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Sociopolitical paradox of vote-trading in Nigeria

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Sociopolitical paradox of vote-trading in Nigeria

Vote-trading, in this discussion, refers to where a political party, candidate, or interest uses money or money’s worth to influence the choices of the electorate.

Interestingly, what started as vote-buying has since met with vote-selling, resulting in vote-trading. This is what makes the present situation more worrisome.

I have of late come to classify vote-trading into three different levels, like most trading, namely, wholesale, middlemen/middlewomen, and retail.

The first paradox in this discourse is to acknowledge that vote-trading is a direct consequence of the fact that, more than ever before, votes in Nigeria now count and election results are now a reflection of the actual votes of the people.

Another paradox I see is where citizens, as represented by voters (whether at party primaries or general elections) are willing to trade their votes to the votes beneficiaries and still look forward to good quality governance or turn around and complain about what is wrong in governance.

It’s also a paradox that until very recently, we too often focused on the retail level of vote-trading (by the voter at the general election) and leave out the wholesale trader and the middleman/middlewoman. The reason for the above is because the trading at the higher levels is usually done by the elite and typically, the elite protects its own. No doubt, the middleman/woman only existed on the fringe and was usually operating in the dark, until vote-trading became a business sector with its own life.

Paradoxically, this year, there has been a sudden and huge focus also on the middlemen/middlewomen of the vote-trading industry, the party delegates, as against the previous attention given to the same.

The main reason for this attention is because, in passing the new Electoral Act 2022, the National Assembly inadvertently excluded the political elite (elected and appointed public office holders) from qualifying to become delegates. Thus, those who emerged delegates were among the ‘ordinary’, ‘regular’ crowd of party members. Also before now, these delegates were handpicked loyalists of the elite caucuses in the major parties. But the present delegates are very conscious of their powers every four years, and have made it clear that they
will cash out, as well.

Thus, the usual culprit of vote-trading, the political elite, who now felt excluded from the trading, raised the alarm more than ever about the activities of the new kids on the trading block.

In a paradox, therefore, the complaint has not been so much about the trading during the party primaries, but more because it seemed that the money budgeted by the political parties and aspirants this time went to ‘money miss roads’. Some of the sellers of delegates’ votes, on suddenly coming in contact with such a huge amount of money, allegedly given in dollars, too easily squealed or showed off about their loots. I had posited back then that what we had was “DollarGate: when delegate meets dollars!” The word on the street today is that the resort to trade votes in dollars (what was spent so far and is being stockpiled for the general elections) is part of the causative factors for the fall in the value of Naira against the dollar.

It is further a paradox that even though we all decried it, especially in the media and in discussions and chitchats, many generally wished they were the delegates. Thus, members of various communities, traditional, cultural, alumni associations, religious, etc. all wished that their members were dollargates or that such dollargates could be targeted to support their communities, especially during the various ubiquitous fundraising events.

There is no doubt that with the way the wholesale and middle person trading of votes has gone, the retail traders in votes have got the impetus to also involve in the trade without a feeling of guilt and in some cases, raise their asking prices. It becomes worse when people believe that all politicians and political parties are the same and would treat them and the public offices the same way as all others. They then justify being compensated for voting the politicians into office. With such a mindset, the voter who is ready to sell his vote would naturally go for the highest bidder.

It is a further paradox that many of these citizens do not see themselves as capable of intrinsically effecting change in society with the choices they make, even in the electoral system. This is what has further exacerbated the kind of vote-buying we have seen in recent times. The vote-trading has thus gone beyond individual transactions but the architecture often includes community members through cooperation and collaboration, now giving rise to another level in the chain – organised or cooperative retail. This, therefore, makes it difficult for a casual onlooker of the events to be able to identify them.

Sometimes too, the vote-trading may involve the collaboration of or the aiding and abetting by the election and security officials at the polling unit. This could happen either by failure to ensure adequate arrangement to guarantee secrecy of the vote or failure to take steps to prevent those who try to breach the rules. But in looking at this we must however weigh seriously the importance of allowing a smooth process for every voter to cast his/her vote, for the vote to be counted and recorded on the one hand and the need to insist on the rule, including an attempt at stopping or apprehending rules violators, which attempt itself could lead to a breakdown of law and order and possible disruption of election in the polling unit.

Yet another paradox is that even when the electoral guidelines, processes and officials make all the efforts to ensure the protection of the secrecy of the vote, a voter who him/herself is interested or poised on exposing how he/she has voted will find every means of doing so, in collaboration with the buyer, who obviously needs proof of value for money. As I also like to allude, the current process is akin to when we talk about the collusion of two consenting adults to engage in any act, just like in the *** trade.

It would then seem that the election is one huge bazaar where everyone looks to pick something for themselves, depending on their location on the vote trading value chain.

Interestingly, whenever any of the above happens, it is the election management body (EMB), in this case, the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) that gets all the flak. However, the truth is that vote trading is a national malaise and requires the involvement of a multiplicity of stakeholders, agencies, and groups to address it.

The law enforcement agencies, including the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) must ensure appropriate steps to stem or react to incidents of vote trading, before, during, and after each election. I am not sure we yet have records of anybody picked or investigated for vote trading during all the political party primaries this year.

At the root of the problem is the economic imbalance and inequality in our society, which if fixed, would to a large extent reduce the number of poor people whose vulnerability currently is such that they can easily be dangled pittances in exchange for their votes. However, it is also a paradox that those saddled with the responsibility to fix the economy are also the primary beneficiaries of the vote trade – politicians. Therefore, it would appear that it serves their purpose to keep the economy in shambles, in order to sustain the vote trading market dynamics.

We also need to reform our politics and political parties to make them more moralistic in their approach to acquiring power, rather than see the election as a do-or-die process. But this seems impossible as long as there are no dire
consequences for electoral offences and recklessness/ineptitude in government.

Another place to focus on is the excessive amount fixed by political parties as nomination fees. I am sure that one reason many delegates justify their extortion of aspirants must be because they imagine that if an aspirant could pay that much money for the nomination, then there must be more where that comes from and they demand a share of it.

The above also creates its own paradox, because many of these politicians have been known to go a-borrowing and selling personal assets just to fund their political ambitions. In such instances, their primary objective in government is to recoup spent funds for themselves or their loyal sponsors – and as said earlier, these are the same folks the vote-selling electorate depends on to fix the economy, govern right or reduce costs of governance.

This would therefore explain the high cost of vote buying in the most recent elections in Nigeria, including the governorship elections in Ekiti and Osun states where some reports indicate that as much as N10,000 or even up to N20,000 may have been paid for votes in some locations.

While we all take steps to stem vote trading, we must not focus so much on it as the signpost of our elections, to the extent of overshadowing the more positive side of the elections. These positives include the fact that our electoral system has experienced a huge leap of credibility over the last few elections and the various election cycles, the very reason the politicians have resorted to getting genuine votes by all means necessary as one of the preferred vote rigging methods rather than the old practice of relying on cooked-up figures.

Presented at The Electoral Forum Policy Dialogue on Addressing Vote Trading in Nigeria: Lessons from Global Comparative Experiences on Friday, September 2, 2022 at Rockview Hotel Royale, Abuja.

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