What explains the low turnout in Nigeria’s 2019 presidential election?

Consider this:

At 35 per cent, the turn-out for Nigeria’s general election in February was the lowest for any presidential (and parliamentary) ballot since democracy succeeded military rule twenty years ago.

Screen Shot 2019-04-28 at 11.14.16 PM.pngAccording to the International IDEA electoral turnout database, Nigeria’s turnout in the February presidential election was the worst recorded among African states (Click on image to enlarge. Figures indicate the most recent presidential election). That is, it was lower than even in dictatorships where presidential elections are often pro forma exercises designed to stroke autocrats’ egos.

Given what is at stake, one would have expected Nigerian elites to do all they could to make sure that their voters made it to the polls. The fact that they did not suggest a major political market failure, or specific interventions by powerful actors to keep voters from the polls.

Adewale Maja-Pearce, writing in the LRB, provides one possible explanation:

Oshodi is one of the big markets in central Lagos with many Igbo traders. To their exasperation, Tinubu shut it down two days before polling, while he strolled around protected by ‘security agents’, i.e. police. This show of power – which had been preceded by threats of new ‘taxes’ on the traders if they proved ‘stubborn’ – prefigured what was to happen when voting began. A lengthy complaint by PDP agents from several of the polling stations described how ‘hoodlums and miscreants led by Musliu Akinsanya … took over the conduct of the election at the polling units … with arms and ammunition.’ They carried other ‘dangerous weapons such as machetes, charms and amulets’ but the police made no attempt to arrest them. Independent observers concurred, as did YouTube, where you can see the ‘hoodlums and miscreants’ casually trashing ballot boxes while voters flee. In other parts of the state many voters simply stayed at home. The result was that Lagos reported the lowest turnout of any state at just 17 per cent of almost seven million registered voters.

I recommend reading the whole thing. It is a fantastic meditation on the state of Nigeria’s electoral democracy.

You would think that voters in Lagos, the wealthiest state in Nigeria (with a sizable revenue base) would have more skin in the game, and therefore register a higher turnout rate. However, Nigeria is no different than most low-income democracies where turnout rates among relatively poorer voters is often higher than among the rich.

Kasara and Suryanarayan explain why this is so:

The conventional wisdom that the poor are less likely to vote than the rich is based upon research on voting behavior in advanced industrialized countries. However, in some places, the relationship between turnout and socioeconomic status is reversed. We argue that the potential tax exposure of the rich explains the positive relationship between income and voting in some places and not others. Where the rich anticipate taxation, they have a greater incentive to participate in politics, and politicians are more likely to use fiscal policy to gain support. We explore two factors affecting the tax exposure of the rich—the political salience of redistribution in party politics and the state’s extractive capacity. Using survey data from developed and developing countries, we demonstrate that the rich turn out to vote at higher rates when the political preferences of the rich and poor diverge and where bureaucratic capacity is high.


Who is likely to win Nigeria’s 2019 presidential election?

So far it appears that the incumbent Muhammadu Buhari will win reelection. According to Africa Confidential:

His street support is still impressive across the north and he remains a force to be reckoned with – even if his APC allies are divided or upset with the primaries or his overall approach to governance. With the powers of incumbency behind him, he may hold the upper hand. Many of the 21 APC governors will also hold this advantage, but more of them will be vulnerable to PDP challengers, especially in Plateau, Kaduna, Kogi, Imo, and perhaps even Lagos and Kano, although these latter two states look stronger for the APC.Screen Shot 2018-11-05 at 3.36.46 PM

Atiku’s deep experience in election matters may outflank Buhari’s APC handlers, but he will need more than just his deep pockets to outbuy or check the APC machine. He will also need to demonstrate genuine public support, mobilised by a major ground operation backed by local PDP networks.

At 71, Atiku is more energetic and comfortable with speaking on the stump than the taciturn, 75-year-old Buhari. That will be important for reaching Nigeria’s social media-savvy voters, who threw their weight behind Buhari in 2015 but have grown frustrated with his slow pace. If the election does end up close, as appears likely, the APC’s control of the security forces may prove pivotal and provoke a crisis. If, however, Atiku does in fact win and the APC respects the result, as Jonathan did in 2015, Nigerians may at least come to feel that elections, however flawed, can lead to change.

And here’s a great report from USIP on the factors at play in Nigeria’s 2019 elections.