Diaspora voting right: Hope rises ahead of 2023

Diaspora voting right: Hope rises ahead of 2023

The long wait by Nigerians living abroad to participate in elections in the country may soon be over given the hint by Chairman of Nigerians in Diaspora Commission (NIDCOM), Hon. Abike Dabiri-Erewa that citizens in Diaspora may vote in the 2023 general election. FELIX NWANERI reports

The quest by Nigerians living abroad to participate in the country’s electioneering process has been a recurring decimal even as more African countries continue to give their nationals in the Diaspora the opportunity to have a say in what happens back home.

Presently, there are about 115 countries that have systems in place to allow their emigrants to vote. The number is still growing with more African nations embracing the option.

A study of countries that allow their emigrants to vote included 21 African nations; 13 North and South American countries; 15 Asian countries, six Pacific countries and 36 European countries. Sixty-five of these countries allow for external voting for everyone, while about 25 place restrictions on it, based on such factors as to whether they intend to return permanently or how long they have been away. Citizens of the United States (U.S,) can vote no matter how long they stay away, while citizens of Britain are disqualified after 15 years away.

African countries that allow diaspora voting include Burkina Faso, Mali, South Africa, Cape Verde, Angola, Senegal, Kenya, Cameroon and Mozambique.

Kenya granted the right in 2013, although she limited the exercise to the neighbouring countries of Uganda, Tanzania and Rwanda – where there are substantial Kenyan populations, while lawmakers in Cameroon made changes in the country’s electoral law in 2011 that allowed some nationals living outside the country to take part in that year’s presidential election.

Senegal and Mozambique had earlier introduced Diaspora voting in 2000 and 2004 respectively. While the former restricted the right only to countries where there were at least 500 Senegalese expatriates, who signified willingness to vote, the latter allowed it only in countries where there was a minimum of 1,000 legally-settled citizens.

Besides granting voting rights to nationals abroad, some of these countries have even gone a step further by allocating parliamentary seats to its Diaspora. For instance, Cape Verde allots six out of its 72 parliamentary seats to its Diaspora; Algeria reserves eight of its own 389 parliamentary seats to its Diaspora nationals, while Angola allocates three out of 220 seats.

The latest African nation to grant voting right to its citizens living abroad is Niger Republic and that was during her general election in 2016. Interestingly, about 7,600 nationals of the landlocked country voted in Nigeria. The Nigeriens voted for their preferred candidates from two Nigerian states – Kano and Sokoto.

However, the story is different in the continent’s largest democracy and economy – Nigeria. With millions of her citizens living outside the continent, the questions have always been: Should Nigerians in Diaspora be allowed to vote? What impact would Diaspora votes have in the country’s politics?

Section 77 (2) of the Electoral Act 2010 (as amended) states that “every citizen of Nigeria, who has attained the age of 18 years at the time of the registration of voters for the purposes of election shall be entitled to be registered as a voter for that election.”

While unofficial estimates of Nigerians living abroad put the figure between five and 10 million, United Nations (UN) statistics puts it at 1.2 million. No doubt, this is grossly underestimated, but the fact remains that it is high time Nigerians in Diaspora are factored in in the electioneering process given their contributions to the economy.

In 2018, the Nigerian diaspora contributed over $25 billion to the nation’s economy through foreign remittances. This is about one quarter of the entire oil revenue that year.

Beyond remittances, they also contribute through investment in productive activities that support economic growth and job creation. The Nigerian Diaspora has been hailed as one of the most educated and skilled ethnic minorities in the United Kingdom and United States. Many of the new businesses that have made Nigeria the largest economy in Africa and one of the most diversified in the last decade are start-ups by members of this group who are returning with better entrepreneurial skills honed while working for top companies and institutions overseas.

Despite these contributions, it has been a long wait by Nigerians living abroad to participate in elections in the country. Many had hoped that the wait would be over in 2019 after a failed bid during the 2015 general election, but the expectation was dashed.

