Hyperbole is the currency of presidential campaigns, but this year the nation’s future truly hangs in the balance. The New York Times, 2008.
When The New York Times wrote those words eleven years ago, the United States was in a recession. Lives were changed; haves became have-nots, only comforted by how they used to have. Jobs were lost, millions became homeless and the election that brought Barack Obama to the presidency was the most important in a generation; nay, two. Still, the GDP per capita- average income per person- stood at $48,000. In 2018, the GDP for Nigerians was $2700. But beyond the figures, the actual reality of Nigeria is that Nigerian citizens are more impoverished than their parents were, more impoverished than their peers in other countries are, and worse still, may never escape the vicious vice of poverty that successive bad leaderships have thrust upon them.
Every fear the founding fathers had for Nigeria has come true. Fifty-nine years after independence, the Nigerian state stands (barely so) in a perilous condition and ticks all boxes necessary to qualify as a failed state. The characteristics of a failed state include the inability to provide public services, loss of control of sovereign territory, and erosion of legitimate authority. Sounds familiar?
Today, the country holds the ignoble statistic of being the poverty capital of the world- 93 million Nigerians live in extreme poverty. That means more than the entire populations of Australia and the United Kingdom live under 700 naira per day- i.e one bag of pure water, one loaf of bread, one bowl of rice and bottle of oil. More than twenty million Nigerians are unemployed. More than ten million Nigerian children are out of school. Only a tiny fraction of the entire Nigerian population do have access to healthcare. The stats are grim to consider, and worryingly, the projections are not easy to digest either.
Yet, here we are, at another election cycle. Many of the promises being made are the ones were made half a century ago. As a country, we’re still contending with bad roads, poor healthcare, grossly insufficient electricity- all the issues were topical when Obafemi Awolowo was campaigning in the 1960s. Nothing has changed and nothing will change. Unless…
Unless the disillusioned population gets involved and makes known its disillusionment through the polls. According to INEC, young people between the ages of 18 and 35 make up 63% of the voting population. How then, is a bloc so powerful, is that oblivious to its own power, unaware of what could actually happen if it does wield it?
It is the apathy that has been ingrained in us since childhood, watching our parents line up behind political candidates in hopes that each one would be better than the last and realizing a couple of years later that it’s a more of the same. So we generally abstain from the political process. The few ones that do get involved are accused of doing so in hope of landing cushy jobs as assistants to elected officials. Young people have zero influence on policymaking, zero input to the nation-building process. The rest of us choose sides to tweet at and retweet the disses and curses when they argue.
The common belief is that all politicians are the same and votes do not necessarily count since results would be rigged anyway. That is an understandable position, even if it is easy- a cop out if you will. But it is not the truth. If votes didn’t matter, unscrupulous politicians won’t resort to vote-buying or ballot box snatching, as it’s been done in the past. Nor would the government allocate billions of naira to the conduct of elections.
What is true is that this apathy affords these politicians the opportunity of getting away with bad leadership and irresponsible governance. In 2015, the total number of votes cast in the presidential election was 29 million. The winner of that election and an incumbent president who is seeking reelection (at the grand old age of 76) won by two million votes; he secured 15 million out of the twenty-nine million that were cast. However, more people (37 million) failed to vote even though they were registered, than the entire 29 million that did. If those thirty-seven million Nigerians- who probably imagined that their votes wouldn’t count, or that they didn’t want any of the candidates on the ballot- had voted for somebody else, that somebody would have won by a clear landslide.
The truth of the matter is that voter apathy has far-reaching consequences on the populace. The livelihood of citizens is almost inextricably linked to what the government does or what policies they enact. Refusing to be part of the process of choosing those who represent us, those who make laws that affect our lives, safety, and future; is voting in fact for a doomed future.
Whilst it will border on naivete to imagine that one election cycle would right all the injustices and institutionalized poverty of the Nigerian state, it is as clear as day that postponing involvement for another four years means depriving oneself of the opportunity to start somewhere. Lower turnout simply means creating a result that will be unfavourable to the section of society which refused to participate.
As the polls open this weekend, let us all remember the greatest threat to democracy is apathy. All of the misgivings and mistrust in the system must not prevent us from starting somewhere. We may not have what we want right away, but not voting will only push it further out of reach. That is a misfortune we cannot afford to happen.