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Cash for Votes: political legitimacy in Nigeria

Corruption runs deep in Nigeria - among parties, candidates and voters. What can be done to develop a democracy free of bribery?

Gram Matenga
11 October 2016
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Nigerian citizens look for their names before they register to vote in Lagos. (Credit: Sunday Alamba for AP/PA)

Nigerian citizens look for their names before they register to vote in Lagos. (Credit: Sunday Alamba for AP/PA)

The problem

Nearly 80% of voters from 36 African countries believe voters are bribed – either sometimes, often or always. In Morocco and Nigeria alone, only 5% and 6% of citizens believe bribing for votes never happens. This is a particularly chronic problem in Nigeria, where in 2007 seven out of ten voters believed that vote buying happens either ‘all of the time’ or ‘most of the time’; nearly a decade later, nine out of ten believe so. Furthermore, 16% of voters in African countries reported being offered money or goods in exchange for their vote during the last election.

Money has become a dominant, determinant factor in Nigeria’s politics. The poor are likely to be victimized by vote buying because their limited means makes them susceptible to material inducements, including offers of basic commodities or modest amounts of money. Vote buying, in its literal sense, is a simple economic exchange – candidates ‘buy’ and electorates ‘sell’ votes, as they buy and sell goods and services.

In vote buying transactions in Nigeria, voters are usually offered money, commodities such as food or clothing, and jobs. In countries such as Malawi, Zimbabwe and Uganda, cash-for-vote transactions are quite limited and exchange of votes for goods and services are most common. For example, in Malawi, the government’s farm input subsidy initiative has widely been observed as susceptible to political manipulation where issuing of coupons for inputs ‘indirectly’ translate to vote buying. The practice rests upon payoffs that are not directly and explicitly tied to reciprocity in the polling booth. the ‘highest bidder’ emerges the winner

According to Nigeria Electoral Act, 2010, Article 130: “A person who— (a) corruptly by himself or by any other person at any time after the date of an election has been announced, directly or indirectly gives or provides or pays money to or for any person for the purpose of corruptly influencing that person or any other person to vote or refrain from voting at such election, or on account of such person or any other person having voted or refrained from voting at such election; or (b) being a voter, corruptly accepts or takes money or any other inducement during any of the period stated in paragraph (a) of this section, commits an offence and is liable on conviction to a fine of N100,000 or 12 months imprisonment or both.” While vote buying is subject to punishment, the attainment of compliance to this legal provision remains a challenge.

Multiple Entry Points for Vote Buying

Unlike in other African countries such as Kenya, Zimbabwe, Uganda and Malawi, where vote buying takes place prominently during campaign period, in Nigeria it takes place at multiple stages of the electoral cycle and has been observed eminently during voter registration, nomination period, campaign and election day. It also occurs at various institutional  levels in the polity – for example, in the legislature, where votes are bought to illegally enact laws that would favour particular individuals or groups.

Voter Registration Period

Political parties in Nigeria understand the importance of voter registration and pay potential voters to register to vote at elections. In this process, many people are mobilized in preparation for the elections. The voter will be paid as much as 500 naira in exchange for the voter card; once bought, the card can be used by someone else to cast the ballot on election day. In previous registration exercises, registration officers sold empty or completed voter cards to politicians of opposing camps and this resulted in accusations of insufficient registration materials. The introduction of biometric chip-based permanent voter cards and Smart Card Readers in 2015 elections are likely to reduce drastically incidents of voter card buying in future elections. While the electronic card readers performed well in reading PVCs and confirming their validity, they were less successful in reading voters’ fingerprints and matching them against the voter registry.

Candidates Nomination and Campaign

Vote buying is also evident during the candidates’ nomination process by political parties. During the All Progressive Congress (APC) presidential primary in Lagos State before the 2015 elections, over 8,000 delegates who participated allegedly made US$5,000 each from the candidates. Delegates were supposed to have received US$2,000 each from the Atiku Abubakar group and also US$3,000 each from the Buhari group. Given that more than 8,000 delegates were reported to have attended the primaries, the competing camps could have spent more than US$16 million and US$24 million respectively on vote buying at the primary stage. The 2015 general election followed the pattern of the previous year during the governorship election in Ekiti State, which was won by a candidate (Mr. Ayo Fawose) who was not widely favoured according to opinion polls conducted before the vote. It was a case of the ‘highest bidder’ emerges the winner.

The 2007 median price of a payment for the actual vote in Nigeria was 2,250 naira, largely because the proportion of large payments the same figures recorded during the period leading to the 2011 general elections. Most importantly, according to the Afro Barometer, many who enter vote buying agreements in Nigeria said they would ultimately defect, that is, by taking the money but voting as they please given the secrecy of the ballot. It is feasible for voters to take the money and not to vote at all. This outcome is especially likely if voters accept inducements from more than one party – facing pressures from competing vote buyers.

Election Day

In the context of Nigerian ballot secrecy, political parties often develop clever ways to monitor vote buying agreements. Realising the challenge of defection by voters on election day and in an effort to ensure value for money, some political parties have devised countering mechanisms. For example, politicians in connivance with electoral officers influence the creation of congested polling centers that will allow for monitoring of how people vote. In this regard political ‘party agents’ are hired and placed at strategic locations very close to the ballot boxes to see which party a voter has voted before payment. The ‘agent’ will give a signal to another party agent to pay at the back, and if the voter fails to vote for the party, there is also a signal. This system was widely noted in 2011 by politicians to prevent defections by voters having paid for their votes.

Stopping vote buying

Nigeria has made significant gains in enhancing the legal framework to guide against vote buying through the Electoral Act 2002, 2006 and 2010. However, there is need to address some of the notable inconsistences and potential loopholes in the Electoral Act. For instance, while section 91(9) of the Electoral Act states that “no individual or other entity shall donate more than one million naira to any candidate, section 93(2)(b) in contraction gives political parties leverage to receive unlimited amounts above the threshold. Furthermore, there is need to enhance oversight and enforcement mechanisms of the law. The proposed establishment of the Electoral Offences Commission which will have authority to investigate and prosecute breaches of relevant electoral provisions including vote buying will be a critical milestone in addressing electoral malpractices. The Commission should be effectively capacitated to enable it to execute its mandate. it breeds cynicism among voters, who feel disenfranchised by a corrupted system that fails to adhere to democratic ideals

Secret ballot is essential for electoral integrity and one of the main devices used to restrict vote buying. There have been efforts by INEC to decongest polling stations as attested by the reduction of such cases in 2015 elections. The principle of ballot secrecy however requires election legislation to ensure that secret voting is not only a right on the part of the voter but an absolute obligation. The provisions in the legal framework regulating control and security of the ballot, as well as the provisions governing the casting of a ballot at the polling station, should ensure ballot security.

Vote buying drives up the costs of elections for parties and candidates, and may prevent credible candidates from running for political office. Most importantly, it breeds cynicism among voters, who feel disenfranchised by a corrupted system that fails to adhere to democratic ideals. While Nigeria has improved electoral laws and invested in biometric technology amongst other milestones, there is a need to enhance the legal framework, the integrity of ballot secrecy, and develop a democratic civic political culture.

This article is published in association with the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, which is seeking to contribute to public knowledge about effective democracy-strengthening by leading a discussion on openDemocracy about what approaches work best. Views expressed herein do not necessarily reflect those of WFD. WFD’s programmes bring together parliamentary and political party expertise to help developing countries and countries transitioning to democracy.

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