Diaspora voting, also known as absentee voting, out-of-the-country voting, external or extended voting is the ability of persons who are outside their home county to exercise the right to vote during an election.
Diaspora voting has become increasingly significant. At the beginning of the 20th century, external voting was only granted to persons who served the interests of their nations from abroad, such as diplomats, sailors and military personnel.
However, a few decades ago, a larger number of countries extended the right to vote to other citizens living abroad. This is because states now understand that the emigrant population is a resource and represents economic potential which is vital in building its future.
Diaspora voting dates back to the reign of Roman Emperor Augustus in 62BC -14AD. Then, members of the senate in newly established colonies voted candidates into offices by sending the votes cast under seal to Rome ahead of the day of the elections.
Centuries later, this method of voting was tested in the United States in 1862 in the state of Wisconsin where soldiers fighting in the Union Army during the civil war were allowed absentee voting. By 1968, absentee voting applied to all US citizens both military and civilians abroad. In 1975, states were mandated to create legislative provisions that would allow for overseas registration and voting.
In the United Kingdom, absentee voting for military personnel was introduced in 1918 but by 1945, the right to vote extended to cover “merchant seamen and others working on matters of national importance. The right to vote was further extended to all British citizens overseas in the 1980s.
Presently over 115 countries in the world including nearly all developed countries have systems in place that allow their citizens in the diaspora to vote.
The reasons for the introduction of extended voting varied from country to country. During the world wars, the enfranchisement of overseas citizens was an acknowledgement of the active participation in the wars by the servicemen. However, in the later years, provisions for external voting were enacted in response to the citizens residing overseas. According to a 2013 Canadian Parliamentary Review, in Latin America generally, the arguments have focused largely on the influence of Diaspora votes on the outcomes of their elections.
The status quo in Nigeria
The inclusion of diaspora in the political voting process is still prohibited in Nigeria. The expansion of the right to vote to Nigerians living or resident in other countries has been talked about for so long and even fifteen years of its advocacy is yet to bear fruit.
A major challenge to diaspora voting is the constitutional provision restricting the right to vote and be voted for to Nigerians within the country. Section 77 and 117 of the Constitution restrict the right to vote to only persons in Nigeria. Precisely, Section 77 (2) and 117 (2) of the 1999 Constitution are to the that only Nigerians who have attained the age of 18 years and are residing in Nigeria at the time of the registration of voters for the purposes of election into the National Assembly and states Houses of Assembly shall be entitled to vote in that election. Section 12 of the Electoral Act 2022 also provides that a person must be ordinarily resident, work in, and originates from the Local Government Area or Ward covered by the registration centre, as one of the conditions of being qualified to be registered as a voter. This is in addition to the conditions that such a person must be a citizen of Nigeria, and has attained the age of 18 years. Without an amendment of the provisions of the 1999 Constitution, the inclusion of Nigerians in political voting remains impossible.
In March 2022, a bill to amend the constitution to allow for diaspora voting was rejected by members of the Nigerian legislature. Members of the National Assembly in a joint plenary session voted overwhelmingly 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”. Out of the 390 federal lawmakers who were present during the plenary, only 87 votes were in support of diaspora voting, while the 269-majority countered the bill.
In March 2022, a bill to amend the constitution to allow for diaspora voting was rejected by members of the Nigerian legislature. Out of the 390 federal lawmakers present during the plenary, 269 countered the bill.
According to the Bill, it is proposed that both sections 77 (2) and 117 (2) of the Constitution be amended to allow citizens of 18 years and above and resident within and outside Nigeria to vote. As part of the requirements for persons living abroad, such persons must hold a valid Nigerian international passport and and must have lived in Nigeria for a period of at least five (5) years from a minimum age of ten (10) years old. Persons living abroad must also be legally resident in the foreign country from which the person seeks to vote in the Nigeria election for at least 12 months.
A constitutional amendment is a formal change to the provisions of the Constitution and in Nigeria, the amendment of the Constitution requires a special procedure that is more stringent than that required for ordinary legislation. For a constitutional bill to pass, therefore, the support of at least two-thirds majority of each of the legislative houses must be secured.
The required legislative process for a constitutional amendment includes the first reading, second reading, public hearing, third reading/passage, harmonisation of the bill, transmission to state houses of assembly and adoption of the report by the state legislatures. Before a bill to amend the Constitution can be passed or can move to the third reading, two-thirds majority of the members in each house of the federal legislature must be obtained. The bill was voted down by both houses of the National Assembly at the Constitutional Amendment Review Session and the Bill could not progress to the third reading.
