Voter apathy to LGA polls heightens councils’ struggle for survival

The recent local government elections held in Lagos and Ogun states have brought to the fore the need to address the recurring problem of voters’ indifference to polls, FRIDAY OLOKOR reports

Since Nigeria return’s to democracy in 1999, elections in the country have been marred by various challenges, such as violence, ballot box snatching, fraud and voters’ apathy. Of all these challenges, voters’ apathy has, particularly, been a major challenge, where elections at the local government area level are concerned. This fact was underscored in Lagos and Ogun states on July 24, 2021 when LGA polls were conducted.

Reports from both states indicated that many voters shunned the polls for lack of interest in the exercise, fear of electoral violence, and lack of faith in the outcome of the elections despite efforts by the Lagos State Independent Electoral Commission to ensure that election materials and personnel got to the various wards early.

The voters’ apathy was so widespread across Lagos’ 20 LGAs and 37 Local Council Development Areas, that YIAGA Africa, in its preliminary report on Lagos State Local Government election of July 24, 2021, said, “Beyond the abysmally low turnout of voters, the elections revealed a persisting capacity deficit with respect to human and financial resources and technical expertise required for successful election administration at the local level. It also revealed the absence of a robust legal framework for LGA elections that can sufficiently guarantee electoral integrity, enable political inclusion and regulate political party conduct in the elections. The election also raises major concerns about the quality of leadership at the local level, the independence and autonomy of local government structure and key institutions like the State Independent Electoral Commission.”

In Ifako-Ijaiye and Agege LGs, presiding officers were seen waiting for voters to arrive for accreditation and voting. A presiding officer at Ojodu Grammar School 1, Polling Unit 017, Abel Obina, said only seven persons had cast their votes as of 11.15am out of 150 registered voters.

 The Chairman of LASIEC, Justice Ayotunde Philips (retd.), blamed voter apathy on the poor campaigns by the political parties.

She said, “The turnout was very low. Unfortunately, that is not our problem. It is the political parties that are supposed to talk to their party faithful to come out and vote. And if they don’t work with us to sensitise their people to come out and vote, there is nothing we can do about it.”

But a former chairman of the Inter-Party Advisory Council and former presidential candidate of the Progressive Peoples Alliance in the 2015 general election, High Chief Peter Ameh, told Saturday PUNCH that the State Independent Electoral Commission is the greatest ‘electoral magic’ imposed on democracy in Nigeria. He said, “The undemocratic conduct of local government elections in Nigeria by state governors in connivance with yes-men state Assembly members is largely responsible for the seeming voter apathy. What is going on at the local government level in Nigeria is a mockery of democracy. There is an urgent need for all stakeholders to work together purposefully to establish the needed environment for good governance to grow and save our people from bad leadership.”

According to him, the Executive Order 10 signed in May 2020 by the President, Major General Muhammadu Buhari (retd.), which outright granted financial and administrative autonomy to the legislature, judiciary as well as the LG authority as the third tier of government in Nigeria was the right step to free the councils and give them the needed independence.

The Chairperson of the Transition Monitoring Group, Dr Abiola Akiyode-Afolabi, said the apathy experienced in LG elections could be due to the formation and character of SIECs and the alienation of Nigerian people from the political process.

“To effectively stem the tide of low turnout and poor quality of the LGA elections in Nigeria, the process leading to the constitution of the SIEC Board must be transparent by ensuring that all electoral stakeholders are involved in the process that leads to the emergence of the SIEC members,” she said.

She blamed the ruling party in the states, saying they determine the members of the SIEC and, as such, skew the process to install their candidates at the local council, which was unlikely to change until the SIEC is independent of the ruling party.

Akiyode-Afolabi also blamed the trend on the nonchalant attitude or lacklustre posture of opposition parties as some of them have resigned to fate ab initio.

She said, “They are often not known to the electorate due to their unattractive campaign strategy as well as their inability to mobilise voters for support ahead of elections. Though the essence of democracy is about choice, the ruling parties are found to muzzle the opposition by intimidating them using the state apparatus.

“The ruling party also takes advantage of their access to state resources which they deploy effectively in the process during the campaign and on election day. In Lagos, for example, some of the SIEC members are sympathetic to the ruling party while the situation is the same in Ogun state.

“As a result, the attention and priorities that are supposed to be accorded to the LG elections by stakeholders are not there. This has always been across the country.”

