As reported, various groups and learned individuals have expressed their different views on the issue of whether or not Nigerians in Diaspora should be allowed to participate in the upcoming 2015 General elections. While some have expressed support for the proposal, others are opposed to the introduction of Diaspora voting on several grounds.
On 16 December 2013, the Chairman of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) called for the amendment of sections 77(2) and 117(2) of the Nigerian Constitution (CFRN), which presently restrict eligible voters in Nigerian elections to persons eighteen years or older And resident in Nigeria. With the proposed amendment, Nigerians aged eighteen and above resident both outside and within Nigeria shall be eligible to vote during general elections in Nigeria. This concept is referred to as ‘external voting’ by experts in the field. I shall therefore adopt the same terminology throughout this piece.
Although this less than novel idea is laudable and should be nurtured, it must be resounded that this is not the right time for voting by Nigerians to be available without geographical limitations. Undoubtedly, emigrants should have the opportunity to vote. For an enlightening view on this issue, this article (from the perspective of an emigrant) is highly recommended.
1. Who are those in ‘Diaspora’?
Before any discourse on the rights of those in Diaspora can be commenced, it’s important to understand what it means for a person or a group of persons to be rightly said to be in Diaspora. The term Diaspora has been widely (ab)used to the extent that its true meaning is often taken for granted.
Historically, the term referred to Jews living outside Palestine after the Babylonian exile. With time, however, it was generally used to refer to groups of people who left their places of origin involuntarily eg. as a result of ethnic cleansing, strife, persecution, etc. Normally, persons in Diaspora form an identifiable group and they tend to live in communities for example, the Bangladeshi, Pakistani, Albanian and Jamaican communities easily identifiable in London. Now, the term appears to be used to refer to migrants of whatever duration who have left their homes of origin or who have settled far from their ancestral homes (specifically African Diaspora), regardless of the reason for the migration.
It would be logical for INEC to draw inspiration for the definition of Diaspora from the definition used by the African Union (AU). The AU defines Diaspora as,
consisting of people of African origin living outside the continent, irrespective of their citizenship or nationality and who are willing to contribute to the development of the continent and the building of the African Union.
Thus, we could have Diaspora defined as,
consisting of people of Nigerian origin living outside the country, irrespective of their state of origin or geopolitical zone and who are willing to contribute to the development of the country and the building of Nigeria.
INEC, therefore, has to seriously consider what definition of Diaspora it seeks to rely on. Who are those that can confidently be said to be in Diaspora? Are we referring to those who fled during the civil war or as a result of the security issues in Nigeria? Nigerians abroad with a student visa? Those who have work permits and are resident in their host countries? Those who have permanent residency status in their host countries? Those with visitor status on medical of other grounds in their host countries during the period the elections would be conducted? Those with illegal immigrant status in their host countries? Refugees who fled from Nigeria?
How long does a person have to have been resident outside Nigeria before s/he can be said to be in Diaspora? What are the permitted grounds for exiting Nigeria before a person can be said to be in Diaspora? If you are Nigerian only because your grandparents were Nigerians but you are also a citizen of another country by birth (see section 25(1) CFRN) and you have no other ties with Nigeria, does that qualify you as being in Diaspora?
These are few of the questions that INEC has to consider in defining who does and does not qualify to vote externally. As trivial as some of these questions might seem, they are very important and should not be taken for granted because it is a controversial topic to permit those that may be considered uninterested in Nigeria, to have a say in who is elected to run the government, when such Diasporan(s) may not be influenced by whatever policy the elected individual might implement once s/he assumes office.
2. Reasons or motives for the proposal
What is INEC’s real motive(s) for proposing the introduction of external voting in Nigeria? Is it as a result of pressure or requests from those who are in Diaspora (if they qualify in accordance with whatever definition INEC comes up with)? Is it to harness Diaspora resources for Nigeria? Is it to strengthen ties with Nigerians in Diaspora?
The most common justification for the introduction of external voting appears to be one based on principle- the universality of the right to vote. It is based on the argument that for the right to be given effect as truly universal, it must be exercisable without limits- not even geographical limits.
In my humble opinion, this justification is insufficient. INEC needs to justify the introduction of external voting in more convincing terms. As Sundberg (an expert in this field) explained, several reasons may be given for the provision of external voting in a country but amongst the reasons given by those countries that have made provision for external voting, “almost all have been the result of political impetus, and many have been controversial and even nakedly partisan.” Can INEC confidenently convince Nigerians that there are no political or hidden motivations for the introduction of external voting? Why is external voting so important to Nigeria at this time and specifically for the 2015 general elections?
3. The proposed electoral system design
The electoral system design is an important aspect of a country’s institutional framework. The introduction or proposal for external voting is impliedly reform of the electoral system of Nigeria. This is so because at present, voting in Nigeria is done in person, at the polling station where the voter registered, through the use of ballot papers. With the introduction of external voting, therefore the electoral system design would be changed. Does INEC therefore propose a full-scale electoral system reform or is the only reform with respect to the introduction of external voting?
As aptly stated by Sundberg, “Electoral system reform may be on the agenda as a result of vision or a motivation to improve democracy, or for more short-term, sectoral or even venal reasons on the part of some political participants. This is mirrored by external voting, which may be placed on the democratic agenda by those who believe strongly in the equal right of all citizens to participate—or by political forces which see potential advantage in it.” INEC therefore, needs to consider the impact of an electoral system reform, its necessity and also the motivation thereof. While it considers these, the Nigerian populace (home and in Diaspora) should be adequately informed.
During what elections would Nigerians in Diaspora be entitled to vote? Would it be all elections or only specific elections such as presidential, governorship, legislative houses (federal and state levels), local governments? What is the justification for allowing voting during some elections while denying the same right during other elections? How universal is the right to vote going to be enforced?