Considerable progress was made in this recent push for diaspora voting as compared to the attempt in 2012. In 2012, six members of Nigeria’s Federal House of Representatives led by Abike Dabiri-Erewa, then House Committee Chair on Nigerians in the Diaspora sponsored a legislative bill that sought to amend the laws to grant Nigerians in the diaspora the right to vote. This bill was never considered.
Of the 469 federal lawmakers expected to vote, only 390 were present and only a meagre 87 voted in support. Of the 87 votes in support, 29 were senators and 58 members of the House of Representatives. Also, 62 senators and 240 representatives voted against the bill. The total number of votes in support was less than one-third of the legislators who were present.
The case for diaspora voting
A traditional argument against is that only citizens who are present in the state and affected by the consequences of their vote should be entitled to vote. This position is on the basis that external voters may lack the information necessary to make effective decisions and the responsibility to choose wisely since they would not be directly affected by the vote.
Another is that Nigeria is “not there yet” given that it is still struggling with conducting elections locally. Furthermore, the usual means of diaspora voting such as postal voting, proxy voting and online voting are are not provided for in the Constitution.
However, these arguments ignore the fact that Nigerians in the diaspora like the colonies of Emperor Augustus continue to make significant contributions to the growth and development of Nigeria.
The Nigeria diaspora is one of the largest African immigration population in the world and this number continues to make giant strides in the economy. In 2017, the National Commission for Refugees, Migrants and Internally Displaced Persons reports that no fewer that 17 million Nigerians currently live in various countries of the world. However, this figure represents both legal and illegal migrants. According to the United Nations (UN) Population Division estimates, as of 2017, the number of international migrants worldwide stood at about 258 million – 3.4 percent of the world’s population and according to the UN migration data portal, there were 1.3 million Nigerian emigrants. The United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs puts the Nigeria diaspora population legal residents) at 1.7 million as of 2020.
In 2018, migrant remittances to Nigeria equalled $25 billion, being the second country with the highest remittances in Africa after Egypt ($28 billion). This represented 6.1 percent of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of Nigeria and showed a 14 percent year on year growth from the $22 billion in receipt in 2017. This also translates to 83 percent 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 in 2017 which was $3.4 billion. The World Bank also reported in 2021 that the 2020 diaspora remittance in Nigeria was $17 billion and although this fell from $23 billion in 2019, this is still a huge contribution to the economy and still represents four percent of the GDP.
From the foregoing, the average remittance per Nigerian abroad (based on the United Nations records) is at $38,428.15 across the three years.
Also, recently, in a major crowdfunding, Nigerians in diaspora move to raise $150 million in support of one of the major contenders in the upcoming 2023 elections. Peter Obi of Labour Party was also hosted by Nigerians in the United States. This shows their want for participation in the politics of Nigeria.
It is obvious therefore, that Nigerians in the diaspora through their remittances are making choices for the economic, social and political development of the nation. Thus, given the migratory patterns of the most Nigerians, and their continuing remittances which are bound to increase, to maintain the current status quo is tantamount to the disenfranchisement of a significant portion of the Nigerian citizenry who are actively engaged in ensuring the prosperity of the nation.
Providing the mechanisms for diaspora voting will have great benefits for Nigeria. In addition to the economic benefits and increased accessibility of Nigerians in diaspora to political processes in Nigeria, there will be a heightened sense of belonging in the affairs of the country, a much needed measure for Nigeria’s survival at this time of great disenchantment.
The Nigerians in Diaspora Commission (NIDCOM) has an essential role to play in ensuring the successful inclusion of Nigerians living abroad in the voting process. The federal government in recognising the strategic importance of Nigerian living abroad and reiterating its commitment towards diaspora engagement signed the Nigerians in Diaspora Commission Establishment Bill into law in July 2017. The commission was set up to engage and utilise the human and capital resources of the population in the socio-economic, cultural and political development of Nigeria. It must continue to advocate for extending voting rights to Nigerians in diaspora.
At present, a whopping two-thirds of 48 countries in the sub-Sahara allow for some form of voting by citizens resident abroad. Noticeably missing from this list of countries is Africa’s largest democracy, Nigeria, which, along with Liberia, remains one of just two countries in West Africa without any form of, or legal allowance for, external voting. Ahead of the 2023 elections, perhaps it is time for Nigeria to rectify this situation and re-earn its place.
Effect of Diaspora Voting