Nigeria’s curious voter turnout problem
Why do Nigerian voters disappear when new technology is introduced at the polling booth?
Four presidential candidates have now filed petitions at the presidential election tribunal sitting in Abuja, meeting the 22 March deadline. They include the two leading opposition candidates – Atiku Abubakar of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) and Peter Obi of the Labour Party – along with Solomon-David Iruobe Okanigbuan of Action Alliance and Princess Chichi Ojei, the only female presidential candidate in a field of 17, of the Allied Peoples Movement.
The petitioners want the results of Nigeria’s 25 February presidential election to be annulled and for fresh elections to be conducted. Both Atiku and Obi are asking that the official winner of the elections, Bola Tinubu of the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC), be barred from participating in another election. Atiku has said the APC candidate is ineligible “by reason of corrupt practices”. Obi says Tinubu cannot run due to his being implicated in narcotics trafficking in the US. They also claim Tinubu failed to secure at least 25% of the votes in the Federal Capital Territory of Abuja, a mandatory requirement for a winning candidate.
“For us in the Labour Party, we believe we won the election,” says Akingbade Oyelekan, Labour Party’s National Legal Adviser. “The basis of approaching the court ranges from [the Independent National Electoral Commission’s] non-compliance with the electoral act to other irregularities.”
Oyelekan says that the electoral act states that results must be uploaded from the polling units. That was not done.
Ose Anenih, the Deputy Director of Polling for the PDP Presidential Campaign, says his party is exploring multiple arguments at the tribunal. He is confident they have enough smoking guns to overturn the result.
“In the first instance, the process laid down by the Electoral Act was not followed,” he says. “The second is that by not complying with the Electoral Act, INEC has taken us back to the days of manual collation thereby exposing us to the days of bad faith actors manipulating physical result sheets.”
“I think votes were artificially brought down through voter suppression and a manipulation of the result declared by INEC chairman just to make it competitive enough to make it possible for Tinubu to be president,” concludes Anenih.
The main opposition parties seem to agree that Nigeria’s electoral body conspired with the ruling party to influence voter turnout and disregard the electoral act, which mandates an electronic transmission of results.
Nyimbi Odero, a Kenyan IT expert who designed some of the most significant tech innovations for Nigeria’s elections notes that INEC failed to manage the chain of custody of results from the polling units. “I have looked at some of the results they published. A large percentage of them are completely illegible,” he says. “These are issues that are so egregious that no reasonable person could presume innocence – and these are problems that could have been anticipated.”
The official voter turnout of 24.9 million announced on 1 March represents a meagre 26.71% of the 93.47 million registered voters. It is the lowest voter turnout since the country’s return to civilian rule in 1999 and accounts for barely 12% of the country’s 220 million population.
A falling trend
The 2023 figure follows a pattern of declining voter turnout that began 20 years ago. Some analysts draw a link between low voter turnout and the introduction of electronic voting systems.
A breakdown of the data on voter turnout in the country indicates that in the 2007 election voter turnout figures fell by almost 12 percent. That year, INEC, the electoral commission, transitioned from manual voting by introducing technology that only applied to voter-screening. Did it inhibit multiple voting – what Nigerians refer to as ‘over-voting’? It’s a moot point: that election was so controversial that even today INEC does not have a state-by-state breakdown of the results it declared.
When no new technology was introduced, however, as seen in the 2011 election, the fall in voter turnout far smaller – less than 4 percent, the lowest since the return of civilian rule in 1999.
In 2015, the Commission introduced Smart Card Reader, designed to checkmate multiple-voting by authenticating PVCs and accrediting voters. Even though INEC allowed for the card readers to be bypassed in places where technical hitches were recorded, the percentage of voter turnout fell by 10 percent. This trend continued in 2019.
In the 2023 elections, with the introduction of BVAS and IReV, the percentage of voter turnout fell drastically to 26.7 percent. Not only was it a fall of about 10 percent from 2019, it was also just about half of the 50 percent benchmark INEC targeted.
Odero, the Kenyan IT expert, suggests that official turnout is falling because the new systems are doing a better job of rooting out multiple-voting.
“I don’t think figures of voter turnout recorded before the introduction of technology are reliable,” says Nyimbi Odero, posing, “How come the voter turnout continuously decreases as tech innovations to checkmate over-voting increases? What it means is that areas of lower supervision are where technology has the greatest impact.”
Just as intriguing are indications of organised voter suppression. “In many parts of the federation, such as Lagos, Abuja, and elsewhere, some polling units never opened, opened extremely late, or had problems getting organised,” says Darren Kew, Executive Director of the Center for Peace, Democracy, and Development at the University of Massachusetts.
