In November 2022, the Coalition of United Political Parties (CUPP) held an emergency press briefing. In that press briefing, the CUPP spokesperson, Ikenga Imo Ugochinyere, accused the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) of, among other things, trying to rig the 2023 general elections through massive vote buying.
But unlike the regular vote-buying, which involves the exchange of physical cash for votes, usually at the polling units, the CUPP alleged that the APC and its presidential candidate, Bola Ahmed Tinubu, were embarking on a massive digital vote-buying campaign under the guise of various welfare groups.
“The ruling party’s desperation to emerge victorious by all means necessary includes digital vote buying which is code-named ‘operation wire wire’,” the CUPP spokesperson said.
He further said that the scheme, which is now operational in 22 states, was conceived by the APC after the Central Bank of Nigeria, CBN, announced its decision to redesign the Naira.
“It requires the party harvesting names, account numbers, voter identification numbers, and bank verification numbers of citizens and arranged in tables for each polling unit on the understanding that money would be sent to each person by electronic means to purchase their votes,” he said.
While vote buying has been a powerful and recurrent malady during elections in Nigeria, the prospect of digital vote-buying indicates a new dimension that is all-so-troubling.
Vote buying in Nigeria
Candidates, through their agents, spend billions of Naira during every election to bribe voters to back their ambitions at the poll. Although politicians condemn it and the new Electoral Act 2022 criminalizes it, it hasn’t stopped political parties from indulging in it anyway.
It used to be that politicians and their agents paid for votes with physical cash, usually at the polling stations. Indeed, some of the more common news updates during elections usually revolve around party agents getting arrested for vote-buying.
During the recently-held Ekiti and Osun state governorship elections, social media was rife with images of party agents caught with bundles of Naira notes, bribing the voters to stamp their prints for their candidates.
According to Premium Times, the bribes went from as low as N1,000 to as high as N10,000. The three major parties in the state, the PDP, APC and SDP, were all reported to be guilty of the crime.
Indeed, a party candidate was quoted by Premium Times as saying instead of polling centres, what they had in Ekiti State were vote-buying centres. The anguished agent concluded thus: “It is not me; all of you witnessed it, the shameful selling and buying of votes in this modern time. It is only in Nigeria that this thing happens.”
The problem is even more grievous in the north, where politicians have been seen distributing cash to voters in the voting queue. This problem is so pronounced in the north that it has become almost public knowledge that northerners who have the poorest of the poor were always waiting to cast their vote for the politician that gives them immediate gratification.
Votes are also purchased by doling out foodstuffs like rice and garri, as well as packets of noodles and sugar. Because of the abject economic conditions in the country, impoverished citizens are forced to accept these food items and support the giver.
Could we be witnessing the emergence of the age of digital vote buying?
While the regular vote-buying was the order of the day at Ekiti and Osun, that system is no longer appealing for various reasons. Young Nigerians are becoming very politically aware and will be willing to shame the vote buyer and the seller.
This means many people may not be accepting money in lieu of votes in public, either because of too much awareness or for the risk of embarrassment.
Moreover, agents sharing money have been known to be widely apprehended, their parties shamed and often used as evidence by political opponents to challenge their victories.
On the regulatory front, the introduction of new Naira notes by the Central Bank of Nigeria appears to be rocking the vote-buying plans of many politicians. This is because politicians are believed to have, over time, stashed enough of the old notes with which they would buy votes come election day.
CUPP also alleged a plot by the APC-controlled legislature to extend the deadline for returning old notes to the banks from January 31st to December 31st. This is way after the election dates and, according to the pressure group, will give the politicians ample time to pay for votes with the old cash.
Moreover, the new CBN cash withdrawal policy puts a ceiling on the amount of cash, individuals and organizations can withdraw at specific times. This would significantly affect the ability of politicians to replenish their stash.
These are some reasons why moving from physical cash-based to digital vote-buying might seem feasible going into future elections. The CUPP spokesperson insists the plan is already well underway, with more than 10 million voters’ financial and electoral details already being harvested.
