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.

 

Colonial education, social status, and social mobility in Uganda

This is from an exciting paper by zu Selhausen et al. in Economic History Review:

This article uses Anglican marriage registers from colonial and post‐colonial Uganda to investigate long‐term trends and determinants of intergenerational social mobility and colonial elite formation among Christian African men. It shows that the colonial era opened up new labour opportunities for these African converts, enabling them to take large steps up the social ladder regardless of their social origin. Contrary to the widespread belief that British indirect rule perpetuated the power of African political elites (chiefs), this article shows that a remarkably fluid colonial labour economy actually undermined their social advantages.

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conditional probability of entering Class I (Kampala)

Sons of chiefs gradually lost their high social‐status monopoly to a new, commercially orientated, and well‐educated class of Anglican Ugandans, who mostly came from non‐elite and sometimes even lower‐class backgrounds. The study also documents that the colonial administration and the Anglican mission functioned as key steps on the ladder to upward mobility. Mission education helped provide the skills and social reference needed to climb the ladder in exchange for compliance with the laws of the Anglican Church. These social mobility patterns persisted throughout the post‐colonial era, despite rising levels of informal labour during Idi Amin’s dictatorship.

Status inversion/disruption during colonialism is significantly under-appreciated as a cause of elite political instability in post-colonial Africa (paper on this coming soon). Ghana, Nigeria, and Uganda are paradigmatic examples of this phenomenon of educated “commoners” butting heads with established pre-colonial ruling elites following independence. 

The authors also call for a more nuanced understanding of political power under British indirect rule:

Although many Ugandan chiefs were appointed as administrative officials under indirect colonial rule and in this way exercised both political and economic power over the local population, our micro‐evidence portrays a society in which access to secondary education and a labour market seemingly based on meritocratic criteria caused chiefs’ colonial power gradually to disappear. This shift, which was helped by colonial land reforms and increased African access to Kampala’s formal labour market, challenges the perception of British indirect rule as ‘decentralised despotism’. It also illustrates how mission education did more to foster social mobility among our sampled grooms than to entrench the traditional privileged classes.

Read the whole paper here (gated).