Further, what option(s) of external voting is INEC proposing? There are three (3) basic forms of external voting:
a. Personal voting at an external polling site in a diplomatic mission- by this method, individuals would vote in person at a designated Embassy or High Commission in their host country or the nearest country, if Nigeria lacks one on their host country. This option appears to be the natural option to be chosen, considering that it is the most straight forward and simplest of all the three options available, especially considering that it would be an easy transition, since voting in Nigeria is done in person presently.
The major problem with this option, however, is the fact that Nigeria is a country divided into to many constituencies for the purpose of elections. The country is divided into states, each state is divided into local governments, and each local government is divided into wards. For the purpose of elections into the federal legislative houses, each state is divided into senatorial districts and federal constituencies. Wherever X registers as a voter, he must vote at that exact polling station. Due to the complicated nature of our present electoral system design, therefore, there can be no room for error.
How would personal voting work at an external polling site? Cognizance of each voter’s constituency, ward, senatorial district, local government area, etc, must be taken. Would this not lead to further complications? How many. Nigerians in Diaspora know what ward they belong to? At best, they know their senatorial districts, federal constituencies and local governments. Do we have the necessary manpower and resources to pay particular attention to detail to furnish a reliable and error-free result?
b. Remote voting by post, fax or some form of e-voting– just the thought of the possibility of adopting this option is laughable. Besides the unreliability of the Nigerian Postal Service, issues of the potential difficulties the collation of such votes might cause are numerous. The most notable problem would be in the course of election petitions- would the arrival of such votes-by-post impact on the official declaration of results? When would elections be said to have officially begun if elections are conducted earlier for those in Diaspora to cater for time difference and postage time? Allegations of forgery and tampering with votes-in-transit would not be uncommon or would such Diaspora votes be presumed authentic? What would happen to votes that do not arrive Nigeria due to unforeseen events?
There are too many obstacles to the workability of this option in Nigeria and a lot has to be done in the future for this option to even be considered as feasible.
c. Voting by proxy- this option is similar to voting in person. The only difference is that it is not the registered voter that votes in person; s/he appoints a representative to vote on his/her behalf. If the hurdles associated with voting in person are overcome, voting by proxy would not be an issue. The major disadvantage do such of such system, however, is that it raises the issue about electoral integrity.
4. Feasibility and workability of the proposal for the upcoming elections
The INEC Chairman has proposed that external voting be used during the 2015 general elections. How feasible is this proposal? INEC is yet to solve issues about voters registration and conducting free, fair and credible elections within Nigeria, yet, it proposes the extension of voting by. Nigerians across borders. This suggestion is not only ambitious, it is premature.
It is not my argument that it is impossible to achieve; rather, it is my position that although external voting can be achieved, it is not feasible for the 2015 general elections, which are to hold in about sixteen months. Before such Herculean task can be adequately undertaken, time must be expended judiciously and efficiently. For such proposal to work, it cannot be rushed. Attention must be paid to every detail, no matter how insignificant it might seem. How much time and resources can INEC efficiently dedicate towards the Effective and efficient realization of this proposal?
If, at home, we still have the problem of useless biometrics database, how realistic is it that INEC would be able to compile a useful database for use externally? I say we have a useless database because I remember registering as a voter during the last general elections- My biometric information was taken and apparently stored on a database but on Election Day, no biometric information was verified before I cast my vote. The only information verified was my face, which was as good as a blur on the tiny strip of paper given to me during voters’ registration, which I laminated with my own money in order to preserve it.
It might be argued that the embassies would have biometric data from passport holders and also because the number of voters may not be so high, it would be realistic to compile the biometric data. In response to such argument, I have only one question- is it the same embassies that do/did not have the necessary machine to issue Nigerians the ‘new’ ECOWAS Nigerian biometric passport, thus forcing Nigerians to come back home in order to renew their Nigerian passport or get new ones issued on their behalf?
It is commendable that INEC is thinking forward and trying to get Nigerians in Diaspora to be involved in the government of their home country. Such provision has been called for by the so-called Nigerians in Diaspora. However, it is my opinion, as well as the opinion shared by eminent scholars and legal practitioners, that such introduction is premature and unnecessary at this point in time. There is time for everything, but unfortunately for those in Diaspora, it is not yet time for them to be entitled to vote externally.
The issue of whether or not Nigerians in Diaspora should be able to vote externally goes beyond arguments for and against the proposal or pros and cons of permitting external voting. Several important issues have to be considered, some of which have been discussed in this article.
External voting should not be INEC’s focus, neither should it be a priority, especially for the upcoming 2015 general elections. INEC should focus on giving Nigerians free, fair and credible elections, not marred by any irregularities whatsoever. Until we can boast of a hitch free and smooth electoral system design, talks of extraterritorial voting by Nigerians should be put in abeyance.
A. Sundberg, The History and Politics of Diaspora Voting. Available at: https://www.overseasvotefoundation.org/files/The%20History%20and%20Politics%20of%20Diaspora%20Voting.pdf
N. Bowden, Should Citizens Living Overseas be Allowed to Vote? Available at: http://diasporaalliance.org/should-citizens-living-overseas-be-allowed-to-vote/
S. Plaza and D. Ratha, Diaspora for Development in Africa (2011: World Bank). Available at: http://books.google.com.ng/books?id=D19Km91e9I8C&pg=PA26&lpg=PA26&dq=countries+that+allow+diaspora+voting&source=bl&ots=jSdNxhO9cY&sig=mYe42rQrPcBPsf7OFrA49vQ55ys&hl=en&sa=X&ei=_J3AUtL5BMyU0QXcxIC4DQ&ved=0CCoQ6AEwATgK#v=onepage&q=countries%20that%20allow%20diaspora%20voting&f=false