The TMG chair said  beyond the abysmally low turnout of voters, the LG elections revealed a persisting capacity deficit with respect to human and financial resources and technical expertise needed for standard election administration at the local level. She said, “The legal framework for elections at the local level is not sufficient to guarantee electoral integrity, which will ensure political inclusion and dictate political party conduct in the elections. The leadership question at the local level is also a major concern.”


But for the National Secretary of Inter-party Advisory Council, Major Agbo, what happened in Lagos and Ogun states on July 24, 2021 in the name of local council elections “was not only a charade and an aberration” but also a deliberate push towards further ridiculing democracy in Nigeria.

He said Nigerians have lost faith in the system as ‘selected’ candidates would not be by the majority. Agbo said, “A major challenge with our elections in Nigeria lately is that of voter apathy. The confidence of voters, as seen in Lagos and Ogun, is seriously eroded in the process and this has constituted a serious bane and made voters look the other way on the day of the election. Nigerians no longer go out to vote due to lack of faith in the system and the belief that their choices, as expressed in voting, are not reflected in the outcomes.”

He warned that unless something was done urgently to change the negative narrative and rekindle the hopes of voters, “we may be heading to a point where there would be zero voting in future.”

An expert in election trends and Head, Department of Political Science at the University of Jos, Dr Major Adeyi, expressed concern that voter apathy is fast becoming a consistent negative feature in the African political space, adding that the trend is beyond Nigeria. To reverse the situation, he suggested that effective voter education should be put in place by democratic institutions, while election tribunals should not be the temple of the ruling class, but the home of justice for all.

The UNIJOS don, who advanced many reasons for the attitude, submitted that voters with no political education would demand and accept material inducements before voting as they see nothing wrong with selling their votes. Adeyi noted that many citizens think that they are doing the politicians or their parties a favour by going to vote, hence, the demand for gratification.  He suggested that in Nigeria, the Independent National Electoral Commission should work with the National Orientation Agency at all levels of government to create political consciousness in the land. He called on INEC to engage political parties on how they can improve internal party democracy which will translate into effective participation.

Adeyi added, “Some of our people have the mindset that their votes would not count, and so would not waste time voting. Those who are conscious are afraid of COVID-19 and electoral violence because going to the polling centre is like going to the war front.

“We also have those who desire to vote, but their past experience of not locating their polling units, names missing on voters’ registers and so many irregularities. These voters have to think twice before going into the ‘war of voting,’ hence apathy.

“Finally, let us ask ourselves: Are voters satisfied with the political parties and candidates they voted for in the previous election? The ruling parties across the nation rig the election before the elections. They impose candidates, and the aggrieved instead of going violent, boycott the election.”

The Director of Programmes in Yiaga Africa, Cynthia Mbamalu, told Saturday PUNCH that low voter turnout in elections remained a major threat to electoral democracy in Nigeria. She said the more voters stayed away from elections, the graver the level of impunity by the political class whose goal is only to hold onto power.

Mbamalu said, “Over time, much focus has been on the national elections and INEC. In 22 years of democracy, the investment in Nigeria’s electoral democracy has been channeled mostly towards building INEC and the electoral process at the national level with less focus on SIECs and LG elections. This has left a huge capacity deficit within the SIECs and has also left the LGA electoral process without independent oversight and active stakeholder engagement.

“Secondly, the lack of local government autonomy is the biggest threat to democracy at the local level with state governors wielding overbearing power over the LGs and determining who gets into an office or when LG elections will be held.

“Third is the growing discontentment of citizens with government and loss of confidence in the SIECs and electoral process at the local level. The absence of governance and accountability at the local level, the lack of democratic rule and growing social challenges amidst government waste and corruption continually discourage citizens’ participation.”

The Chairman, FCT Council of the Nigeria Union of Journalists, Emmanuel Ogbeche, shared similar views with other respondents. According to him, the scenario in Lagos and Ogun states, just like in some other states that have managed to hold LG elections, speaks to the broader discontent and lack of faith at that level of governance. He said the situation where only the federal and state governments were seen as the real providers of “democratic dividends” and patronage was also another factor for voters’ lack of interest.

Most Nigerians, he said, believe that council officials were just “errand boys” for governors, owing to their emasculation financially by the designs of governors through joint accounts.

Ogbeche said, “People simply shrug their shoulders and say no need to waste their time as they believe the elections will be blatantly rigged. The first step is to ensure the real financial autonomy of councils to make them functional in responding to the needs of the people.

“Political parties need to invest in the local process and sponsor candidates and not bothered only about state and federal elections. The SIECs should be stripped of the authority to conduct polls. INEC should be wholly responsible, to safeguard the integrity of the elections.”