Do Nigerians In the Diaspora Deserve Voting Rights?

by L.Chinedu Arizona-Ogwu

Many Nigerians are unable to make it home during an INEC conducted election. Contributors inside “nigeria4betterrule” understand that some Nigerians will be away and we have alternatives for these citizens who wish to vote. Nigerians that are out of this country may wish to vote by special ballot via mail or as can be arranged by the INEC-either to register first before they would be given the voting kit or to vote-online. Voting abroad is something that should be thought about in advance. They should register early before those of us here in Nigeria, with enough time to receive the voting kit by mail and then return it before the deadline. Ballots that are received after the deadline need not be counted.

If they are unsure about whether they should register for a special ballot, or attempt to vote in advance, they should seek for Nigeria’s embassy/High commission’s assistance in that country. By such move, they can be able to help themselves decide the best method to vote. Nigerians abroad should be given the right to vote from abroad?, this government does not put itself out as representing all Nigerians living outside Nigeria. Our position is with the clear majority of 70% on the issue of extending the franchise to Nigerians living abroad.

What benefit will come to Nigeria from allowing the Diaspora to vote? We must emphasize that no one is required to prove their value to a nation before they are allowed to cast a vote. The right to vote as granted to all Nigerian citizens has only two requirements that the applicant registering to vote be eighteen or older and secondly be of sound mind- nothing more. The Nigeria Diaspora should not assume a burden that is not placed on other citizens of Nigeria. If one must insist on an answer to this question just for its own sake, then we can state positively that the act of registering and voting in any election forces the participant to pay attention to the issues; the Nigeria Diaspora will have a higher level of awareness and who knows, their monies and talents may follow their new levels of interest in Nigerian. We conclude that anyone can count the number of seeds in an orange but even the wisest person cannot count how many oranges will come from one seed.

It would be impossible to send some ballot boxes representing Nigeria’s current constituencies to all the remote corners of the world. The electoral Act says that Nigerian citizens shall register as voters for the purposes of public elections and referenda. It is our hope that all the elections anticipated by the Constitution will be extended to the Diaspora. We are not unmindful of the steps that may have to be climbed to get to the point of involving the Diaspora in both presidential and parliamentary elections. Once again, we note that other nations have done this and we can learn from them. In Senegal and Rwanda, their Diaspora initially voted in only Presidential elections. Senegal is planning to extend parliamentary vote to their Diaspora in the second round. Other nations constitute the Diaspora as one constituency for their own parliamentary seats(s). Lessons abound that Nigeria can learn from. No one anticipates sending ballot boxes around the world. Multi-step implementation is a viable solution. There is no record of any nation doing it this way and Nigeria will not be the first. For most countries, the embassies have served as the polling stations with observations by all stakeholders; others have created additional polling stations to accommodate geographic dispersion and concentration. In all cases, their Diaspora has had to travel to cast their votes at the designated polling centres just as people do in Nigeria.

The Diaspora can unduly influence elections in Nigerian and decide something different from the wish of the people of Nigeria. The short answer to this is that the only common denominator of the Nigerian Diaspora is that we all live outside Nigeria’s borders. After that we are each different just as folks living in Nigeria. We hardly speak the same Nigerian language let alone eat the same food, think the same or have the same views on Nigeria’s politics and path to socio-economic development. Once again we can learn from other nations before us. Nowhere have there been unintended outcomes solely on account of their Diaspora vote.

As the Nigerian government is seeking to correct a constitutional anomaly, United States Congress quickly passed the Fifteenth Amendment, which states that “the right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude”. There also, the southern states threatened all kinds of reprisals. In the end, however, because it was the right thing to do, sanity eventually prevailed. Yes, lives were lost. But who can argue today that it was worth the fight.

In South Africa, we know the story all too well. There was Nelson Mandela’s 27-year imprisonment. There was countless number of lives lost. The white establishment was so entrenched that, from the onset, the very idea of fighting apartheid was suicidal. Yet our brothers and sisters did not run away from the fight for their rights because it would make someone angry. If someone seeks to deny you your right, I say you can’t piss him off enough.

The question, therefore, is that are these accurate parallels? We know those fights and their potential for destabilization were much greater than our Diaspora Vote. In all these cases, there is denial of rights. To put it in layman’s terms, one law – the superior law confers upon Nigeria’s Diaspora the right to vote. Yet another law “an inferior law ” takes it away. If this happens anywhere in the world, the subordinate law would be amended if not nullified outright. Our opponents would have us believe that somehow, Nigeria is different.

Our constitution should confer upon Nigerians in Diaspora, the right to vote. This government shouldn’t conflict that law by restricting voter eligibility to in-local residence, a bill that is currently being violate by nearly 99% of Members of the national Assembly. That same subordinate bill goes on to make an exception for Nigerians abroad working in our missions, on scholarships, etc to vote by proxy. It is mind boggling how those who profess to be well versed in law continue not to see why this government must be amended to comply with the superior constitution. Could it be that since they wrote it, it must be “gold”, and therefore untouchable?

Certainly, the implementation will not be easy. But as a nation, we need to look at the group of people “the pessimists” who look at a difficult undertaking and decide to let sleeping dogs lay where they are. Then contrast them with those who approach that difficult situation with a can-do attitude. This is the land of opportunities. We used to be the political trailblazers in Africa. But now Diaspora voting that Senegal, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, South Africa, and many of our peers have successfully implemented with nary a conflict is too hard for us. What has become of Nigeria’s policy implementation?

