National Elections and Political Apathy. A Comparative Study of Elections in Nigeria and South Africa

Academic Paper, 2021

23 Pages, Grade: 4.5



1. Introduction

2. Conceptual Clarifications

3. Theoretical Justification

4. Methodology

5. Trend of Political Apathy in Nigeria and South-Africa

6. Causes of Political Apathy in Nigeria and South Africa

7. Nature of Political Apathy in Nigeria and South-Africa’s 2019 National Elections

8. Discussion of Findings and Evaluation

9. Conclusion and Recommendations




This research examines the impact of political apathy on electoral participation in Nigeria and South-Africa in the just concluded 2019 general elections in both countries. The objective are to determine the causes of political apathy in the electoral participation of citizens of Nigeria and South-Africa in their 2019 general elections, examine the impact of political apathy on the electoral process in both countries, and determine the trend of political apathy (voter turnout) in the general elections in Nigeria and South-Africa from 1999 to 2019, and from 1994 to 2019 respectively. The necessity of this research was borne out of the need to address the increasing rate of political apathy especially voter turnout in both democratic nations. Political participation (voter turnout) was 70% in 2003 in Nigeria when it peaked after four years of democracy. In South Africa, it was 89% in 1999 when participatory electoral democracy was restored. This had declined to 35% in Nigeria in 2019 and 63% in South-Africa in 2019 elections, representing 35% and 26% decline at the peak of electoral participation in both countries respectively. The causes of political apathy in the two countries have been attributed to lack of mobilization of the electorate, political marginalization, corruption, lack of political accountability, lack of motivation, lack of trust in the electoral process, failed promises by political leaders, lack of civic engagements, political violence, thuggery and militarization of the electoral process, political deception, powerlessness of votes etc. Citizens’ loss of interest in the electoral system in both countries has clearly undermined increased participation in the political and electoral processes. The Rational Choice Theory (Downs, 1959) and the Democratic Deprivation Theory (Ebenezer, 2017), are used to theoretically justify the potentials of political apathy in undermining democratic participation thereby impacting on political legitimacy and credibility of political offices holders and the electoral process respectively. This study uses descriptive research design to determine the impact of political apathy on the 2019 national elections in Nigeria and South-Africa. Trends of political apathy in the two countries are ascertained using historical investigation. Data, especially secondary, are obtained from textbooks, journals, newspapers etc. Contents analysis helps in data presentation using statistical tools of classification and tabulation for evaluative purposes. This work observed an obvious decline in political participation in both countries. This was evident in the 2019 national elections in both countries. Lack of trust in the electoral process has undermined electorate’s interest in the political system. This research recommended that political elite should exercise citizens’ mandate with transparency, honesty and responsibility and that dividends of democracy should be visible in the areas of poverty alleviation and employment generation. A free, fair and credible electoral process devoid of political violence, thuggery and militarization, would go along way in revamping citizens’ interests in political and electoral processes in both countries.

1. Introduction

From 1994 and 1999 when the new wave of democracy started in South-Africa and Nigeria respectively, political observers have noticed a steady decline in citizens’ participation in the political and electoral processes in these countries. In South-Africa, when the former social system that discriminated against the black (Non-European groups) in political and social rights for reasons of race and skin colour (Apartheid) ended in 1994 with the election of a democratically elected president of Negroe extraction, Nelson Mandela, it was difficult, according to Morais (2019), to gauge the turnout of voters (measure political apathy), as millions of eligible black South-Africans, voting for the first time, were not made to register to cast their ballots. The percentage of voter turnout was difficult to determine in the 1994 national elections in South-Africa. Nevertheless, there was increased enthusiasm for political participation.

At the dawn of the Fourth Republic in Nigeria in 1999, 58 million registered to vote in the general elections. However, only 30 million voted. This represented 52% of voter turnout in the election (Ebenezer: 2018, P.68). The 1999 elections in South-Africa faired better with 18 million registered to vote and 16 million voted in the elections. This represented 89% of voter turnout. This was also similar to the increased political participation recorded in Nigeria in 2003, where 42 million of registered voters of 60 million, voted, representing 70% of voter turnout (Ebenezer, 2018; Morais, 2019). There was however a decline in voter participation in the electoral process in South-Africa in the 2004 national elections, as 16 million of 21million of registered voters, voted in the elections. This represented 77% voter turnout and decline of 12% turnout rate from the previous elections in 1999.

In the subfield of electoral democracy and political participation, political apathy represents lack of psychological involvement in public affairs, emotional detachment from civic engagements and obligations, abstention from political activity and general lack of passion in the electoral process (INEC and FES, 2011; Ebenezer, 2018). The difficulty in measuring general political apathy in a political system and process, made political scientists, in most cases, to focus on the electoral process and citizens participation in elections, to measure the presence or absence of political apathy in a democratic system. This research shall address the comparative analysis of political apathy in national elections in Nigeria and South-Africa, using the statistical tools to measure voter turnout in the 2019 national elections in both countries. This is because, an active political system with citizens’ political engagements in political discourse, civic obligation and public policy inclusiveness without the requisite increase in voter participation in the electoral process especially in votingduring national elections, such democratic and political system is still seen to have political apathy of the citizenry.

