENT OF LAWS CRIMINALIZING VOTE BUYING
A major factor why voter inducement is on the rise is our inability as a nation to enforce relevant laws criminalizing vote buying. Section 127 of the Electoral Act as amended prescribes a fine of N100,000 or 12 months imprisonment or both for anyone cought in the act of buying or selling votes. Unfortunately this provision has not been effectively implemented by law enforcement agents who often look the other way when voter inducement
occurs. The police and other law enforcement agents must be empowered to arrest and prosecute those involved in voter inducement to serve as a deterrent to others.
2. SPECIAL COURT/COMMISSION TO PUNISH VOTE BUYERS/SELLERS
Despite the criminalization of voter inducement by the Electoral Act, prosection of offenders has been a major setback as the conventional courts are already overwhelmed with cases.
To ensure speedy dispensation of justice, a special court to prosecute violators of electoral laws in the country is needed and this should be done in addition to the possibility of having an electoral offences commission to enhance the electoral process.
3. VOTER EDUCATION
The Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) must collaborate with political parties, religious leaders, traditional rulers, the media and relevant government agencies to increase voter education on the dangers of vote buying. The electorates should be informed that by selling their votes, they have decided to mortgage their future for another four years. Voters should be told that any candidate who induces them with money will not provide them with basic amenities such as water, hospitals, schools and road when elected.
4. TACKLING THE ROOT CAUSE
Voter inducement thrives largely due to poverty and illiteracy. Concerted effort must be made by the political leadership to reduce the level of poverty and illiteracy in the land. If voters are moderately informed and are financially stable, inducing them with N500 or a mudu of rice for votes will be very difficult.
Voter inducement is on the verge of destroying the sanctity of our electoral process if nothing is done to curtail the ugly trend.
The electorates must reject any form of
inducement and vote for credible candidates that will provide good governance for the betterment of all.
Law enforcement agents must also know that voter inducement is in the same category as ballot box snatching and must treat those caught in the act as criminals.
With all hands on deck, the sanctity of our elections will be restored and leaders with vision will emerged to provide the much needed dividends of democracy.
Michael Onjewu is a Public Affairs Analyst. He writes from Abuja, Nigeria.