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As The House of Reps Objects to Diaspora Voting By Sonala Olumhense

Of all the jokes emerging from Abuja, the one from the House of Representatives has to be the most serious. 

Of all the jokes emerging from Abuja, the one from the House of Representatives has to be the most serious. 

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Last week, it suspended discussion of a bill which will amend the 2010 Electoral Law to extend voting rights to Nigerians abroad.

It is a simple proposition that is obvious especially in the lower house of bicameral legislatures worldwide: the more the number of citizens who are able to participate in national elections, the deeper that nation's democracy generally is.  That is why every democratic nation is working to ensure that its citizens abroad are not deprived of their same voting rights simply because they have ventured beyond the border.

Nigeria, on this point, has a crying need.  There are about 10 million citizens living abroad.  They are important participants in the political process from the point of view of their education levels, advocacy and economic capability. 

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Many Nigerians that I know in the United States, for instance, are hardworking and patriotic people who are helping to raise not only their only families, but also support several other people in one way or another.   

But they cannot vote.

I know Nigerians abroad who are helping to ensure that some hospitals receive equipment; that non-governmental organizations receive funding and facilities; that motherless babies homes receive clothes, milk and food; that students receive fees; that schools receive computers and books; and that village development projects are supported.
But they cannot vote.

I  know Nigerians abroad who either organize conferences and workshops designed to help in some way or other in Nigeria, or who influence the invitation and sponsorship abroad, of Nigerians officials, in the long-distance hope that they will be proficient and productive in their work.

But they cannot vote.

I know Nigerians abroad who contribute to the Nigerian conversation in many ways; citizens who have demonstrated deep, patriotic concern and involvement for many years.

But they cannot vote.

I know Nigerians abroad who send home to friends and relatives every year, thousands of dollars.  The funds are used to pay rent, school fees, hospital bills, medicines and food, and--in effect--disguise the grievous unemployment, thereby ensuring that most of our pompous politicians and officials do not get their throats slashed when they venture out of Abuja and the state capitals.  These cash remittances add up to about $20 billion a year.

But they cannot vote.

The reason Nigerians abroad are disenfranchised is in the law.  But the electoral commission has no problems with organizing participation for such Nigerians; it is a simple and increasingly inexpensive exercise that many nations already undertake every year, and Nigeria's electoral commission has expressed its readiness to implement it once empowered by law.  If implemented, Nigerians in most countries will vote with far fewer problems that Nigerians in the country itself.

The bill in the House, which is sponsored by Representatives Victor Ogene, Aminu Shagari, Abubakar Momoh, Chris Azubuogu, Samson Osagie, and the Chairman of the House Committee on Diaspora, Representative Abike Dabiri-Erewa, will amended the 2010 Electoral Law to authorize INEC to "maintain as part of the National Register of Voters, a Voters' Register for Nigerians in Diaspora."

Several patriotic and enlightened members of the House immediately saw how the amendment would advance the cause of democracy in the country.  Representatives Sekonte Davis, Abimbola Daramola and Nkoyo Toyo enthusiastically campaigned for it, obviously because it is vision, not physical height, that enables a person to see far forward.

But then entered the naysayers, among them Deputy House Leader Leo Okuweh Ogor (PDP, Delta State); the Deputy Minority Leader, Garba Datti Muhammad (CPC, Kaduna), and Kingsley Sunny Ebienyi (PDP, Enugu).

These officials roundly objected to extending the franchise to their compatriots abroad, without a single one of them articulating an intelligent excuse.

Indeed, the proceedings had not extended beyond the expression of the general principles of the proposed amendment when the Enemies of Progress began to line up behind the microphone. 
Naysayer Number One was Mr.Ogor, a businessman who represents Isoko, declared that Nigeria was "not ripe" for it because she lacks the funds.  Without even waiting for any estimates to be put on the table, he said, "We will all be here sourcing for funds to run the elections...The financial implication for this may turn out to be worse than the oil subsidy.”

It is something of a paradox that the Nigerians who spend a good deal of their sweat subsidizing a grievously an irresponsibly-managed economy are, in Mr. Ogor's calculation, to be denied the vote using an insulting and mindless "subsidy" argument. 

But worse was to come. 

Datti, who may have thought of being a newsman in a previous life, announced that Nigerians were spread out throughout the world.  It would, therefore, be a "herculean task" to extend the vote to them, he said.

The most regrettable naysayer was Ebienyi, a veterinary surgeon who once served as Nigeria's ambassador in Spain.  From his experience, the doctor of animals said, Nigeria is not ripe for dispora voting. 

The truth is that Diaspora voting is, and ought to be, one of most compelling measures of a modern democracy.  It is an easy tool for encouraging the registration of national population pools that are otherwise reluctant to declare their presence abroad, especially in situations such as ours where foreign missions are often incompetent, corrupt and hostile.  Dr. Ebienyi certainly sounds as if he has superintended such an operation against Nigerians abroad. 

Modern technology has made Diaspora voting comparatively easier than it was just one decade ago, and nations that include Ghana, Mali, South Africa, Senegal and Indonesia, are enthusiastically embracing it.  Indeed, Representative Dabiri has pointed out that about 115 countries, 28 of them in Africa, have already implemented it.

What that means is that many countries that are "poorer" than Nigeria are implementing a process they accept not just as fair, but as a significant element in their democracies.
This underlines the point that the real obstacle here is not really the challenge of resources, but of political will.  That is why a man such as Representative Ogar would oppose a bill of this nature with no recourse to facts, numbers or statistics.

A greater danger than Mr. Ogar is Dr. Ebienyi who, on account of his paper education and observation of established democracies, ought to know better.  For such a man to attack this bill is evidence of the malice and contempt with which many Nigerian diplomats abroad treat their compatriots.  Dr. Ebienyi's narrow-mindedness and backward thinking is an invitation to researchers and journalists to undertake a forensic examination of this pompous and pretentious legislator. 

As it is, the House Speaker Aminu Waziri Tambuwal has stood down the bill until the House has procedural access to the 2010 Electoral Law, which is the law in reference.  I celebrate and encourage the sponsors of the bill and all those Representatives who have the heart and the vision to see what it represents. 

The truth is simple: Nigeria cannot whine about African nations not respecting her any longer if she is not prepared to lead by example.  We cannot preach good governance, political participation and pluralism, only to back off into cliches when the time comes to take action.  Nigeria's legislature can enjoy no respect at the Inter-Parliamentary Union if it advertises itself internationally as shallow and backward.

I know there are politicians who are scared about Nigerians abroad for various petty reasons.  But this is not about doing favours for anyone; it is not about reward for the billions of dollars in annual Diaspora remittances, it is about doing the right thing for Nigeria.  Tens of millions of Nigerians abroad are an important segment of the nation's population, and it is important that they are finally allowed to enjoy a right they have been denied for a long time. 

I invite Nigerians in the Diaspora to speak up on this matter.  The website of the House is listed below the bill.  On significant legislative activity of this nature, there is a need to compile a full list of all the legislators who are clearly working against the popular or patriotic imperative, so that we can be ready for them in every committee and every hallway of the National Assembly, in the mass media, and in their constituencies.

House of Representatives: http://www.nassnig.org/nass2/index.php

The bill [HB 02], "The Electoral Act [Amendment) Bill, 2011" is available at: http://www.nass.gov.ng/nass2/legislation.php

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