Which is greater evil: Poverty or vote-buying?


THERE has been a lot of outrage and moral indignation over the phenomenon of ‘vote-buying’ during elections in Nigeria of late. The idea that voters can be induced with money to cast their ballots in favour of a candidate, they would otherwise not have voted for, is profoundly anti-democratic. In fact, it is a negation of the right to vote. It gives a whole new meaning to the concept of electoral mandate, as sovereignty shifts from people to moneybags. Although selling one’s vote to the highest bidder leads to a plutocracy of the worst kind, it is slightly more complex than it appears. Consider this. If society eliminates poverty, citizens would have no incentive to sell their votes. But poverty would not be eliminated as long as people keep selling their votes; a classic chicken-egg scenario. Which comes first? Anyone who thinks voters can be ‘educated’ ‘sensitised’ ‘shamed’ or ‘scared’ away from indulging in money-for-vote during elections, clearly does not understand the psychology of poverty. Far from it being the action of an ill-informed and illiterate bunch, the people willing to trade their ballots for money are normal rational beings, making a calculated choice based purely on self-interest, and survival instincts. If money is at the root of all evil, then, power is at the top of all evil.

Consider, for instance, Mr and Mrs Adu, a diligent couple and their three young adult sons and daughter, all cramped together in a one-bed apartment on the outskirt of the city. No light, no pipe-borne water, no job; the family’s only meagre income is from selling used items and other nick-nacks. The highest bidder then comes along and offers them N10,000 each for their ballots on election day, translating into a windfall of N50,000 without further ado. What would you do? In this scenario, would any rational being think of the voter education they had received the previous week about the sanctity of the ballot or think of the survival of their family first? The Adus’ rationale would be that there is no guarantee that refusing the money would lead to good governance. It would be business as usual for governance if they take and also business as usual for governance if they do not. The risk of spending another night on empty stomachs is simply too great for the family and a million more such families. This is what explains the discrepancy between the enthusiasm and ‘widespread’ support for the Social Democratic Party’s candidate, Segun Oni, and the actual votes recorded for him on the governorship election day in Ekiti State on June 18, 2022. He and his party have been quick to denounce “vote-buying” on the part of the All Progressives Congress and its candidate—now Governor-elect—Biodun Abayomi Oyebanji. It is instructive to note that the SDP’s supporters were not claiming to be angels either. Their grievance was that they were outspent by the APC with better resources. Were the Adus to be voting as delegates in the APC’s or PDP’s primary, imagine the humongous amount of money that would have come their way as a family. The fear now is that what happened in Ekiti may be the forerunner of what will happen nationwide in the 2023 presidential election. No party leader would ever admit to taking part in vote-buying, of course. It is something only the losing party shouts about. The Economic and Financial Crimes Commission were said to have launched some investigations into vote-buying at the Ekiti State election. Let us be categorical about this. Vote-buying is the most difficult thing to prosecute. You need both the seller and buyer to admit guilt. Even if money physically changed hands in broad daylight, the prosecution still has to prove the intention to buy votes. And, what happens to someone who took the money and still voted for his choice regardless? What appears so obvious to observers, is not necessarily guaranteed to scale the legal hurdle of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.

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In principle, vote-buying is not such a unique phenomenon peculiar to Africa. It happens more in Western democracies on an industrial scale. In its application, vote-buying may be crude in the African political context, it is done with panache and sophistication in the West. National budgets are specifically manipulated and targeted towards particular socio-economic groups, in particular sections of the society, prior to an election. A sudden cut in the rate of capital gains tax, for instance, is targeting the votes of the upper-middle classes and captains of industry. A sudden cut in the price of a pint (glass) of beer in popular bars is targeting the working people and a cut in the rate of value added tax would be targeting the housewives and middle-income groups of voters. Interest groups lobby their elected representatives and make ‘representations’ to ministers, especially the minister of finance, to curry favour, with a general election on the horizon. And, yes, ministers do ‘go after’ specific votes in policy and legislative terms. They do this on a regular basis such that it is no longer seen as bribes. It is seen as a response to the ‘yearnings’ of the public. When Africa does a similar thing in a more direct way, then, election observers particularly from Western countries have the brass neck to denounce ‘vote-buying’ and their domestic counterparts also take their cue from that precept.

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To be crystal clear, this is not an argument for vote-buying. This write-up is meant to expose the pious mouthing of political leaders, analysts and pressure groups crying over spilt milk, knowing full well that it is no use chastising pedestrians from running across a busy highway, from one side to the other, unless and until there is provision for an overhead footbridge; banning the throwing of litters without making rubbish bins readily available; denouncing those urinating by the sideways without providing adequate public toilet facilities; pleading with commuters not to rush their way onto the bus when there is no guarantee of when the next one will arrive; criminalising vote-buying while the multitude wallow in despair and poverty. In the end, though there ought not to be a trade-off between a condition of poverty and the selling of ballots, , there is.  And, it is here to stay. The task now is to move beyond the hysteria surrounding it and grapple with removing its underlying causes.

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Perhaps, we could borrow a leaf from Tony Blair in the UK. Blair (Prime Minister, 1997-2007) was the leader of the opposition in the mid-1990s when Britain was experiencing a wave of crime and decadence in the inner cities, where the core of the Labour Party’s supporters were domiciled. The then governing Conservative Party relentlessly goaded Blair to denounce the crime wave, as the main opposition Labour leader, aiming to become Prime Minister at the forthcoming general elections. Like a trapeze artist conscious of the perilous, tiniest movement of his foot, Blair tried to maintain a delicate balance between repudiating a core of his party’s base and being seen to be weak on crime. “We will be tough on crime, and tough on the causes of crime,” he famously declared to a standing ovation at the party’s annual conference in 1996. With that deft policy manoeuvre, the Labour Party’s ‘fitness to govern’ was firmly established to the sceptical, middle-of-the-road voter. Labour was returned to power in a landslide victory the following year, in 1997. Here, in Nigeria, how about a party leader declaring, ‘We will be tough on vote-buying and tough on the causes of vote-buying?” Not only a good slogan but a winner in the run-up to the 2023 presidential campaign. Please, be my guest, feel free to use it.

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