Tordue Simon Targema
One of the most disturbing illusions in the Nigerian political space is the age-long notion that “votes don’t count”. This notion is mainly responsible for wide-scale political apathy among the citizens, especially the youths who constitute the majority of the voting population. A striking irony with the notion, however, is that those who peddle and promote it are active voters who always make sure they vote at each poll- from the ward to national elections! This irony, therefore, exposes the folly of those who accept the notion and, thus, disenfranchise themselves.
Of course, it is no longer news that the Nigerian electoral process is enmeshed in malpractices – from vote-buying to actual duplication of ballot figures. Yes, the enormity of malpractices in the Nigerian electoral system is weighty and serves to sustain this ugly notion that has become a great source of worry today.
Notwithstanding these malpractices, a fact that cannot be contested remains that votes are still essential and determine who wins the election. Yes, this is a reality, and even a casual observation of the Nigerian electoral process justifies it. For example, have you ever wondered why electoral evils such as vote-buying, underage voting, ballot snatching and massive thumbprinting of ballot papers by thugs all thrive during elections? The answer is simple: it is because politicians understand that the final vote-tally matters most and would stop at nothing to ensure that more individuals vote for them!
As a Presiding Officer in one of Nigeria’s most keenly contested national elections- the 2015 general elections, and as a voter at several elections, both local and national, I have sufficient grounds to attest to the fact that votes do not just count, but that politicians also realise this fact and stop at nothing to get their supporters to vote for them. The desperation they usually demonstrate during election seasons to woo voters justifies this. You can, therefore, refuse to vote at your sole expense!
I served as a Presiding Officer in one of the most strategic elections in Nigeria’s Fourth Republic. A popular candidate with a wide fan margin- Muhammadu Buhari, contested against the then-incumbent President Goodluck Jonathan. Buhari and his kingmakers had convinced the masses that they had all the solutions to Nigeria’s numerous problems- which were, at that time, overwhelming like always. This narrative was supported by the fact that realities proved Jonathan to be a clueless weakling who lacked the strategy and tact to successfully navigate the country out of its numerous woes- endemic insecurity, pervasive corruption and deteriorating living standards.
Despite his limitations, Jonathan had a pool of supporters who still believed in his leadership philosophy, sympathised with him based on his developmental strides, tribe, region and religion, and also had the potent privilege of incumbency! Never underestimate the power of incumbency in Nigerian elections. This made the election one of the most highly contested, as the margin between the two top contenders eventually indicated.
But most striking is the fact that technology was introduced for the first time in the conduct of elections – the almighty card reader! This made almost all the difference and took the political class aback during the polls. The political class, sensing that it would no longer be business as usual, embarked on massive mobilisation and canvassing for votes. Money flew in the air- as it has become the custom with elections in the country, gifts and inducements of all kinds – clothes, foodstuffs, livestock etc., exchanged between the political class and the masses to woo them to vote.
I had an experience as a Presiding Officer that made me believe that politicians believe in voting as the surest way to win elections! Stakeholders in my polling unit tried their best to get me to manipulate the outcome of the presidential election but to no avail. I would tactically tell them that I had a template, and any manipulation of the outcome would go against my template. Although I had no problem with that, the results would be rejected at the collation centre! This would quickly disarm them, and I had my way through without any rancour. That way, I finished the presidential election without a hitch from any angle.
By the second election- gubernatorial and state assembly, I had to contend with yet another challenge! The elite had studied the workings of the card reader and decided on how to manipulate the election, but that could only still be possible if they got people to vote- even if they were illegal voters. A particular stakeholder insisted he would convey me on his bike from the collation centre to the polling unit- some several kilometres away from the ward collation centre, which was equally an interior rural area, far removed from the local government headquarters. I obliged.
On our way, he intimated to me of his ambition: he had hundreds of unclaimed voters cards belonging to his polling unit, which he wanted to use. He observed during the presidential election that voters whose cards were successfully authenticated by the card reader and those that the machine could not authenticate their cards due to one reason or the other were eligible to vote.
The card reader operates at two levels: accreditation, which confirms whether a given card belongs to a polling unit or not, and authentication, which verifies that a voter’s biometric records match those of the card they are carrying. Authentication is usually successful once the card confirms a voter’s thumbprint. Where it fails to confirm, authentication is deemed unsuccessful, but the voter can still vote – provided that the card is successfully accredited. The Presiding Officer then fills an incident report form for such a voter. At the end of the voting process, the total number of successfully authenticated cards and the unsuccessful ones is expected to tally with- or at least, be more than the total votes cast, not the other way round.
The stakeholder pleaded with me to allow him to use the cards he was carrying since both those whose biometric records are successfully authenticated and those whose records fail are eligible voters. When I consulted with my team at the polling unit, I discovered that they had already mobilised and were ready to disrupt the election should we reject the bid. As a confirmation, we had early reports from the neighbouring polling unit that the electoral officers were booted out of the village! The Supervisory Officer had to call all of us and seek our tactical cooperation in the interest of peace.
Stakeholders at our unit then embarked on aggressive canvassing for voters- because I categorically told them that I would not allow one person to vote twice, whatever happened! So they had to pay willing young men with no cards to the turn of N500 per voting to use the unclaimed cards and vote for their political parties. Funny enough, all political parties cooperated and brought their supporters to use the unclaimed cards and vote. We had a peaceful voting process afterwards.
During the 2019 general elections, I had an amusing but similar experience, this time around as a voter and not an electoral staff. The stakeholders of my polling unit had hundreds of unclaimed voters cards belonging to the unit. They undertook to pay each available voter N500 to vote for their parties. My friend was into the game and had to vote as many as four times! In the fourth round, the Presiding Officer warned him to respect himself and not return.
Now tell me: if votes don’t count as purported – or say they don’t matter, why would politicians go that far to get people to vote for their parties? Have you ever observed how desperate political stakeholders are during voter registration? For example, in the first and only voter registration exercise I participated in as ad-hoc staff, I was posted to the village of a one-time Member, the House of Representatives, a very interior village that is hardly accessible.
The ex-Member solely undertook to take care of our welfare; provided our accommodation, a generator for our comfort at night, ensured that we had the best meals and all of that. Why would a man do that if he had known that votes are needless and all he needs to do is manipulate election results during elections?
By my analysis, winning an election in Nigeria today is the responsibility of two sets of individuals within a political party: the individual voters and the elite class. As a voter, your duty to your party and the preferred candidate is to vote – and get as many of your friends as possible to vote for him as well. Once you do that, you have fulfilled your responsibility as a party loyalist and patriotic citizen. Leave the rest to the elite; it does not concern you. Even if your party did not win in the end, the conviction that you played your part- as a patriotic citizen would- is enough consolation.
The greatest disservice many young men do to their favourite political parties and the country at large is to make all the noise on social media while they do not know what a voters card looks like, have never voted and have no intention to vote, after all, wallowing in the illusion that “votes don’t count in Nigeria after all”. This crop of individuals is the major problem we have in Nigeria.
A clarion call to all Nigerian youths as the 2023 election approaches is to disabuse your mindset of this counterproductive notion, register, get your voters card and vote. Votes actually count! Don’t be deceived.
Tordue Simon Targema is a doctoral student at the Department of Communication Arts, University of Uyo, and teaches in the department of Mass Communication, Taraba State University Jalingo. Email: email@example.com.