According to Mr Ugochinyere, account numbers and PVC numbers are harvested across the 22 states through various vehicles masked as social empowerment programs. They include the APC Vote Canvassing Form in Imo state, Women for Tinubu in Lagos, APC Empowerment Form in Abia, Ekiti Development Front Fund, Forum of Tinubu Support Group in Cross River, Citizens Grassroots Farmers Association in Katsina etc.
While the schemes mentioned above could be waved off as support groups that require mobilization, there have been reports of market women in Lagos asked to fill forms with information such as their voter number and BVN or risk losing their shops.
Indeed, Mr Rotimi Oyekanmi, the chief press secretary to the INEC chairman, Mahmood Yakubu, speaking to The Guardian, was forced to address this claim of digital vote-buying.
According to The Guardian, an eyewitness enquired why many people converged at the Ahiaza Council office in Mbaise, Imo state. and was told they wanted to fill out forms and submit them for empowerment. Asked to be shown the form, the eyewitness was taken aback by what he saw.
“Could you believe that in the form, they asked for PVC numbers, National Identification Numbers, Bank Verification Numbers and personal information, like bank account numbers and other personal data,” the eyewitness said.
In his response, the spokesperson of the INEC chairman, who (wrongly) concluded it was a case of PVC buying, said it wasn’t going to work as next year’s general election won’t be business as usual.
“This general election will not be business as usual. If there are politicians out there still going about purchasing PVCs to use pseudo-voters on election day, they will not only be disappointed but arrested and prosecuted,” he said.
Combating the menace of vote buying
There have been several attempts to fight vote buying, but they have all proven futile. This is because trading votes is usually a matter of morality more than anything else. It is bound to happen if there’s a willing buyer and a willing seller.
Incidentally, the Electoral Act 2022 tried to address the matter of vote buying by limiting every presidential aspirant to a budget of not more than 5 billion Naira. Governorship aspirants mustn’t spend more than 1 billion Naira, while aspiring senators and house of reps members aren’t to spend beyond N100m and N70m, respectively.
While this doesn’t directly tackle the problem of vote buying, what makes it even more tragic is the punishment of a 100 million Naira fine and the forfeiture of the excess monies. In other words, all the aspirant has to do is have more money to pay a fine with.
But, INEC does have some election rules that could help fight the menace of vote buying. According to its Regulation and Guidelines for the Conduct of Elections, the commission seeks to enforce a total secret ballot system.
It used to be that agents who facilitated vote buying accompanied voters to the polling booth and ensured that they voted for the candidate. Others ask voters to take pictures of their thumb-printed ballot papers with phones to prove they actually voted for their candidates. But the INEC is promising that all that would change.
According to the commission, there would be a voting cubicle that only the voter can enter. But not before they have been relieved of their phones and other photographic devices. This is very important because there will be no way for the agents to confirm whether voters voted for their candidates.
Vote buying has become endemic, perennially plaguing the country’s electoral system. And with reports that it’s about to go digital, there’s no telling how deeply entrenched it could turn out to be in the future. Stopping this from happening would require a lot of concerted effort.
Indeed I spoke with an INEC official on the condition of anonymity. He told me one agency that has both the regulatory backing and the power to enforce and deal with vote buying is the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, EFCC.
According to him, if vote buying is considered a financial crime instead of an electoral one, we would be well on our way to solving it by deploying EFCC operatives across centres.
While the EFCC has been known to go after vote-buyers during elections, it hasn’t solved the problem of vote-buying because there simply aren’t enough operatives to deploy as far and as wide as necessary. Asked whether the INEC has tried to investigate the allegations of digital vote buying, he said he hasn’t heard of such an investigation.
Another regulator with the power to forecheck and nip digital vote buying in the bud is the central bank. Since the bank regulator could track accounts used for crypto transactions, it should also be able to track accounts disbursing a lot of money in a short amount of time and investigate the same for digital vote buying.
But in the end, eradicating vote buying starts with the individual deciding that their future isn’t for sale.
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