I was once in Amsterdam .I did not leave Nigeria to escape the hardships and to enjoy elsewhere, I left Nigeria because there were no jobs and when finally I got a job and settled here, I never turned my back on my country as some seem to be suggesting now in this”nigeria4betterrule”debate. All my savings have gone to Nigeria, some through remittances, others through projects. I have built houses that fellow Nigerians are renting and living in comfortably, I have assisted in any way I could. I have bought medicines for the sick and dying where our hospitals lacked those medicines.

I recently paid for a neighbour to undergo a surgical operation at the military hospital at Aba Road, inside Port Harcourt because she could not simply afford the cost! Right now as I am writing I have in my store room six sets of football jerseys, two dozens footballs and basketbal

ls which I intend to distribute to schools in my district the next time I arrive in Nigeria. I pay tax in Nigeria (community levy and property tax), electricity and water bills attract indirect taxes and payment of these come from monies I earn from abroad, we contribute actively towards major funerals and developmental projects.

So who says he is more Nigerian than me? Who says he can vote and I can’t? let him tell me what he has done for his country that makes him more Nigerian than me or why he thinks I have run away from my duties as a Nigerian. Although I did not stay in Nigeria after university and 3 years national Youth service to work, I am fully satisfied with the way things turned out and I see myself as one of Nigeria’s numerous hens which lay golden eggs for my country, I am able to contribute in tangible terms, support my country personally without having to rely on it, I expect nothing from my country except to allow me to perform my duties faithfully to her which among others include voting to choose good leaders.

I consider myself a good ambassador of Nigeria here, so I watch my steps in whatever I do in other not to bring the good name of my beloved land into disrepute. I have acquired new skills experiences and perspectives which my country can richly tap from in future if I am given the chance first through voting. The Nigerian immigrant community abroad deserves the right to vote from polling places where they live. This will legitimize us. This story is not peculiar but one that is similar to every Diasporas. This is our call and duty to our nation, the same way as Palestinians, Syrians, Indians and Lebanese living in Nigeria do for their countries. Remember it is the Jewish Diaspora which makes the state of Israel to be strong through lobbying and direct financial support. Don’t Americans living and working in Nigeria vote in American elections? Then, you must be a traveler. Though your country is not and had never ever been poor. Our “repeated history” also reveals that our nation had never ever been in want of leadership. Why then believe that Imam, the Pastor and that soothsayer that our fortune is at abroad but not at home?

Are we then not poor because we care seriously about that billions of beautiful birds in that bush that we could hardly lay hands on than that lone bird in hand? Nigerians living abroad should be allowed to vote. The electoral act “limits” the casting of votes to people temporarily living abroad. The Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) should have to ascertain how many potential voters there were in each country across the globe. Embassies in foreign countries were typically used for citizens to cast their ballots. The INEC should have to staff voting stations set up at embassies with independent workers. The staff at the voting stations would have to be independent therefore no government workers should be used, the INEC should send independent workers to each country. This could be an added reprieve to the taxpayer as it is very adventurios to fly them and accommodate the workers… the number of staff required in each country or city will depend on how many potential voters are in each city. The voters in foreign countries can then have to be added to the voters roll through registering and this process could take time.

In Nigeria, we know from census data the number of Nigerians in each constituency in the country. Based on Demography we can easily estimate the number of eligible voters in a constituency and hence match it with the registered voters by the INEC. For such reason, we have 2 independent methods of determining the number of eligible voters. This scientific method of verification is conspicuously absent in the case of the Nigerian Diaspora eligible voters. We are therefore left with no choice but depend on voters? List provided by a partisan working through our embassies and high commissions. Isn’t this a prescription for fraud and disaster? Even in the April 2007 election; with so many independent observers, the INEC had to reverse decisions from 3 constituencies. Don’t we think that Nigerian Diasporas voting in over 100 countries in the world is a decision in the right direction?

In addition these advanced countries have institutions that serve as final arbiters in election disputes and these decisions are respected by all. In the US, the Supreme Court serves as the final arbiter of disputed elections as happened in the 2000 elections between George Bush and Al Gore. True, our courts in Nigeria have handled election disputes in the past. But how would they handle disputes originating from distant sites, and depending on the facts of the dispute, different jurisdictions?

For years, Nigerian immigrants, whose weekly financial remittances are vital to their homeland’s economic survival, have argued that denying them the right to vote from their new homes amounts to a variation on taxation without representation. And yesterday, many, particularly those who bankroll the political parties themselves, cheered the imminent change in their status. The voting-rights measure, which is working its way through the Nigerian law-makers and is expected to be signed by its President, would grant even naturalized American citizens of Nigeria descent the right to vote and to run for office.
This will mean that we have not lost our status as Nigerians by coming here and helping our motherland to survive and prosper. Culturally, we are one with the people who remain at home, and legally, there is no reason to make any distinction either.

Can we trust such a government to conduct free elections with its appointed personnel in charge of our embassies and high commissions abroad? I personally don’t and will not want to find out. Even the INEC associating itself with the embassies abroad would repute its independence. To protect and build on our current democratic dispensation it is crucial that all Nigerians see our elections as free and fair. Disputed elections resulting from ghost voters orchestrated by a ruling party using votes of Nigerians abroad can neither lead to internal conflict, armed insurrection nor should military adventurism.All patriotic and peace loving Nigerians therefore take such steps as necessary within the confines of the law to protect and consider the free-air passing of this bill into law.

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