With these identified variables in mind, the objectives arising from these research questions will guide this research endeavour:

1. What is Political Apathy?
2. What are the Causes of Political Apathy in a Political/Democratic System?
3. How does Political Apathy Impact on the Electoral Process in Nigeria and South-Africa?
4. Prior to 2019, what is the Trend of Political Apathy (Voter Turnout) in Nigeria and South-Africa?
5. What is the Nature of Political Apathy (Voter Turnout) in the 2019 National Elections in Nigeria and South-Africa?
6. What are the Outcomes of the Findings; and Recommendations aimed at improving the Electoral/Political Processes in both Countries?

For organizational decorum and comprehensive analysis and inclusiveness of the research objectives knitted in these research questions, the following sub-fields will be utilized:

1. Conceptual Clarifications.
2. Theoretical Justifications.
3. Trend of Political Apathy (Voter Turnout) in Nigeria and South-Africa (1994-2015).
4. Courses of Political Apathy in Nigeria and South-Africa.
5. Nature of Political Apathy in Nigeria and South-Africa in 2019 National Elections.
6. Discussions of Findings/Process Evaluation.
7. Conclusion and Recommendations.

2. Conceptual Clarifications

Political apathy is “the lack of psychological involvement in public affairs, emotional detachment from civic obligations and abstention from political activity” (INEC and FES, 201; p.15). It is part of the general decline in citizens’ involvement in political activities of a particular country or nation (Fagunwa, 2015). Citizens of a country may be very active politically in public opinion aggregation, policy formulation, civic engagement with government and political leaders in the attendance and participation in political functions and activities (summits, seminars, rallies, debates, town hall meetings etc.), and yet refused to turn out to vote on the day of elections. This is why political apathy can be measured in the context of voter participation in the electoral process (voter turnout). The concepts of vote, election, voter, voter turnout and democracy within the sub-field of political apathy need comprehension for synergy of analysis.

Basically, a vote is simply the official choice citizens make during election. When candidates present themselves for public or political offices, citizens make choices by way of expressing approval or disapproval for or against a particular candidate who presents himself/herself, or is presented by a political party, for an election. A voter is the person legally and constitutionally empowered to exercise this very important civic duty, right or obligation. This right is exercised in an election. Election is the official act or process by which citizens of a democracy choose their representatives for public or political offices. When elected, citizens expect political accountability from their political representatives with the exercise of their mandates. When this is not the cause according to Ebenezer (2017, p.143), “voter apathy ensues which results in low voter turnout” during elections.

Voter turnout is simply the percentage of eligible voters who cast their ballots in an election. Pintor and Sullivan (2010) argued that voter turnout is usually expressed as the percentage of voters who cast a vote (including those who cast blank and invalid votes) in an election. Geys (2006) insisted that it is “the total number of people who vote in a given election, usually given as a percentage”. The level of political participation through voter turnout, according to Ebenezer (2017, p.142), determines the respect or disrespect such government gets from the people. Fortunately and unfortunately, political apathy can only be measured adequately in a democracy. Dunn (2005; p.38) defined democracy as “self government, a way of living together in political freedom which ennobled the characters and refined the sensibilities of an entire community, a society governing itself where citizens choose freely and immediately for themselves”. The requirement for democracy is people’s consent. This consent is supposedly given through elections and voter turnout. Lack of voter turnout, or the existence of political apathy, is seen, in most cases, as lack of consent in the democratic or political process or system respectively.

A comprehensive understanding of the concept of political apathy requires an understanding of the intricacies of politics, governance and political inclusiveness in such political system. Politics in this context being the activities that relate directly or indirectly to influencing or redirecting the actions or inactions of government and the political class especially in power relations and policy directions, formulations and implementations. The unwillingness of the citizens (especially the electorate) to be fully and actively engaged in the political system, results in political apathy. This could be due to disenchantments, indifference or contentment for or against the electoral or political system. Political apathy will be measured using the demography of political participation in elections in Nigeria and South-Africa especially with respect to the 2019 national elections in these countries. This is because, the mandate of representation in this two countries that practice representative democracy, presupposes proxy political participation by political representative obtained and democratically given during elections. Lack of political participation of most citizens in most democracies beyond casting of ballots during elections, is judged in the context of the empowerment and ennoblement of political representatives to actively participate in the process on their behalf. This is why it is important to know why there is political apathy in the polity from a theoretical perspective.

