John Campbell has regularly made the point that from 1999 to 2007 increasingly bad elections led Nigerians to withdraw from the political process. Despite official proclamations, the 2007 elections were thought to have had an extremely low turnout.
A recent paper (PDF) by the National Bureau of Economic Research (h/t to Chris Blattman), “Looking Beyond the Incumbent: The Effects of Exposing Corruption on Electoral Outcomes,” provides what could be some empirical evidence from their randomized experiment in Mexico to support this observation.
To conduct their experiment, researchers deployed varying levels of information on candidates’ corruption to different groups of voters in municipal elections in Mexico–and then measured voter behavior. Specifically, the researchers were interested in whether knowing more about corruption would cause voters to cast their ballot for the opposition candidate or not to vote at all. They found that “exposing rampant corruption leads to incumbents’ vote loses, but it also leads to a decrease in electoral turnout, and a decrease in challengers’ votes… Thus, under some circumstances, information about corruption disengages voters from the political process.”
Underlying their findings is the idea that “flows of such information about corruption are necessary but not sufficient to improve the governance and responsiveness because voters may respond to information by withdrawing from the political process rather than engaging to demand accountability.”
While clearly Mexico and Nigeria have distinct political, economic, and social contexts, I think the authors’ findings fit the pattern in Nigeria. The Giant of Africa’s well-known culture of impunity, coupled with an increasingly disenchanted (and even alientated) electorate, culminated in what came to be known as Nigeria’s 2007 “election-like” event. (It would be interesting to replicate their experiment in Nigeria. Among other difficulties, we don’t have much information on how much money local government areas receive or spend, which researchers did have through Mexico’s Federal Auditor’s Office.)
While Nigeria’s 2011’s electoral turnouts were considered better (and in some cases, too high to be credible), this can be at least partially explained by a newfound credibility bestowed by Attahiru Jega’s INEC leadership as well as the end of “zoning,” (power alternation between North and South) and overt appeals to ethnic and religious identity.
Read the paper here (PDF).