Cheap votes and political olympics
If you can find the time this year, I ask you to do something – detach yourself from Nigerian politics for a while and just observe all that is going on from a safe distance. With just over a year to elections, whether or not you go near politics, politics will come near you. It is going to be everywhere – on television, radio, social media, beer parlours and newspaper vendor stands. Nigerian politicians might not understand democracy or basic governance but they are very good at playing politics as a game.
But, all things being equal, Nigeria remains a going concern. As bad as things are, the country is not about to blow up and all the citizens of the country asked to go somewhere else. Bad governance can last for a very long time while a country remains – Guatemala has not really known good governance for 400 years and counting. So, if Nigeria can remain as it is for a long time, there is nothing to lose by taking a long-term view of the country – at least longer than the four-year political cycle made up of 1.5 years of actual work and 2.5 years of politicking. Once you manage to detach yourself from the political fever, even if only briefly, you start to see how depressing the situation is. Nigeria is stuck in a bad cycle of politics without democracy.
Believe it or not, politics can be a noble thing. America has been a democracy since 1776 when it became an independent nation. In that time it has grown to be the most powerful nation on earth with a machine of an economy and very rich citizens. Even if its politicians have gotten many things wrong, they have done many things right. While democracy is not the only way many countries have developed, it is not really an obstacle to economic development once you widen the sample of countries beyond Singapore to include Sweden, for example.
But what is this thing we have in Nigeria? God only knows. It took Britain about 100 years to arrive at universal suffrage very slowly. Each reform added a new class of voters, using different criteria, until finally everyone could vote. Nigeria started off with everyone having the right to vote. Nothing says this is automatically a bad thing – the benefit of hindsight is that it allows you skip some unnecessary steps that someone else went through. But Nigerian politicians have found a way to short circuit the system. There is really nothing mysterious about poverty – it is the default state of human beings. If nothing is done, poverty will maintain its hold on people and spread from generation to generation. But for cynical politicians, poverty has the benefit of reducing the market price of a vote. You cannot buy a vote for N3,000 in America, but you can definitely buy one in Nigeria for that price. A typical Nigerian politician wants to buy votes in bulk so all that is required for the price of votes to come down, is for the politicians to do nothing. As poverty increases, the cost of a vote comes down in real terms once you account for inflation.
Back in 2012, the Nigeria Bureau of Statistics (NBS) reported that the share of Nigerians living in absolute poverty (the cheapest available type of vote) stood at 61%. The NBS went on to mention very soberly that in 2004, the share of Nigerians living in absolute poverty was 55%. Note that the economy did not stop growing in that time – if anything the economy grew really fast. By 2018, after all the amazing policies of the APC have borne fruit, Nigeria is set to take the title of the poverty capital of the world – the country with the highest number of desperately poor people in the world. A few days ago it was reported that an estimated 20,000 babies were born in Nigeria on January 1st alone – 5% of the world total. Most of these children, sadly, have been born with a severe disadvantage already. Their votes are already cheap even before a price has been called for it.
Nigeria is in big trouble. This fundamental problem of a political system that is incentivised to cheapen votes as much as possible is not going to go away by itself anytime soon. The politicians who have been entrusted with leading the country have discovered that they have struck gold with an incredibly efficient way of manufacturing millions of cheap new votes every year. And what about the voters? Well, if you have been born into this system and grew up in it, it is extremely difficult to conceive of better. Since there is only one person buying votes, the voters are in no position to bargain for long – they are simply price takers.
As the countdown to next year’s political olympics begins in earnest, it is important to pause and reflect on what exactly Nigerian politics does as against what it is supposed to do. Of what use is politics if it cannot repair the nation’s busiest road for more than a decade? Nigeria is going to be around beyond 2019. Maybe it’s time to start thinking and planning accordingly. Happy new year.
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