Nigeria’s youth take centre stage in the 2023 polls

The election results may be disputed, but there’s no doubt young Nigerians are becoming a force to reckon with.

Nigeria’s youth were seen and heard throughout the February 2023 general elections, both online and on the ground. Almost 40% of Nigerians are between 15 and 39, and their awareness and recognition of the democratic power they hold has undoubtedly increased.

Results released by the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) declared the ruling All Progressives Congress’ candidate, Bola Tinubu, as winner of the presidential poll with 36.6% of valid votes cast.

This outcome is disputed in election tribunals, with accusations of electoral fraud and mismanagement. The INEC struggled with the electronic transmission of votes, triggering distrust in the transparency and fairness of the polls.

There were also anecdotal reports of voter suppression due to: the INEC’s inefficiencies; officials not showing up; targeted disenfranchisement; cancelled votes because of violence or overvoting; and problems cleaning up the voters register to reflect deaths and emigration. This contributed to the record-low official turnout, with only 27% of registered voters accredited during the presidential polls.

The run-up saw increased youth participation in the discourse and campaigns. Socio-economic problems, including incessant university strikes and high youth unemployment, apparently contributed to their engagement. Young people made up around 76% of newly registered voters, with 40% of that number identifying as students.

The #EndSARS and #Obidient movements were dominated by young middle-class urban Nigerians

Analysts also suggested a connection between Nigeria’s youth-led #EndSARS movement and the mobilisation in support of the Labour Party’s presidential candidate Peter Obi, referred to as the #Obidient movement. To his backers, Obi presented an opportunity for a new kind of governance with more transparency and accountability. Both the #EndSARS and #Obidient movements were dominated by mostly young middle-class Nigerians from urban areas.

According to results released by the INEC, the Labour Party won the popular vote in the presidential elections in Nigeria’s biggest city Lagos, and in the capital Abuja. The Lagos result was particularly surprising because it’s Tinubu’s stronghold, and violence prevented many from voting.

The effect of the #Obidient wave extended beyond the presidential elections, as around 40 individuals were elected to the National Assembly under the Labour Party. This includes the Federal Capital Territory (FCT) senator-elect, Ireti Kingibe. She defeated the Peoples Democratic Party’s Philip Aduda, who represented the FCT in the National Assembly for two decades. The Labour Party had no seats in the previous National Assembly.

Recognition of the youth voting bloc became apparent in the three weeks between the presidential and state elections. After shunning invitations to debates during campaigning, incumbent Lagos State Governor Babajide Sanwo-Olu ramped up his public engagements online and in person. The threat of losing power only became real after Tinubu lost in Lagos – a result partly attributed to the state’s strong showing of urban youth. Other candidates also made overtures to young people elsewhere in the country.

Surprisingly, Obi’s Labour Party won the presidential elections in Lagos, Tinubu’s stronghold

Nigerian youth have led the charge in demanding accountability. They helped document the entire voting process by posting social media updates. Young people also made sure to ‘defend’ their votes, with some remaining at polling units until the early hours of the following morning to monitor the collation process. Some youth groups launched parallel collation projects to verify the INEC’s declared results.

During the elections, young Nigerians played diverse roles. They were victims and perpetrators of electoral violence and drove both divisive rhetoric and calls for unity. In addition to differences based on religion, geography, ethnicity and class, stark divisions along political lines emerged during the polls. The #Obidient movement had a counter #JagabanArmy movement supporting Tinubu.

Young Nigerians are playing a significant part in the maturing of the country’s democracy, but more work needs to be done. There are already high levels of self-education on electoral and constitutional processes among the youth, which can be increased.

Attempts by the political elite to weaponise identity for electoral success by mobilising one group against another shouldn’t go unpunished. The divisive rhetoric that escalated to physical violence during the Lagos State elections harmed the growing cohesion among urban youth.

Youth were victims and perpetrators of electoral violence, and drove divisive rhetoric and calls for unity

Structural issues such as costly nomination forms and flawed primary elections that make it difficult for young people to compete in polls must also be addressed. Despite the #NotTooYoungToRun movement that reduced the minimum age for vying for office, youth candidacy in the 2023 elections declined to 28.8% from 2019’s 34%.

The growing digital economy is contributing to the gradual shift of economic power to young people, which can eventually translate to political power. This is occurring alongside high youth emigration rates, but there is still an opportunity to cultivate a new crop of political leaders.

Although social media is becoming more relevant in the democratic process, it’s important to remember the millions of Nigerian youth in rural areas whose voices are not heard via social media. They are the most vulnerable to insecurity, poverty and state neglect. Recognising and strengthening the role of Nigeria’s youth in its democracy requires holistic measures that leave no segment of the population behind.

The increased engagement of young people in this electoral cycle can lead to long-lasting change if demands for accountability are met. Regardless of election petition outcomes, political education on the tools available for holding leaders to account will facilitate their use by young people.

With these measures, Nigeria will have a fighting chance of reaping its demographic dividend.

Teniola Tayo, Consultant, ISS and Principal Advisor, Aloinett Advisors

Image: © Commonwealth Secretariat/Flickr

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Development partners
Research for this article was funded by the Government of The Netherlands. The ISS is also grateful for support from the members of the ISS Partnership Forum: the Hanns Seidel Foundation, the European Union, the Open Society Foundations and the governments of Denmark, Ireland, the Netherlands, Norway and Sweden.
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