2019 Elections: The Nigerian Diaspora and The Right To Vote – Bright Akpom

Last week I read a very insightful article by Bukola Ogunyemi on the need for INEC to start preparing ahead for the 2019 elections and the reforms the body should implement before then. One of such reforms he mentioned, and which I wholeheartedly agree with, is the need for Nigerians in diaspora to be able to vote in 2019. The issue of affording Nigerians in the diaspora the same opportunity given to those at home to elect leaders into different political offices has been on the front burner lately, and will continue to generate much interest in the build up to the 2019 polls.

Former INEC Chair, Professor Attahiru Jega

Former INEC Chair, Professor Attahiru Jega

The immediate past Chairman of INEC, Professor Attahiru Jega in one of his valedictory speeches had mentioned the need for continuity in some of the reform processes initiated by his administration. He said: “Electoral reform has just begun, a lot more efforts need to be done. The Justice Muhammed Uwais panel has a lot of good recommendations, which are yet to be taken on board and implemented. Between now and 2019, there is sufficient time and scope for us to be able to ensure that additional reform methods can come in. INEC made a recommendation two years ago for amendment to the electoral act and the constitution to improve the legal framework before 2015 general elections. Regrettably, it did not materialise up to the time we did the elections.’’

It will interest you to know that the recommendation Jega mentioned in that speech is diaspora voting. In December 2013, Jega had called for an amendment of sections 77(2) and 117(2) of the 1999 Constitution to allow Nigerians in the diaspora of voting age to participate in the 2015 elections. A similar call was made in 2012 by Honourable Abike Dabiri, then Chair of the House of Representatives Committee on Nigerians in the Diaspora, when she and six others sponsored a Bill seeking to amend Nigeria’s Electoral Act 2010 in order to grant Nigerians in the diaspora the right to vote during 2015 general elections. Sadly these efforts did not materialise in time for the elections and 17 million Nigerians living abroad were disenfranchised.

Amina Zakari: If confirmed as INEC Chair has her work cutout for her

Amina Zakari: If confirmed as INEC Chair has her work cutout for her

Diaspora voting is not an alien concept in most advanced, and even some developing, democracies of the world; Zimbabweans in diaspora vote. It is a response to the advancing worldwide democratisation agenda, as well as massive economic, social and cultural globalisation. Diaspora voting is currently practised in 115 countries around the world, and indeed 28 African countries have made legal and logistical provisions in their electoral processes to ensure their citizens abroad have a say during elections. And this inclusion in the political and electoral process is perhaps even more important for Africans in the diaspora than any other group anywhere else. Remittances by Nigerians living abroad contribute massively to the GDP of the country. In 2013 alone a total of $21 billion was sent home, making Nigeria the fifth largest recipient of foreign remittances among developing countries and first in Africa.

While the legal frameworks of many countries in Africa (and throughout the world) permit the right to vote for all citizens, in reality, diaspora citizens are disenfranchised. This is because of a lack of willingness on the part of the authorities that organise elections and procedures that will ensure the fulfilment of that right. Because Nigerians in the diaspora bring in substantial foreign exchange through remittances, affording these citizens the right to vote symbolically integrates a key economic group into the public affairs of the nation. When Nigerians abroad are allowed to vote, they feel they belong; it is, after all, an exercise of citizenship and civil duty. It is also a way to make sure that such citizens, especially students and professionals, who are assets to the wellbeing of the country, are not lost to other countries.

The right to vote, as universal suffrage, has been constitutionalised in many new societies, born from political agitation. The fact that, at some point in history, a particular racial group or class was not permitted to vote, does not nullify the fact that such a community had a right to vote then: rather, the right was not being fulfilled. Rights do not cease to be rights simply because they have not yet been confirmed by legal processes. Following the same line of argument, if every citizen of a country has a right to vote, and therefore self-determination, should that right be revoked simply because that citizen now resides in another country? If Nigerians in the diaspora still continue to engage in the socio-economic well-being of their country, they should enjoy all rights owed to the country’s citizens.

Some have argued that amending the Electoral Act will bring much pressure to bear on the human and institutional capacities of INEC given that the electoral body as it is currently constituted, lacks the capacity to conduct elections overseas. But there is no reason, for example, why Nigerians living abroad should not be able to go to the country’s embassies or consulates, and cast their votes in person. This method is already being practiced in Botswana, Cape Verde, Central African Republic, Ghana, Mozambique, Namibia, Senegal and South Africa. Also there is postal voting in which diaspora votes are transmitted by diplomatic mail to the country for counting, as is being done in Lesotho and Zimbabwe.

Which brings into focus, the appointment of Hajiya Amina Zakari as Interim INEC Chair by President Muhammadu Buhari. I dare say if anyone is qualified and equipped with the requisite willpower and experience to introduce diaspora voting into Nigeria’s electoral process, it is Ms Amina Zakari. Since she was appointed as INEC National Commissioner in 2011 by former president Goodluck Jonathna, Ms. Amina has been the fulcrum of INEC’s restructuring, providing the much-needed foundation for Jega’s reforms.

From supervising the Political Parties Monitoring Committee to chairing INEC Planning Monitoring and Strategy Committee, she has gathered crucial insider knowledge of the working of that body that makes her a perfect fit for the reforms needed to make the 2019 elections successful. The structure of transparency and integrity built by Jega is guaranteed to be built upon by Amina Zakari going by the open and transparent recruitment exercise conducted by her for INEC during the time of NSCDC and Immigration scandals. A graduate of Queen’s College, she was exposed to Nigeria’s diversity as a young age, and has gained a lot of international exposure during the course of her career which has enabled her work across political and ethnic divides without compromising her ideals.

INEC together with the Nigeria Population Commission, the Foreign Affairs Ministry and other relevant agencies can start with a comprehensive census of Nigerians living abroad. This gives insight into the geographic spread of this important group, after which a special voters registration exercise can be conducted to ensure their data is captured and included in the voters register to be used for the 2019 elections. In 2109 a 20-year old democracy, Africa’s largest at that, will have no excuse to shut its door against citizens living abroad on election day.

Bright Akpom wrote in from Tampa Florida