In this piece, KAUTHAR ANUMBA-KHALEEL writes on the feasibility of Nigerians living in the diaspora participating in electoral processes in the country as 2019 draws near
Despite the fact that they reside outside the shores of their homeland, Nigerians in the diaspora have remained major players in the affairs of their country particularly in the socio-economic development through remittances, investments to mention a few. According to former consular-general of Nigerian in Georgia, USA, over 2 million Nigerians residing abroad remitted about $22 billion, in 2012. Also, the World Bank Migration and Remittances 2016 fact book reported that they remitted about $21 billion in 2015.
Nigerians in diaspora have persistently agitated for an opportunity to participate in the electoral process in their home country by calling for the amendment to the electoral act to allow them decide who leads Nigeria through diaspora voting.
Seen to be long overdue, the Diaspora voting rights bill will amongst other things, grant INEC power to conduct elections abroad and enable Nigerians resident there to vote in general elections in line with the Voting Rights of 1965.
Last month, the 8th House of Representative approved the amendment of the provision of sections 13 (1) (c) of the Electoral Act 2006, as amended and Sections 77(2) and 117 (2) of the Constitution of the Federal republic of Nigeria, 1999, which states that “only citizens present in Nigeria at the time of registration of voters can register to vote in any election”.
Expectedly, the amendment generated debates from lawmakers and political analysts who have either welcomed the development or argued that the nation’s electoral body, Independent Electoral Commission (INEC) lacks the wherewithal to incorporate this aspect in its functions. These critics have also cited the financial burden this will lay on the country’s economy given that it will require the expansion of the commission’s operations beyond the shores of the country.
Leading the pack of opposition, chairperson of the House committee on foreign relations, Hon. Nnenna Elendu-Ukeje, who noted the importance of the bill, however cited the challenges in the process given that the country’s electoral body, INEC had no database of Nigerians living in diaspora.
“I recognize the importance and need for Nigerians in diaspora to be able to vote in the presidential election but the problem is we do not have a database of Nigerians residing outside the shores of this country”.
Similarly, political analyst, Jafez Ikenna posits that “Nigeria is not prepared for it for obvious reasons”. I agree that those in diaspora should be able to vote but have we been able to deal with the irregularities that have marred our electoral system? The answer of course is no and if that is the case, how is Nigeria prepared?
“We need to perfect voting within the country before venturing into that. As it is, we do not even know how many Nigerians are of voting age, we do not have a databank of Nigerians and if we lack something that important, how do we plan on diaspora voting”?
The validity of the arguments notwithstanding, proponents of the bill base their argument on the provision of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and in line with current global trend.
Sponsor of the bill, Hon. Eucharia Azodo, in her debate, noted the need to provide a platform for Nigerians in diaspora to contribute to the Electoral process of the country by voting just as they contribute to the development process.
Also, Nigerian born-American educationist, Acho Orabuchi, said the Diaspora Voting Rights are rights long past due and stressed the need for Nigeria to join in the league of countries that give their citizens the opportunity and right to vote.
“For the most part, these countries allow their citizens to cast their votes in their respective embassies and consulates. In some cases, some of these countries are utilizing E-Voting and internet voting to facilitate the participation of their citizens in their national elections”.
Others have argued that irregularities of past elections should not be used as a yardstick to stall a process that will allow Nigerians exercise their civic duty.
According to Hon. Amuda Kannaike-Garba, while Nigeria may not seem ready for diaspora voting, it could step up, test the waters.
“In life you do not consider your current incapacity as an obstacle against what you should do or where you should be. It is true that Nigeria does not even have a databank of Nigerians and that in itself is a major problem but while we are dealing with that, on the flipside, most of these people in most cases, live in societies where there is appropriate data capture, where people can easily be identified.
“I see diaspora voting as a test to take Nigeria where it should be in properly identifying Nigerians. I will rather we look at it as a challenge to upscale our approach as identifying ourselves as a people. If we have just ten percent of our current population outside this country, it must be huge. That ten percent is something we can test run, easily manage and tap into competences that domicile in countries where they reside to prove a point that properly identifying Nigerians and having a databank is the way to go. So let us use that as a template and take up the challenge.
“Yes, we don’t have that capacity but does that stop us from taking up the challenge? No. Let us find out from our embassies Nigerians that are legally residing in these countries.” Garba submitted.
In the same vain, President, Voters’ Assembly, Mashood Erubami opined that Nigeria is ready for the exercise but just need to plan towards it.
“Nigeria is ready for diaspora voting. It is just a matter of proper planning. Once they are registered in our embassies and high commissions abroad, they should be captured in our electoral process to exercise their franchise.
“All Nigeria needs to do is to look at countries where it is working, learn from them and ensure that the system is devoid of ills that has trailed Nigeria’s electoral process. I see no reason why we can’t allow diaspora voting as early as 2019”, he stated.
It would be recalled that President Muhammadu Buhari in 2015 hinted that diasporas voting will still not be feasible as legislation, huge finance, and confidence in the electoral system were required before it can commence.
He however assured that the Federal government was determined to build a reliable data base of the population of Nigerians living abroad as a critical step to harnessing the gains for national development.
“We are aware of the importance of voting rights of Nigerians abroad. But to achieve this, the National Assembly will have to legislate. Diaspora voting is in Nigeria’s future. This is because there is a lot to be done which includes building confidence in the Nigerian electoral process.
“Our electoral process is evolving and as greater confidence is built in the institutions and processes associated with it, we may then create voting opportunities for our citizens abroad in the not too distant future,” he said.
Recall also that in 2016, INEC set up a ten-man committee on the Review of Diaspora or Out-of-Country Voting (OCV) and consequently expressed readiness to allow Nigerians in Diaspora to vote during elections.
Its chairman, Prof. Mahmood Yakubu, who stated this when he received the Senate Committee on Diaspora and Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) at INEC headquarters, informed that the commission had already started the process of studying system of diaspora voting in countries that practice it adding that once the National Assembly amends the constitution, the commission will look at other issues.
“Because election is a legal process, the first thing to do will be to provide the enabling legal environment for that to happen. So it has to start with the amendment of our constitution and the Electoral Act. Once this is done, we can then look at other issues that arise- administrative, logistically, financial requirement of actualizing the voting.’’
It is estimated that about 116 countries currently have a system that allows their citizens resident abroad to fully participate in their electoral process through external voting. 21 of these are African countries; 13 North and South American countries; 15 Asian countries; 6 Pacific countries, and 36 European countries.
Passing the diaspora voting bill will not only afford about 17 million Nigerians living abroad the opportunity to perform their civic duty, it will give them a sense of belonging and boost their will to further contribute to the political development of the country. However, there is the need for INEC to match words with action to ensure the smooth conduct of the process.