Being a Text Delivered by the Leader of Nigeria’s House of Representatives, Femi Gbajabiamila at the Emerging Political Leaders Forum held at the U.K. House of Commons on January 30th, 2018
It is clear that the diaspora community of any country and Nigeria particularly with its potential 20 million votes can only trigger a deal or impact effectively on elections if it has the franchise and capacity to vote.
First I would like to look at the issue of diaspora or overseas ballots from a historical perspective and then examine the practicality and desirability of same in Nigeria, how it can be achieved and then finally what the diaspora community can do between now and 2019 to impact the elections if the right to vote is not secured before then.
Human suffrage, that is the right to vote was expanded during the US civil war in the 1860s to afford men serving in the military abroad the opportunity to vote in US elections though this was legislation restricted to states that desired such. Not so long after the New Zealanders and Austrians saw the need to do same.
In 1942 legislation was passed in US to cover all US military serving abroad; in 1955 it was amended to cover all non military personnel and in 1968 all US citizens that lived outside the country were covered. In 1975 it became mandatory for the states to register all US citizens living outside the country for the purposes of enfranchisement.
Today countries that have in one way or the other adopted overseas balloting in their electoral systems total about 115 and include UK, Canada; France, Spain;Argentina,India,Columbia, Malaysia to mention a few; Africa is not excluded from this list with countries like Guinea and Senegal amongst the proud club of diasporan political enablers. I mention Guinea and Senegal to underscore the oxymoron of the giant of Africa being unable to join this club of pacesetters.
Without a doubt and it must be mentioned, there are sometimes political considerations that inform a country or government’s decision to enact overseas ballot laws. For instance when the idea was first muted in the United States ; the republicans favoured diaspora voting or absentee voting if you like because of the political calculation that the soldiers at war would be more supportive of republicans as the President at the time was Abraham Lincoln. In the other hand the democrats who were more in favour of the confederates opposed it. I will later on expantiate on the political consideration and other factors that may swing the decision in respect to Nigeria, even though these considerations must yield to the fundamental right to vote which at all times must be the overarching consideration.
The right of a citizen to vote is a fundamental and indeed considered by many to be a human right. The Universal Declaration of Human rights in Article 21 declares that everyone has a right to take part in their government of his or her country directly or through freely chosen representatives, whilst the classic and text book definition of participatory democracy is government of the people by the people and for the people. The inclusiveness of all is a feature of democracy so often overlooked. Everyone must have a voice unless he chooses not to. Indeed it can be argued that the right to vote is not just a right but an obligation. Unfortunately in Nigeria today democracy is given by the constitution and taken away by the same constitution that disenfranchises those who live abroad, who are shut out as though their place of residence makes them any less Nigerian. A classic case of giving with one hand and taking away with the other. Strangely and perhaps apt the legendary Nigerian musician who many describe as a philosopher king sang at some point that human rights is his property and you cannot benevolently give him what belongs to him. Profound indeed. This disguised form of disenfranchisement belittles our democracy and excludes a major interest group. It becomes even more egregious when one considers the fact that some of our citizens who live outside the country do so not because they want to but because the government over the years has failed them what we have today is diluted democracy and not democracy in its purest form. Statistics show that only about 30% of eligible voters turn out to vote on election day. This cannot be said to be truly representative. Surely if we add on the potential 20 million eligible voters in the diaspora we can begin to talk of true representation.
Earlier I alluded to less than altruistic political considerations in determining whether or not to actualise diaspora voting. I made mention of the thinking of republicans and democrats in the US. In a multi cultural and diverse country like Nigeria political, ethnic, religious factors can also creep into the decision making process. Should the country embark on a statistical enquiry and research breaking the diaspora population into various demographics the debate will definitely become fiercer unless there is some balance or equilibrium in the spread. Like I said however, political will, national interest and rights of every individual must carry the day and must diaspora voting ultimately must find its way into the constitution and not some electoral Act that can be amended on a whim. It is worthy of note that the constitutional conference a couple of years ago did have diaspora voting as one of its recommendations.
There is a nuclear option in my opinion to this quagmire. I will encourage those in diaspora with locus and you only need one or two to go for a judicial pronouncement on whether or not to compel the government to allow diaspora voting. Some sort of mandamus order: The issues for adjudication should be
1. Whether or not your right to participate in Nigerian elections is fundamental and inalienable
2. Whether or not your exclusion from participation in elections is a violation of your constitutional right to freedom of speech and expression because your vote is an expression
3.Whether or not your exclusion from voter participation is a breach of your constitutional right to freedom from discrimination
In my opinion these three questions can be answered in the affirmative thereby accelerating the process to diaspora voting.
For now there is a limitation to the direct influence those living outside Nigeria can have on the process; However moving forward, 2019 is going to be a watershed moment in our political history. You guys have the capacity to decide whether Nigeria turns the corner and as is often said slow and steady wins the race or whether we shift our gear into reverse. Of course as an APC member it is my hope that its going to be a case of forward ever backwards never. To this end there are still indirect influences. First is finance. We are all conscious of the fact that all over the world money plays a major role in elections. The diasporans are said to remit roughly about 20 billion dollars annually to Nigeria. Now that’s serious financial stake and its time to put your money where your mouth is. It is often said he who pays the piper dictates the tune. Many of us send money home to friends and family now its time to call in favours and leverage on this financial clout. Simple if I am able to influence my Mother Father Brother Sister Cousin or Uncle back home, I can influence at least 10 people around each one of them. You do the math. Though all diasporans do not have to share the same philosophy, if 1 million of you decide on a particular candidate, thats a potential 5 million Uncles and Aunties who can each influence 2 people. Sorry there aren’t enough 0s in the calculus to understand the enormity of this indirect influence and resultant potential votes. Even for those who don’t send money home, you have enough commanding voice to influence others back home: Social media is good but its not enough. Unless of course you are Russia and you have the enormous state machinery behind you. The time is now as the voter registration is going on. No matter your commanding influence, if your folks back home do not register they cannot vote.
Second now that you know the enormous powers you hold, in casting your lot with a party or candidate and before calling home, you must rid yourself of all sentiments whether tribal or religious and consider the issues as is done in these countries you live in presently. If the United States forgot Barack Obama’s color and ethnicity to vote a black man as President then so can we.
Third it is clear that your physical presence will allow you do more than a remote presence. In this regard I want to encourage many of us who can afford it to plan to go home twice in the next one year: First to register and second to vote in February: You will be surprised how many votes you can influence in favour of your preferred candidate. For those who cannot afford it, time to start saving your pennies. The sacrifice is well worth it.
The influence on election results I speak of is not just Presidential which everyone gets all excited about forgetting that the head cannot function properly without the equally essential body parts to complement it. Serious attention must be paid to the legislature and the executive at all levels.
I am aware that there are many who are desire to return to Nigeria to seek elective offices. Luckily the National Assembly just amended the constitution to reduce the age qualification for elective offices thereby opening up the political space. To many it seems daunting. If it means anything I was a member of this community many years ago when I lived and worked in Atlanta Georgia until 2002 when I decided to go back and seek elective office to the House of Representatives. Very few gave me a chance of succeeding due to the political terrain in Nigeria but with dogged determination and a can do spirit with a genuine desire to help in nation building I went home contested against an incumbent and won. You can do the same so long as you are determined and have a sincere purpose. Okay a little bit of money to spend won’t hurt and more importantly the grace of God.
Leader of Nigeria’s House of Representatives.