When the president of the African Development Bank (AfDB), Akinwumi Adesina, lends his voice to growing calls for the acceptance of diaspora voting across Africa, you know it’s time to pay attention.
It’s not the first time we’ve heard this, and it likely won’t be the last. Only in August 2022, former president, Olusegun Obasanjo, backed calls for diaspora voting in Nigeria. Never mind that he promised to “look into it” when he was a civilian president.
Obasanjo wondered why the National Assembly hadn’t amended laws to allow Nigerians abroad to vote. Let’s see what happened the last time the diaspora voting bill hit the floor of the Senate.
Senate votes against the diaspora voting bill
In March 2022, the Nigerian Senate had the opportunity to pass historic legislation on diaspora voting but voted against it. Of the 92 senators that took part in the vote, only 29 voted in favour of diaspora voting.
All hope isn’t lost though. In November 2022, the House of Representatives’ Committee on Diaspora said it would reintroduce the diaspora voting bill. So, fingers crossed.
What’s the case for diaspora voting?
Section 42 (1a) of the Nigerian constitution which centres on the right to freedom from discrimination states, “A citizen of Nigeria of a particular community, ethnic group, place of origin, sex, religion or political opinion shall not, by reason only that he is such a person – be subjected either expressly by, or in the practical application of, any law in force in Nigeria or any executive or administrative action of the government, to disabilities or restrictions to which citizens of Nigeria or of other communities, ethnic groups, places of origin, sex, religions or political opinions are not made subject.”
Supporters of diaspora voting say that by taking away the right to vote from Nigerian citizens living abroad, the Nigerian government is in violation of the social contract and its very own constitution.
The chairman of Nigerians in Diaspora Commission (NIDCOM), Abike Dabiri-Erewa, said the Nigerian diaspora remitted $20 billion back home in 2021. That’s a very sizeable figure. The number of Nigerians in the diaspora is currently unclear. The United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA) put it at 1.7 million in 2020. In 2017, Dabiri-Erewa claimed the number stood at 15 million.
According to the International Institute for Democratic & Electoral Assistance (IDEA), external voting is currently allowed by 115 countries and territories in the world. Of those countries, two-thirds allow all their citizens vote from abroad. 28 African countries allow external voting but Nigeria isn’t one of them.
[Source: The International Institute for Democratic & Electoral Assistance (IDEA)]
The Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) has in the past spoken in favour of diaspora voting. The commission’s chairman, Mahmood Yakubu , has called on the National Assembly to hasten its passage.
What’s the case against diaspora voting?
Not everyone is sold on the idea. There are worries that if passed, diaspora voting will extend to neighbouring African countries with its porous borders and lax rules.
In October 2022, the Nigerian Army arrested two officials of the National Identity Management Commission (NIMC) for allegedly enrolling non-Nigerians for a National Identity Number (NIN). With concerns over INEC’s voter register and how it’s littered with numerous cases of fake identities, underage voters and multiple registrations, confidence isn’t high in the commission being able to properly implement diaspora voting.
The lack of political will to implement diaspora voting is also evident. In 2012, under the Goodluck Jonathan administration, the bill also failed to pass and was criticised for not clearly stating the type of elections expatriates could take part in, and the conditions under which any restrictions would exist. A decade later, this bill has still not passed.
One explanation given for this lack of political will is that ruling parties don’t think the diaspora voters will vote in their favour during elections. By this logic, granting voting rights to a voting bloc that large might be political suicide.
Is Nigeria ready for diaspora voting?
Nigeria has the capacity for diaspora voting if it has the will to see it through. Many of the concerns about diaspora voting can be addressed through the use of modern technology. After all, neigbouring countries like Ghana and most recently, Kenya, have implemented it and they don’t have two heads. We already discussed how INEC can leverage technology to improve its voter register.
However, it’s also wise to acknowledge that the impediments to diaspora voting aren’t only technological. As long as there aren’t heavy risks attached to manipulating the electoral process with impunity, diaspora voting will be abused. It’s necessary therefore to ensure that whatever laws are passed in its favour should include serious and enforceable penalties for people who try to game it.