As we still savor the euphoria of the laudable provisions of the Electoral Act 2022, it has become necessary to address the growing threat of vote buying in Nigeria. This was most evident in the last two gubernatorial elections in Ekiti and Osun states, which were overshadowed by widespread vote-buying and patronage practices that distorted equal opportunities and seriously affected the voter choice.
Although the new electoral law has made further progress in guaranteeing the financial autonomy of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), the legal provisions relating to campaign finance generally do not guarantee transparency and accountability. The inadequate legal framework and the lack of control, including the absence of sanction mechanisms, have allowed the proliferation of vote-buying practices.
Recent policy discussions have begun to reexamine the discourse of liberal democracy. This is partly because the emergence of liberal democracy in several countries has actually created new paradoxes. Over the past two decades, several pathological phenomena such as local strongmen, godfathers and dynasty politics have emerged in Nigerian democracy. These phenomena are easily found in many countries.
The existence of electoral democracy did not automatically present democratic social and political orders. The change of power through the electoral mechanism still presents an oligarchic elite that hijacks and ultimately dominates the democratic system. Such realities give rise to a pseudo-democracy, a political system and a governance dependent on electoral democracy but the citizens did not have enough freedom and could not access the candidates who won the election. In other words, the chosen candidate has tried to pursue his own interest while being responsible to the citizens he represents.
From the perspective of the candidates, vote buying practices have emerged as there is great economic potential of the contested position. From the perspective of voters, there are various explanations. The most important thing is that vote buying appears because of poverty. This happens because low income creates economic pressure to accept money.
In addition, low educational attainment is also seen as the cause of vote-buying practices. The lower a person’s level of education, the more vulnerable and tolerant they will be towards vote buying. Poor and uneducated people will not have adequate access to information about the political process. Under such conditions, people will easily accept money or goods from the candidate or his agents to vote for them.
The impact of vote buying can be seen from two sides. One of the problems is the emergence of social tensions between people with different choices. Voters tend to find it difficult to reject the practice of vote buying, as refusing to receive money from a certain candidate will be interpreted as having political choices as opposed to the candidate giving the money. The situation becomes more difficult when a person who rejects the money will then be labeled as an opponent by the candidate’s voters. Vote buying, in a particular context, not only produces social tensions, but also triggers violence.
The biggest problem with the practice of vote buying is the accountability of elected politicians. A vote-buying politician will tend to be corrupt and ignore welfare redistributive policies. A study has shown that states that have a lot of instances of vote buying tend to produce governments that invest less in the basic services sector.
Furthermore, political parties lose their dignity as a channel of political aspirations and aggregation of citizens when they are no longer able to convince citizens but rather induce them with money in elections. The end of all this is that people no longer believe in political parties. If this kind of phenomenon continues, people’s confidence in the whole political system will undoubtedly be undermined.
It also undermines bureaucratic institutions because whenever an election is held, parties such as police and other security agencies, politicians and gangsters are in the same boat to carry out vote buying.
Therefore, it is paramount to first call on all stakeholders in the Nigerian project for attitudinal changes in order to have a positive perception of the policy. Indeed, a system of free and fair elections is not guaranteed solely by officially sanctioned legal instruments.
For example, while harsher penalties for rigging may be a panacea, it can only make sense if the enabling legal system is such that justice is assured at all times. This requires the cooperation and vigilance of all stakeholders – the government, the electoral commission, political parties, candidates, the electorate, civil society and the press, who must each cultivate the right attitudes to make democracy work. ensuring that the game of politics is played by the rules.
It is necessary that certain ethical codes be promulgated for all elected officials to prohibit them from displaying prodigious wealth which sends a negative signal to the people that election to public office gives everyone the rare opportunity to amass wealth. This type of signal will, of course, unnecessarily raise the stakes, cause electoral candidates to see the competition as a fight to finish the deal, and therefore heat up the political regime.
On the side of the people, they should avoid those politicians flaunting ill-gotten wealth knowing full well that the money is theirs, but being frequently hijacked by the opportune politicians. They must show respect for themselves and maintain their dignity by ignoring and disrespecting incompetent but wealthy office holders.
Mass media have a role to play in educating voters about their key responsibilities in electing credible candidates. For example, where the media celebrates the moneybags, who use their wealth to subvert the democratic process and good governance, the phenomenon of monetary policy and vote buying will continue to thrive on the Nigerian political scene.
Most importantly, the Nigerian economy needs to be improved to economically empower the people. This is because where poverty is reduced to the bare minimum; voters can then make independent electoral decisions by voting for credible politicians rather than incompetent but spendthrift politicians. We cannot build a strong democracy with the militarization of poverty.
Okeke is Program Officer at the Center for Social Justice (CSJ) Nigeria.