Will Nigeria’s youth decide who wins the next elections?

There are links between the #EndSARS protests and greater engagement among young Nigerians in the electoral process.

Nigerians regard just four of their 16 presidential candidates as serious contenders in the 2023 general elections. These are Bola Tinubu and Atiku Abubakar of the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) and the opposition People’s Democratic Party (PDP), and Peter Obi and Rabiu Kwankwaso of the Labour Party and New Nigeria People’s Party (NNPP).

Candidates were selected by their parties through primary elections. The conduct of the two main parties in the presidential primaries was dismal, with rampant allegations of vote buying. The PDP’s Atiku has wanted the presidency since 1991. The ruling APC primaries results weren’t as certain, with Tinubu perceived to have largely fallen out of favour. In the end, he won by a landslide amid vote-buying allegations.

The overnight polls were keenly followed by young middle-class, mostly southern Nigerians (the #EndSARS demographic), who shared live commentary on Twitter. The 2020 #EndSARS protests were seen as the political awakening of Nigeria’s youth. Although the demonstrations were centred around police brutality, they reflected broad dissatisfaction with security, political and economic governance. The government’s response – including extra-judicial killings – triggered an emigration surge.

For many #EndSARS protestors, the 2023 polls will be their first chance as eligible voters to choose their leaders. But the presidential primaries were a case study of the flawed and exclusionary nature of Nigerian politics.

The presidential primaries showed the flawed and exclusionary nature of Nigerian politics

Tinubu and Atiku aren’t very different. They are friends and allies, and both have well-documented corruption or criminal cases at home and abroad. Although Tinubu’s official age is 70, some believe he could be 10 years older. Atiku’s records state he’s 75.

Tinubu is a former Lagos State governor. He was instrumental in establishing the APC as Nigeria’s ruling party. Although he’s considered to have facilitated Lagos State’s economic growth and self-sufficiency, this allegedly came at the cost of state capture. There are concerns about his health, divisive remarks and lack of accountability. He has even said he wants to be Nigeria’s next president because it’s his turn.

Atiku was a former vice-president, but his time in government was riddled with corruption allegations. Like Tinubu, some of these claims are linked to his entrepreneurial success. His response to the recent murder of a Christian woman in northern Nigeria on religious grounds raised questions about his ethnic politics. He deleted and retracted his condemnation of the attack on social media after threats that he’d be punished at the polls.

Following the primaries, there’s been a surge in voter registration, especially by youngsters

The NNPP’s Kwankwaso is regarded as a typical Nigerian politician. Although he has significant influence in his home base of Kano State, where he was once governor, there are doubts this can translate to a national victory. Some of his controversial comments also raise concerns about his ethnic politics.

Also vying for the APC and PDP tickets were sitting Vice-President Yemi Osinbajo and former governor Peter Obi. Osinbajo, preferred by middle-class Southern intellectuals, came third. Obi resigned from the PDP shortly before the primaries, citing ‘recent developments’ apparently related to the monetisation of the process. This despite being on the PDP ballot as Atiku’s vice-presidential candidate in 2019. He later joined the minority Labour Party and emerged as their presidential candidate.

Obi, 60, is perceived to play politics slightly differently. His support grew after numerous TV interviews featured technical analyses of Nigeria’s many problems. He talks about moving Nigeria from ‘consumption to production’ and says he can solve the increasing insecurity. Unlike other candidates, he hasn’t been caught on record playing to ethnicity.

Obi is the ‘facts and figures’ candidate – although these are sometimes disputed. He says his time as Anambra State governor proves he can succeed as president. Obi is the youngest of the four candidates and has the best understanding of the world of young Nigerians. He speaks the language of young people in the country and the diaspora. Among his fans are popular Nigerian celebrities, including award-winning writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

If recent developments are sustained, Nigeria’s youth may again become a voting bloc to reckon with

The rejection of the possibility of a Tinubu or Atiku presidency has been a rallying point and gained Obi, even more supporters. Following the primaries, there’s been a surge in voter registration, especially by youngsters. Previously, the youth made up over 70% of registered voters but often didn’t participate enough in voting.

Although campaigns haven’t officially begun, the #EndSARS demographic seemingly prefers Obi. The protest had no official leaders, but a few key actors openly declared their support for him. Obi is Igbo from Nigeria’s South East, but his support is starting to transcend ethnic divisions. It’s also reaching across socio-economic lines. Unsolicited donations are pouring in, and youngsters are dedicating time and resources to campaign for him.

The relative obscurity of Obi’s political party is a challenge for his supporters. Discussions are frequently organised on and off social media to brainstorm political strategies and ensure he wins. Although the #EndSARS demographic is pragmatic about the likelihood of success, they aren’t holding back. Their relative minority status among young Nigerians is viewed not as a stumbling block but a challenge, with mobilisation skills transferred from the protests to Obi’s campaign.

Nigeria’s 2023 elections will occur against a backdrop of profound economic, political, social and security issues. Although many citizens see the next elections as critical, voter turnout has been declining for almost 20 years.

If recent developments are sustained, Nigeria’s youth may again become a voting bloc to reckon with, regardless of an Obi win. This is happening against a gradual shift of economic power from Nigeria’s oil economy controlled by political elites to its services economy led by its youth. The shift presents possibilities that could transform the future of Nigerian politics.

Teniola Tayo, Researcher, ISS Regional Office for West Africa, the Sahel and the Lake Chad Basin

Image: © Sumaila Ibrahim/JAU/NAN

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This research is funded by the governments of the Netherlands and Norway. 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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