Kew, who has observed Nigerian elections since 1999, said that he spoke to voters in Lagos who went to their polling unit at least five times before giving up when voting had still not started.
Ayantola Alayande, a research analyst with media research and data analytics firm Dataphyte, and who was part of his organisation’s election situation room, echoes this view: “It’s kind of difficult to separate the effect of INEC’s subpar administration of election from citizens’ turnout in itself,” he says.
Data from governance NGO, YIAGA Africa, may deepen suspicions of deliberate voter-suppression. Based on reports from its on-field observers across the country, at 9:30 am on election day, one hour after the scheduled opening time, accreditation and voting had commenced in only 41% of polling units. The worst affected regions were South-East and South-South, where the exercise had commenced in only 10% and 29% of polling units, respectively. These two regions ended up with the lowest regional turnouts of 20.92% and 20.85%.
The three regions with the highest turnouts – North-West, North-Central, and North-East with 31.06%, 30.84%, and 28.63%, respectively – had three of the four most prompt arrivals of INEC officials. Commencement of voting in these regions began on time in at least 42% of polling units – more than twice the figure recorded in South-East and South-South.
While noting that correlation does not mean causation, Alayande observes that it proved inevitable that where INEC officials and materials arrived late, voters were disenfranchised. “When you have 1,000 registered voters and, hypothetically, 600 turn up and only 200 end up voting, you have less than 20% of voter turnout in that polling unit even though in reality that could have been 60%,” he says. “This sort of disenfranchisement is what we can term systematic disenfranchisement.”
YIAGA’s Chief Executive, Samson Itodo, maintains that the regional spread of voter turnout suggests that the patterns could have been deliberately engineered. “The materials were at the states a week before the election, so it’s disturbing that the deployment to the registration areas and then to the polling units was very poor, because at 7:30am, when all polling officials should have arrived, the South-East only recorded 6%, the same as the South-South,” he says. “What’s troubling is that those two regions have the presidential candidate of one of the two major opposition parties [Obi] and the Vice Presidential candidate of the other major opposition party [Ifeanyi Okowa of PDP]. It is possible but we have to interrogate, and INEC needs to explain to Nigerians what happened to the logistics for the elections.”
A diversity of factors
Theophilus Alawonde, a 22-year-old Inbound Marketer, travelled over 100 kilometers from Ogbomosho to Ibadan, in Nigeria’s southwest on February 22, determined to vote in the election three days later.
“I left a few days before the election to ensure nothing would stop me from exercising my civic duty for the first time,” he says.
Theophilus was trying to escape several factors, the nationwide cash crunch and the fuel shortage being uppermost in his mind. He is privileged in that sense. In the weeks leading to the election, millions of Nigerians had to make a choice between queuing for fuel or battling their way into banking halls. Experts explain that this may have had an impact on voting day.
Alayande says that a Dataphyte study found that at least 14% of voters were allocated polling units not within walking distance of their homes, making it difficult for them to vote. “Since some citizens still needed to take transport to the point of voting, the fuel and cash crisis created a bottleneck for them,” he says. “If you subtract that number from those that collected their PVC [Permanent Voter’s Card], that’s something in itself.”
Joachim Macebong, a Senior Governance Analyst at Lagos-based Stears, suggests that shortage of cash likely also played into these dynamics. “The cash crunch is something that probably affected the mobility of people,” he adds.
Macebong maintains that to truly understand what happened, several factors must be considered. “We must look at the issues around voter intimidation that took place in some parts of the country as well as INEC materials coming late,” he explains. “By the time we total everything together, we may begin to answer the issue of voter turnout recorded.”
His argument is echoed by other domestic and international observers. BudgIT’s Chief Executive Officer, Seun Onigbinde, similarly points to “a mixture of a lot of things”, emphasising that the credibility of the voter register is also a source of concern.
“We have to look at our voter register and be able to ascertain the true position of the voters. We are not doing an adequate cleaning of the register,” says Onigbinde. “Did somebody relocate? Did somebody die? We have not been able to validate this because there is no proper database of Nigerian citizens who are valid to vote. I think that whatever figure we have in the past might have been overstated.”
YIAGA Africa’s Itodo echoes these concerns. “The big question is what’s the percentage of people on the register who shouldn’t be on the register?” he asks. He too ascribes low turnout to a multitude of factors whose individual impact remains unknown “because we don’t have access to certain data”.
“This is why INEC must provide answers to the public,” he stresses. “I think that in the aftermath of this election, there are big questions and reform issues that we need to put on the table. INEC needs to be open about its procurement process. In other parts of Africa, tech companies that provide services for electoral commissions are known to the public in the spirit of transparency.”