Nigeria, the most populous African country, has yet to establish an electoral framework that permits its diaspora community of about 17 million people to register and vote in the country’s elections. The chairman of Nigeria’s Independent Electoral Commission (INEC), Mahmood Yakubu, at Chatham House London on 17 January 2023, explained that although the electoral body subscribes to the idea of diaspora voting, the Nigerian law makes it impossible for the Nigerian diaspora to vote in the nation’s elections. The current legal framework prohibits diaspora voting, stipulating that only Nigerian citizens who are 18 years of age and resident within the country at the time of voter registration can vote at any election. This must change and here is why.
This discriminatory electoral participation based on residency status goes against the spirit of chapter four of the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, which provides for the rights and entitlements of Nigerian citizens to participate in the electoral process without fear of prosecution, discrimination, or hindrance. Nigerian citizens in the diaspora, as full citizens, should be allowed to exercise their right to vote like their peers in other countries. Also, the citizen’s right to vote is a fundamental human right that should not only be constitutionally protected but is universally acclaimed by international human rights conventions that Nigeria is a signatory to.
Moreover, allowing the diaspora community to vote is consistent with global best practices. Surprisingly, when an opportunity for a review of Nigeria’s constitution came in 2021/2022, the Nigerian parliament overwhelmingly voted against the “Bill for an Act to Alter the Provisions of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1999, to Provide for Diaspora Voting and for Related Matters”, making Nigeria and Liberia the only two countries in West Africa without any form of legal allowance for diaspora voting.
The chair of Nigeria’s Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), however, acknowledged the importance of the Nigerian diaspora community, noting that they are interested in the affairs of their country, make considerable contributions to the economy through financial inflows, and are sizable in number. Indeed, Nigerian citizens in the diaspora remitted $60.22 billion to Nigeria in the last three years, according to the World Bank and Nigeria’s Budget Office of the Federation, which has been critical in sustaining Nigeria’s economy, boosting its external reserves, reducing poverty, and helping in the general socio-economic lifting of Nigerian households in terms of food, housing, education, and small- and medium-sized enterprises. According to a Business Day report, “Nigerian migrant remittances to Nigeria in 2018 alone, stood at about $25 billion, being the second country with the highest remittances in Africa after Egypt ($28 billion). This 2018 figure represented 6.1 per cent of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of Nigeria, and translates to 83 per cent of the federal government’s budget in 2018. Nigeria’s remittance inflow was also seven times larger than the net official development assistance (foreign aid) received by Nigeria in 2017, which stood at $3.4 billion”.
Furthermore, Nigerians in the diaspora have played a critical role in attracting foreign direct investments to Nigeria. They have made significant investments in Nigeria’s real estate sector, health, tourism, and agriculture, amongst others, and their impact in facilitating skills and knowledge transfer and mobilizing professional networks in their countries of residence towards the overall development of Nigeria cannot be overemphasized.
Interestingly, the build-up to the 2023 election has seen an increased participation of Nigerians in the diaspora in the political process of the country with many of them actively campaigning for their preferred candidates on and off social media, hosting presidential candidates to town halls, dinners and events in their countries of residence targeted at interrogating the candidates and raising funds for their campaigns. Some of the front runners in the 2023 Nigeria’s presidential election travel overseas to engage with the Nigeria diaspora community to seek their support. It becomes logical and just that the voting rights of such citizens should be protected by the Nigerian constitution and laws.
The Nigerian federal legislators’ refusal to permit diaspora voting exposes a lack of political will on their part and their putting of personal and political party interests above those of the citizens they represent, including diaspora Nigerians. The sheer size of the Nigerian diaspora community, their ethnic, political and economic diversity and their strength give them “soft power” to significantly influence the outcome of elections in Nigeria. Clearly, the difficulty of predicting their political leanings must have played an important role in the decision of the legislators. However, considering the immense contributions of Nigerians in the diaspora to Nigeria’s socio-cultural and economic development, they deserve a chance to vote and choose who leads the West African country.