Nigerians are among the few citizens left in the world who give up the right to vote once they step outside of their country.
In the 2023 elections, all Nigerians in the diaspora are disenfranchised, even as they actively discuss politics at home.
While politicians have continually courted those who live abroad, this effort has always been shrouded in hypocrisy.
Leaders of the major political parties are the same in their assumption that expatriates are not good for the political process at home, treating the diaspora population with disgust, contempt and suspicion.
The behaviour of the political class was symbolised by the Deputy Speaker of the House of Representatives, Idris Was, who asked as an acting speaker two years ago: “What is their (the diaspora) business (with Nigeria)? They can’t sit in their comfort zones and know what is happening in Nigeria.”
Out of curiosity, I recently attended a dinner organised in the United States for one of the top-three political candidates, to understand the dynamics of affection between the diaspora and the politicians.
The event provided a lens through which I saw better the importance of the expatriate community to the political activities at home.
It not only pointed to the growing realisation that even if the diaspora cannot be embraced, it also cannot be ignored.
There is an interconnectivity when it comes to the outcome of elections that is becoming apparent.
But as I sought to understand why the diaspora cared about, and wasted money, on the 2023 elections, I could not easily grasp why the community could not concentrate rather on empowering themselves and forcing their way into the centre of power.
Disenfranchisement of those living overseas is no longer acceptable; to be denied the right to representation is to be denied a human right
The Nigerians in Diaspora Organisation (NIDO), which has more influence in Abuja than any other, has been operating as a spice instead of a main recipe for the political empowerment of its community.
I could not quite fathom yet if the Nigeria diaspora can articulate its own agenda and organise around it.
The denial of rights of the Nigerians abroad is in stark contrast to the democratic trend across the world, where governments are realising that the right to vote can be protected no matter the distance, borders or geographic positioning of their citizens on the globe.
It is astounding that in a world where cross-border financial transactions can be made within minutes and where instant communication is taking place at speeds never imagined, Nigerians remain light years behind despite our claim to political sophistication.
The right to vote is central to democracy, and the obligation of the state is to ensure that all citizens participate in the political process.
Failure to guarantee voting rights within and beyond borders should be of grave concern to all Nigerians.
Disenfranchisement of those living overseas is no longer acceptable; to be denied the right to representation is to be denied a human right.
It is not just a matter for the diaspora to ponder anymore- it is a problem that all Nigerians must tackle, together.
It is mere hypocrisy for Nigeria, a signatory to the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights, to lay any claim to being truly and fully democratic when millions of citizens are shut out of the political process.
Article 21 of the UN Declaration states that “the will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government; this will shall be expressed in periodic and genuine elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage…”
There is no reason why voting should not be universal in this day and age in Nigeria and for Nigerians.
By the turn of the decade, 93 countries allowed their expatriate citizens to vote, of which 36 are in Europe, 21 are African, 13 are American, 15 are Asian and six are Pacific countries
If anyone thinks the right to vote for Nigerians abroad is much ado about nothing, they must consider two important factors – where Nigeria stands in the comity of nations on this issue, and the growing population of Nigerians living outside of Nigeria.
On the first point, Nigeria is sitting at the bottom of nations which have made progress in extending power to citizens regardless of their places of residence.
By the turn of the decade, 93 countries allowed their expatriate citizens to vote, of which 36 are in Europe, 21 are African, 13 are American, 15 are Asian and six are Pacific countries.
The progress of nations is not only defined by prosperity, human capital index, gross domestic product or per capital income.
A core component of development is political participation; and Nigeria, as in other metrics, falls behind other nations shamefully.
Nigeria queues behind while its diaspora population prospers and explodes.
Unofficial reports claim that there could be as many as 15 million Nigerians in the diaspora, with many cloaked as illegal immigrants in their host countries. Although the nation is so lacking in statistical data to even know the accurate figure, if these estimates are true, that is about eight per cent of the population being excluded from exercising civil rights.
What would make a nation deny voting rights to so many of its citizens?
You might even argue that asking for voting rights is too little too late. Nigerians should by this time be demanding for direct representation in governance, if you judge by global trends.
A growing number of countries in Europe, the Americas and Africa not only allow their citizens abroad to vote, but enable them to elect their own representatives to the national legislature.
An overseas constituency is a legally-recognised electoral district that elects its own representatives at the legislative body from abroad.
It allows the expatriate community to relate by promoting an understanding of their aspirations as legislative agenda.
Countries notable for diaspora representation include Colombia, Italy, Croatia, Ecuador, Dominican Republic, Peru, Lithuania, Romania and Panama.
In France, this has been the tradition since 1948, while in Portugal, it has been the practice since 1976.
In Africa, Angola’s 220-member parliament includes three diaspora representatives, while Mozambique reserves two percent of the membership of its legislature for the diaspora.
In Tunisia, where almost a million people live in France, 18 of the 217 members of the Constituent Assembly represent the diaspora, while the number is 8 out of 382 in Algeria.
Since 1995, Cape Verde’s 72-member national legislature included six foreign representatives.
If anyone thinks the right to vote for Nigerians abroad is much ado about nothing, they must consider two important factors – where Nigeria stands in the comity of nations on this issue, and the growing population of Nigerians living outside of Nigeria
Its 1992 constitution provided for the creation of three districts abroad, with two representatives elected to the National Assembly in each of the Americas, Europe and Africa.
When other African nations are plugging their citizens abroad into the process at home, Nigerians is backward when it fails to allow its diaspora to vote in the 2023 elections.
The Nigerian diaspora is a major sponsor of the national economy.
No country in Sub-Saharan Africa receives more remittances than Nigeria, estimated by the World Bank at around 24.3B per year and 6% of GDP.
With such financial clout, it should be reasonable to expect voting rights for the diaspora, if not direct representation in the National Assembly.
NIDO does not yet represent Nigerians abroad.
Most people are oblivious of its activities, even if it hobnobs with the Nigerians in Diaspora Commission.
But it is time for Nigerian expatriates to articulate and organise.
Even if the population of Nigerians abroad is just a quarter of the estimates of 15 million, it will still be a huge block of people who are without power – larger in size than some states in Nigeria. There are at least 350,000 Nigerians living in the United States alone.
That is a headcount larger than the population of some countries.
The diaspora should be integrated, not excommunicated.
If the parents are disconnected, the children of the diaspora will be irreversibly cut off from the root.
And Nigeria will lose a big opportunity to inject knowledge and economic power into its development efforts.