Nigeria’s election delay leaves far-travelled voters without chance to cast ballot

The country’s old-fashioned electoral system means citizens can only vote where they initially registered

A cyclist drives pasts a campaign poster for President Muhammadu Buhari in a street after the postponement of the presidential election in Kano, Nigeria February 17, 2019. REUTERS/Luc Gnago

The frontrunners in Nigeria’s presidential election campaigned long and hard, crisscrossing the breadth of this vast nation, making the case for why they were the best man to lead Africa’s largest democratic experiment.

The crowd had gone home by this point, with many travelling to their home states to exercise their franchise. The stage was set for the mother of all elections. Or so everyone thought.

At about 3am on the morning of Nigeria’s presidential and parliamentary elections, with rumours and speculation of a postponement rife, the chairman of the Independent Electoral Commission (INEC), the country’s electoral body, confirmed the elections would be delayed by a week in a stunning moment of drama.

Gubernatorial and state legislative elections, originally slated for March 2, have also been postponed to March 9.

Because of Nigeria’s old-fashioned electoral system, its citizens can only vote at the polling unit where they initially registered. Some Nigerians made long journeys, many of them on unmotorable roads and some by air, to cast their votes on Saturday.

After the postponement, many have been forced to return to their places of residence without casting their ballots, possibly without the chance of travelling again for the delayed election.

Aisosa Urhoghide, an employee of a federal agency in Lagos, Nigeria’s economic capital, is one of those people.

She made the four-hour, 300-kilometre journey to her hometown of Benin city in the southern state of Edo to vote and now has to return to Lagos for work.

“I had to take a casual leave from work on Friday. I went by road because I couldn’t afford to go by air both ways and I was going to come back by air on Sunday,” Ms Urhoghide told The National.

The local airline she booked her Sunday flight with did not take-off due to bad weather, and she made the return journey by road again.

Ms Urhoghide is unsure if she will make the return journey to Benin to vote this weekend.

“Honestly, I don’t know if I’ll make the trip back this week. I don’t know yet.”

Others like Aisha, one of those who made the trip by air, were more fortunate.

The 25-year-old, who works for a women’s rights NGO in Abuja, Nigeria’s capital, traveled on February 14 to her home state of Adamawa in the country’s northeast to vote in the elections.

She is one of the many young people involved in Nigeria's democratic process, a country where more than 60 per cent of its 191 million population are 25 or under.

Aisha, who requested to only be named by her first name, feared she would have to return to Abuja due to the delay but she says her boss was “generous” to allow her work from Yola and considers herself “lucky”.

Because her parents live in Yola, Aisha doesn’t have to fork out extra money for accommodation but it’s not all plain sailing for her.

"I didn't come prepared for that [an extended trip], so it's going to be a bit difficult. I don't have essential documents or my computer and I'll have to do what I can over email on my phone and ask my colleague on the same project for help," she told The National.

“But my work this week will definitely have to be subpar.”

There are valid concerns the delay could lead to apathy among many voters and low turnout at the rescheduled polls.

There is precedent for low footfall in a Nigerian presidential election after such a postponement. In 2015, only 33.5 per cent of eligible voters cast a ballot after a six-week delay caused by security concerns, according to data from the International Republican Institute, a Washington-based NGO.

That represents the lowest turnout since Nigeria returned to democratic rule in 1999, Stanley Azuakola, director at Civic Monitor, a non-partisan organisation engaging Nigerians to vote in elections, told The National.

“I think it will affect voter turnout in a large way. I’m saying this even though I want to be hopeful that it doesn’t. But based on the trends, voter turnout has been dropping over the last election cycles,” he said, adding that only a third of the country’s voting population could decide who becomes Nigeria’s president.

Mr Azuakola, however, says that Nigerians are already used to a “trademark Nigerian planlessness” and would therefore not lose faith in the electoral system despite its flaws.

The vote’s delay, in order to hold one consistent election across the country is likely the better option than hosting a staggered vote where some states vote before others, he added.

Three INEC facilities in Anambra, Abia, and Plateau states were burned down by suspected arsonists in the week leading to the elections, destroying many sensitive materials needed for the polls.

“The failure is spread around and it’s not only INEC. The security agencies also have to be blamed,” Mr Azuakola said.

Beyond voter turnout and credible polls, Nigeria and its people will also feel the impact of the delay perhaps where it hurts the most: their pockets.

Many businesses closed up shop on Saturday and will have to do so again this weekend due to a 6am to 6 pm curfew imposed by security officials to restrict vehicular movements.

In a country with high levels of unemployment and a high poverty rate, that’s hardly ideal.

Yet Mr Azualoka says a credible, delayed election is better than going ahead to conduct a tainted one.

“That would have a much more longlasting, damaging effect on the democratic process than a postponement by one week.”