3. Theoretical Justification

The first major political theorist that critical examined the justification or otherwise of political apathy was Anthony Downs (1957). In his book, “Economic Theory of Democracy”, published in 1957, Downs formulated the “Rational Choice Theory”. The Rational Choice Theory is now a classical theory used in the analysis of political apathy (especially voter turnout) for more than six decades now. The theory’s emphasis is basically on the reasons for voting and non-voting in an election. Voters according to this theory, vote in an election to maximize benefits (Geys, 2006). Voters, before a particular election, calculate the expected benefits of voting and abstaining. If the benefits of voting exceed the cost of voting, the voter may likely vote. Again, if a voter sees the likelihood of not being able to influence the outcome of a particular election, with the perception that his/her vote will not count, the voter may likely abstain from voting (Ebenezer, 2017).

In Nigeria, the cost of voting in an election may include the risk of being killed in coming out to vote through sporadic shooting by military personnel, political thugs, militants or insurgents bomb targets and general insecurity on election day (Ebenezer; 2017, p.141). Some of these elements are applicable in South-Africa’s elections as evident in recent unrest during elections. In both Nigeria and South-Africa, the perception of corruption, lack of accountability and lack of impact of a political dispensation on the lives of the citizenry in the areas of infrastructural development, citizens’ empowerment and sustainable development as benefits of voting in an election, could trigger political apathy. Downs (1957), Rational Choice Theory therefore, emphasized on the profitability or unprofitability of voting that may result in political participation or political apathy in the political and electoral system.

However, there are several criticisms of this theory by political scholars. Dowding (2005) criticized it far lack of consistency in explaining voter turnout in the real world turnout rate (practicality). Kirchgassner (2003) criticized it for not explaining abstention due to alienation, and Matsusaka (1995) criticized it for not recognizing the power of information in shaping voting pattern especially in the modern age of digital technology and social media interactions and interconnectivity. Despite these criticisms, in looking at political apathy in South-Africa and Nigeria, the theoretical contribution of the rational choice theory cannot be over emphasized.

Writing in the Journal of Contemporary Research, a quarterly Journal of the Federal University Otuoke, Bayelsa State, Ebenezer, Leo the Great Ph.D, drawing from “The paradox of (not) voting” (Geys, 2006), rationalized both the Rational Choice Theory (1957) and the criticism by Kirchgassner (2003). This was based on the premise that the absence or presence of voters, who vote in an election to maximize benefits, does not (in any way) obliterate the fact that some voters abstained from voting because they felt the inconsequentiality of their votes in deciding the outcome of an election. This is applicable to voters in Nigeria and South-Africa. Ebenezer (2017) went further to justify the Rational Choice Theory (1957) and Political Alienation Theory of non-voting by Kirchgassner (2003), with the Theory of Democratic Deprivation (TDD) in order to explain the causes of political apathy in a democratic or political system.

Kirchgassner (2003) had argued that, lack of political accountability, inconsequentiality (powerlessness) of votes and total disconnect from political parties’ proposed policies (Alienation) could (most likely) trigger abstention of voting by a voter. Put different, abstention in voting is due to alienation. This is quite true, but does not limit the fact that alienated voters are more likely to vote as argued by Downs’ Rational Choice Theory.

To connect these two perspectives within the some prism in the context of political apathy especially voter turnout, the Democratic Deprivation Theory with two distinct connotations (negative and positive) was theorized. Democratic Deprivation Theory observed that, “when people are deprived of democratic dividends in a democratic dispensation due to lack of political accountability (corruption and sustainable development), they tend to react either negatively or positively to either establish a sense of dissatisfaction to such democratic system (regime) or aggressively work towards changing such democratic dispensation for the better”. The deprivation can produce either positive or negative outcomes. The outcome is positive (Positive Democratic Deprivation) “when the existing democratic dispensation or governance structure does not provide the desired dividend of democracy, is not accountable, cannot protect lives and property, lacks the provisions of sustainable development and does not improve on the standard of living of the people; the people (voters) react positively by democratically turning out en mass to vote out such government in a free, fair and credible election”. This, he attributed to Downs (1957) argument that the more alienated the voters are, the more likely they turn out to vote.

On the other hand, negative outcome (Negative Democratic Deprivation) “arises when the existing democratic dispensation or governance structure does not provide the needed democratic dividends, is not accountable, cannot protect lives and property of the people, does not guarantee sustainable development and lacks the ability to better the living standard of the people; the people (voters) react by not wanting to be part of the electoral and political process (political apathy), by not turning out to vote (voter turnout) possibly with the assumption that their votes will not count, and that they cannot change such government through the electoral process”. He attributed this to Kirchgassner (2003) argument that the more alienated the voters are, the less likely they turnout to vote in an election. The theory of Negative Democratic Deprivation (NDD) is due to dissatisfaction, lack of trust in the credibility of the electoral process and a sense of distrust between the government and the governed which breeds political apathy. This is applicable in Nigeria and South Africa.


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National Elections and Political Apathy. A Comparative Study of Elections in Nigeria and South Africa
African Electoral Democracy
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national, elections, political, apathy, comparative, study, nigeria, south, africa
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Mr. Leo the Great Ebenezer Ph.D (Author), 2021, National Elections and Political Apathy. A Comparative Study of Elections in Nigeria and South Africa, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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