Participation in the Nigerian Elections is far more important and potent than cynicism

February 23, 2023

On the morning of 24 September 1998, General Abdul­­salam A. Abubakar, the then Military Head of State of Nigeria, took the stage at the United Nations Headquarters and informed the leaders there assembled for the United Nations General Assembly debates and the world at large of his intention to return Nigeria to a democratically elected civilian government on 29 May 1999. Nigerians, however hopeful, had reason to be skeptical due to previous unfulfilled promises of this nature. However, as promised, on 29 May 1999, General Abdulsalam A. Abubakar handed over the reins of government to a democratically elected president in the person of Chief Olusegun Obasanjo. This marked the transition to civilian rule by the most populace country on the African continent. This single move rekindled the hopes, dreams, and aspirations of millions of black and African youths, not only in Nigeria, but around the world.

Unfortunately, many Nigerians are becoming ever more cynical about democracy and its ability to deliver on its promises of development, peace, and economic prosperity. This cynicism that has driven participation in general elections to record lows, and migration to record highs. As Nigeria prepares for the 2023 national elections, it is worth remembering that the very ability to participate in the election of leaders at every level of government, while not a magic bullet is one of the most powerful tools in the quest for self-determination. One that is far more powerful than cynicism.

In the 1999 General Elections that pitted Olusegun Obasanjo the former military ruler against Banker and former Finance Minister Olu Falae, the election turnout was 52.3% of the eligible voters according to data from the Independent National Electoral Commission INEC. That number went up to an all-time high of almost 70% in the 2003 elections that saw then President Obasanjo win re-election. By 2019 elections, it plummeted to a participation rate of 35%. The steady and dramatic decline in participation in the last few election cycles is troubling for a country with so much at stake. The decline in voter participation is well attributed and, on the surface, appears to be driven by cynicism in the democratic process.

The beauty of a multiethnic pluralist democracy like Nigeria’s lies in its citizen’s ability to criticize, admonish and ultimately replace elected officials. So, peaceful dissent is one of the most beautiful features of democracy. When dissent evolves into cynicism and ultimately disengagement from the political process, then it significantly weakens democracy and its intended benefits. A London School of Economics study in 2008 suggested that cynicism can affect the health of democracy, blurring the line between legitimate distaste for an administration with distaste for government altogether. This can have wide implications in the cohesiveness of society. Dissuading people from participating in politics, encouraging them to turn away from credible media sources, inciting people to join pressure groups or, in more extreme cases, resorting to violence against fellow citizens and/or the state.

As the largest black democracy in the world, and largest economy on the African continent, Nigeria wields incredible political and cultural influence. A stable, secure, and successful Nigeria not only shows the rest of African what cooperation, resilience, and commitment to good governance, democratic principles, the amicable resolution of differences, and the rule of law looks like. The best way to show other African countries that coups and counter coups, dictatorship, silencing dissenting voices is not only by condemning, preaching, and sanctioning them; it is by showing that democracy can work in complex and developing nations

When I arrived in Nigeria in 2019, what I found most fascinating was that the people across the country were not obsessed with barriers, they were ‘doers’, creators, and problem solvers. In the 3.5 years since, the country has faced unprecedented challenges; the sharp decline in oil prices, followed by a global pandemic COVID-19 that disrupted the global economy, currency volatility and rising insecurity which has been exacerbated by violent insurgency in parts of the country. Despite the challenges, and they are deep and plenty, several indicators highlight that Nigeria is on the path to progress and democratic maturity. What it needs now is a more engaged, active and constructive citizenry, especially from the 59 million Nigerian youth (18-35) who make up 53% of the total voting age population.

During UNDP Nigeria’s and Yiaga Africa’s #SixtyPercentOfUs campaign, youths were mobilized and encouraged to actively participate in the upcoming elections. Although young Nigerians between the ages of 18 and 34 make up about 40% of registered voters, only 46% of these voters turned out to vote in the 2019 presidential elections.

In my time as the Resident Representative of UNDP in Nigeria, I have been privileged to visit up to two-thirds of the states in Nigeria. I have also had the honor of interacting and engaging with Nigerians across the different sectors of the society from ordinary citizens to the government and the private sector and even the burgeoning creative industry. Despite the challenges that Nigeria has to grapple with, I am happy to report that Nigeria’s promise is brightly lit across this diverse and colorful country.  At UNDP, we remain committed to providing Nigeria with support it needs to ensure that the promise of a prosperous, a more equal and peaceful Nigeria becomes a reality for all its citizens

Despite the number of people being cynical with democracy, the level of cynicism in itself can be seen as a positive factor. It is a positive factor in that it helps with measuring the level of emotions of people based on their age group such as youth and in-turn can be used to convince them on the importance of democracy. I believe that the coming elections present a renewed opportunity to steer the country, and by extension the continent, in the direction of democratic consolidation and economic progress.