Cheta Nwanze, Lead Partner, SBM Intelligence

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What voter turnout data say about the 2023 national elections 13 Mar 2023

Ahead of the just concluded presidential election, the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) announced that it had achieved all-time high figures in voter registration and collection of Permanent Voter Cards (PVCs). This created an expectation that voter turnout in the 2023 general election would also hit all-time high figures.

INEC said it had issued 87.2 million PVCs, although 93,469,008 people had registered to vote. The electoral body put the number of uncollected PVCs at 6,259,229. Data released by INEC had Lagos as having the highest number of PVCs collected at 6,214,970. Kano, Kaduna, and Rivers states were next with 5,594,193, 4,164,473, and 3,459,945, respectively. Ekiti state had the lowest number nationally, with 958,052 PVCs collected.

A regional breakdown showed that the North-West had the highest number of PVCs collected with 21,445,000, followed by the South-West, North-Central, South-South, North-East, and South-East with 15,536,213, 14,603,621, 13,284,920, 11,937,769, and 10,401,484, respectively.

However, voter turnout in the 25 February 2023 national elections in states like Ekiti, Enugu, Gombe, Jigawa, Kwara, Ogun, Ondo, and Osun had lower voter turnout figures than in 2019. Jigawa recorded the largest drop with a 42% turnout, compared to 71% in 2019. Ekiti went from 59% turnout to 33%. Kwara went from 42.3% to 32%. Osun dropped to 48% after reaching 58% in 2019, and Ogun went from 36% in 2019 to 27% in 2023.

Voter turnout is arguably the most important barometer of the credibility of a democracy. It is usually a reliable signal of the extent to which citizens believe their votes play a role in determining how they are governed. High turnout levels show trust in how votes are counted, respected, and obeyed in policy preferences. Conversely, people ignore the electoral process when they do not feel their votes matter.

It is curious how INEC recorded such high rates of PVCs collection and ended up with poorer voter turnout data. Granted, PVCs collection may be driven by the need for a nationally acceptable identification document. The PVC is free, unlike the driver’s license and the international passport. The National Identity Number (NIN) scheme has literally failed. This has left the PVC as the preeminent identification document with the right mix of affordability and accessibility for most Nigerians.

It is also merely academic to argue that the mammoth crowds that were captured by television and phone cameras in polling units (PUs) across the country on 25 February 2023 included people who did not possess PVCs but simply went to the PUs for reasons other than to vote. On the contrary, many people at PUs across the country complained that they could not get accredited or vote for different reasons, although they had their PVCs and were there to fulfil their civic duty of voting.

Turnout is traditionally measured by simply counting the number people who voted in an election. But on the last Saturday of last month, INEC officials simply didn't show up in many PUs. In many places where they did, the Bimodal Voter Accreditation System (BVAS) reportedly failed. Thugs also invaded many PUs, attacked voters, destroyed ballot papers, and carted away voting materials.

Indeed, the 2023 federal elections were set to have Nigeria's highest voter turnout, but many voters were either prevented from voting, or their votes were made not to count. INEC appeared to have incompetently handled the election, and the security agencies failed to prevent the violence that marred the election. Highlighting INEC’s logistical failure, its election officials failed to turn up at the PUs on time. There were reports of gunmen shooting at voters and ballot boxes being snatched. All of these were widespread.

Nevertheless, there was a trust deficit in the ability of INEC to organise a credible, free, and fair election. In a pre-election survey by SBM Intelligence, which sampled 11,534 people, 40% of respondents said they did not trust INEC to conduct a decent election. The concerns the respondents had appear to have been validated. The cases of voter suppression, electoral violence, and failure of the electoral body to use the BVAS machines according to its guidelines depressed turnout figures. Thus, the country continued to steadily decline in voter turnout numbers in its presidential elections since 2003.

Voter turnout and active election participation are vital to developing a democratic system. But sustained voter apathy is corrosive to democracy. It also creates a vicious cycle that increases mistrust in political institutions and makes room for leadership that cannot be held accountable. This comes with high economic costs.

INEC’s failings indicate that it did not deliver commensurate value for the N305 billion approved for the 2023 elections. The budget was 61% higher than what was spent on the 2019 general election. When asked why the elections would be that expensive to organise, at higher costs than are found in advanced societies with much higher wage levels, INEC explained that elections cost more per capita in most transitional or post-conflict democratic countries where the cost per voter averaged $9.00. Cost per voter was $4-$8 in relatively stable but transitional nations and $3 in stable and established societies in the West, Asia, and Oceania.

INEC said it decided to work with a $5.39 cost per voter in the 2023 general election and projected 100 million voters in 176,846 polling units across the 774 local governments in the country. This is how the N305 billion budget was derived. However, INEC is set to record less than half the number of voters over the national and subnational elections. This means it failed to deliver up to 50% value for the budget and should refund the balance to the national treasury.

INEC’s budget represents only a facet of the high cost of Nigeria’s elections. The total amount of money the candidates spend is estimated as multiples of INEC’s budget. It was projected that as many as 35 million votes were available to be bought in the 2023 elections due to the high poverty level in the country. The total money spent on this year’s election is projected to reach N6 trillion. Yet, the direct outcome of the election is disputed and discreditable.

The more significant and long-term cost is the indirect economic impact and entrenchment of democratic failure. A loss of faith in the democratic process leads to a growing reliance on autocratic processes. Non-state actors that are not legally or socially accountable emerge as state institution loss credibility. A culture of violence also develops in tow.

The deep flaws in the 2023 elections and its various implications for the economy and      society call for a rethink of electoral practices in Nigeria. When democratic processes are trustworthy and dependable, strong states can do well on security, political freedom, rule of law, reliability, and trust in public institutions. Rule of law is especially important for economic performance because it means that contracts are enforceable and for the reason that public and private institutions are subject to – and not above – the law. This provides comfort to investors, businesses, and customers.

On the other hand, weak states that emerge from inadequately democratic systems are usually beset with distrust, causing centrifugal waves that pull people away from public institutions and their processes towards non-state actors. Notably, many Nigerians say they are losing faith in the judicial process for validating election results; those awarded contentious mandates tell their challengers to “go to court.” But this could mean both parties hint at a lack of judicial impartiality. The impact of such goes beyond electoral matters.   

If Nigerian elections are to deliver the legitimacy needed for effective governance, INEC has to make sure that all voters that come up to vote are duly accredited and enabled to vote. Their votes should count and not be distorted.

Cheta Nwanze is Lead Partner at SBM Intelligence.