Nigeria’s voters ask: where’s the money?

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Buying votes and corruption have long been part of the political game in Nigeria, but recession and an anti-corruption drive has meant less money for palm-greasing this time around and some voters are grumbling.

“We’re not happy!” shouted Fatu Aluko, a Lagos market trader sporting a bracelet with the APC acronym of the ruling All Progressives Congress party. “I have been working for them, campaigning up and down, but this time they haven’t been giving us money,” the 64-year-old told AFP.

Aluko, who is an APC member, said normally she would have received “at least 2 000-3 000 naira” ($5.50-$8.30, 5-7 euros) for her efforts by now.

President Muhammadu Buhari is seeking a second term of office at Saturday polls, postponed at the last minute a week earlier because of what the electoral commission said were logistical difficulties.

His main challenger is Atiku Abubakar, a former vice-president and candidate for the People’s Democratic Party (PDP).

Parliamentary elections are being held at the same time.

In Africa’s most populous nation, where the majority of people live on less than 2$ a day, elections are a rare chance for money to reach those who need it most, even if it bends the rules of the democratic game.

A parliamentary candidate on Wednesday held a small meeting in a working-class district of Lagos to remobilise voters after the election was delayed. Sweetening the deal, a cash offering of 50 000 naira to be doled out to potential voters.

“People were fighting, but only those who had their PVC (permanent voter’s card) received cash,” recounted Tike, who jostled for bank notes with about 100 of his neighbours. Those who missed out had to make do with bags of rice, calendars, or caps in party colours.

From the average voter to party officials and even foreign observers, one thing is clear: at this election there is less money than usual and that has dampened popular enthusiasm since the start of campaigning.

“In 2015, it was crazy,” said one employee of the Lagos state governor. “Money was flowing, a whole economy was going with the elections, companies were signing big contracts to manufacture goodies, etc. This time it is really bad, we have much smaller budgets (to campaign).”

Matthew Page, from the Chatham House international affairs think-tank in London, said recession is part of the reason. Nigeria is recovering slowly from the effects of the global fall in crude prices that combined with militant attacks on the country’s oil infrastructure to slash government revenues from exports.

“The current administration hasn’t been able to build the same stock of cash compared to the PDP when it was ruling the country (from 1999 to 2015),” Page added.

Another possible reason is the anti-corruption campaign led by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) under Buhari, which is now tracking bank accounts and transfers of candidates and their associates.

“Everyone is scared,” said Sa’eed Husaini, an analyst with the Control Risks advisory group in Lagos. “It’s a big turn. All transactions have to be done in cash now.”

Paying for votes is illegal, but the problem is deeply entrenched.

“Vote-buying is very prominent in Nigeria and it is going to be a while before we get rid of it,” said Abiodun Baiyewu, the head of Global Rights in Nigeria, a human rights non-profit organisation. “People don’t have any confidence in their leaders. They will be willing to sell their vote because they feel that anyway, it doesn’t count,” she added.

Jimmy represents young people in his run-down neighbourhood of Lagos. He said he was getting ready to trade bids around voting stations on election day. As in previous elections, middlemen from the main parties are expected to come and see him to broker the best “rate” to be redistributed among his “boys,” provided they promise to vote for a particular side.

“When the race is tight, the higher the stakes are and the more money we make. The highest bidder wins,” he said, sipping a beer in front of a Champions League football match.