Diaspora voting right, which many believe will offer Nigerians living abroad the opportunity to participate in the electoral process back home was ruled out ahead of the 2019 general polls by the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC)

The commission’s chairman, Prof. Mahmood Yakubu, had during his appearance before the Senate Committee on Finance to defend the commission’s 2017 budget, also ruled out electronic voting.

Yakubu told the Senate committee that until the constitution is amended and necessary logistics put in place, the commission cannot delve into Diaspora and electronic voting. According to him, Diaspora and electronic voting do not only lack constitutional backing, but are also expensive to execute.

President Muhammadu Buhari, had before then said though efforts were being made to accommodate Nigerians living abroad in voting exercise during general elections, it was not feasible at that time as there are still many factors militating against its realisation.

Some of the factors, according to him include legislation, huge finance, and confidence in the electoral system. He then spoke through Vice President Yemi Osinbajo at the 2015 Diaspora Day held at the Old Banquet Hall of the Presidential Villa, Abuja, with the theme “Diaspora and Nigeria Change Agenda.”

His words: “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, because obviously, there is a lot to be done, including building confidence in the Nigerian electoral process.

“The planning of national election in an atmosphere of continued suspicion is a major challenge itself. 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.’’

Despite his position on Diaspora voting rights, the President called for the support of Nigerians living abroad in the rebuilding of the country. “The time has come for talents from home and abroad to mix it up in patriotic zeal to fashion the Nigeria of our dreams,” he said.

The current trend across Africa notwithstanding, the Nigerian government had the support of some individuals then, who then argued that Diaspora voting is not one of the country’s problems at the moment and that its actualisation will not benefit Nigeria or Nigerians in any way.

Some of the issues raised then centred on cost and those who held this view, further argued that there are always consequences for living beyond the shores of one’s homeland. Not being able to vote from abroad in an election, they said, is one of such consequences.

On cost, they submitted that the huge funds needed for Diaspora voting can be channeled to healthcare and its benefits will avail to all Nigerians. They further maintained that for votes from abroad to be legal, every Nigerian abroad must be afforded the same opportunity to vote.

But, some stakeholders faulted these positions, saying that as full-fledged citizens by constitutional definition, it is the right of Diaspora Nigerians to be part of the electoral process irrespective of their location as it is not a crime to live outside the borders of ones’ country in search of greener pasture.

Despite the divergent views, the long wait by Nigerians living abroad to participate in elections in the country may soon be over if the recent hint by the Chairman of the Nigerians in Diaspora Commission (NIDC), Mrs. Abike Dabiri-Erewa, is anything to go by.

Dabiri-Erewa, who dropped the hint late last year at the celebration of the 2019 Ekiti Diaspora Homecoming Reception, said her commission is working towards ensuring that over 20 million Nigerians living abroad are allowed to vote in future elections.

Represented on the event by the Head, Media and Public Relations of the commission, Alhaji Abdur-Rahman Balogun, Dabiri-Erewa argued that since Nigerians living abroad are contributing an estimated $25 billion to the Nigeria’s economy, it was only normal that they are allowed to vote in their various countries of abode.

“With Nigerians in Diaspora contributing so much to the Nigerian economy, estimated at over $25 billion in 2018, we believe they deserve to vote. We are already working with the National Assembly to hopefully make this a reality in Nigeria through amendment to the country’s Electoral Act. We therefore look forward to many more engagements with Nigerians in the Diaspora in the years ahead,” she said.

No doubt the clamour for Diaspora voting right had gained momentum over time; the belief is that citizens living abroad hold great potential to contribute to Nigeria’s development as evident in other emerging economies. To this end, the idea should not be shoved aside because there are likely to be problems. Considering the enormity of the potential voting bloc from the Diaspora, it is not unlikely that it can make a difference in future elections.

FELIX NWANERI / New Telegraph

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We are about democracy, human rights, public opinion, political behavior, civil rights and policy aimed at improving the human condition, with a focus on African countries.

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