Enfranchising Diaspora Nigerians In 2019 Elections

I READ an 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.

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. 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.

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. 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. Such Nigerians should therefore enjoy all rights owed to the country’s citizens.

While the legal frameworks of many countries in Africa (and 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. 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? 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.

This brings into focus, the appointment of Hajiya Amina Zakari as Interim INEC Chair by President Muhammadu Buhari. 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 Jonathan, Ms. Amina has been the fulcrum of INEC’s restructuring, providing the much-needed foundation for Jega’s reforms.

• Bright Akpom, a public affairs analyst, wrote in from Tampa, Florida.

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