For as long as I can remember, I’ve been closely interested in politics. During the 2011 general election in Nigeria I was barely 10 years old, but I closely studied the manifestoes of the leading Presidential candidates, and knew the names of most of the country’s leading gubernatorial candidates in 36 states.
I would miss turning 18 in time to vote in the 2019 general elections by only a few months. But as a first-year student at the University of Ilorin, one of the country’s largest universities, I was excited about getting involved in policy debates and discussions with fellow-students who were as pumped about the elections as I was. Disappointingly, though, I discovered that this was not to be the case. My roommates showed slight interest in the coming contests, and it was business as usual for most students. At my hostel on the day of the election, some played football, while others settled for games on Playstation. It made no sense to me that young people could be so indifferent to a political process that would have direct effects on their own lives.
Nigeria has a lot of problems, and poor political participation ranks high on the list, with turnout falling in each of the last five electoral cycles. In 2019, turnout was just 35 percent. This figure is very disturbing, especially when compared with the average of 65 – 70 percent in other West African countries.
Possible explanations range from the popular belief that votes don’t determine winners, to fears about security on election day, a concern that has grown over the years. But things look destined for a change this year.
For the first time I can remember, all my friends, joining millions of young people across the country, have expressed a strong determination to exercise their electoral rights for the first time in the coming general election, which is to be held in February and March. On the day he collected his permanent voter’s card, Kabir, a colleague at school, told me, “It’s as a result of the entirety of the problems in our polity… the ASUU strike is one of these issues.”
The dismal performance of outgoing President Muhammadu Buhari has pushed many Nigerians to the brink. Amid rising inflation and an unprecedented debt crisis, the country’s unemployment and poverty rates are now at their highest ever. The rising state of insecurity in the country has also made young people increasingly determined to prevent the emergence of yet another President who will fail to make life better for them.
In addition to the aforementioned shutdown of universities for 8 months by striking lecturers, some of my friends mentioned the killing of protesters by soldiers during the #EndSARS movement against police brutality in 2020 as a politically defining moment for them.
For others, it’s a question of options. Since the return to democracy in 1999, Nigeria’s presidential election has always been a contest between candidates of the two major political parties, the All Progressives Congress (APC) and the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), both of which can fairly be described as centre-right. Both major parties have consistently failed to deliver on their mandates, prompting many, especially young voters, to conclude that they are two sides of the same rusty coin.
But this time around, many young people have found in Peter Obi, a former governor and the candidate of the Labour Party, the promise of a fresh breath.
“For the first time since I became an adult, there’s a clearly better candidate,” my university colleague Theophilus Alawonde said. “[Obi] has been able to pull a massive momentum, unlike in past elections, where better candidates outside the two main parties could not.”
Young Nigerians are overwhelmingly supporting Obi, but whether their drive will be enough to defeat the candidates of the two dominant parties remains uncertain. Bola Tinubu and Atiku Abubakar, of the All Progressives Congress and Peoples Democratic Party respectively, each represent a defined base and a strong party machine, oiled over the years with state funds.
One thing, though, is already clear: the pattern of voting in Nigeria will change this year. In a recent report in the Premium Times, INEC Chairman Mahmood Yakubu provided figures indicating that the total number of eligible voters rose by 11.3%, from the 84,004,084 recorded in the 2019 general elections to 93,469,008 eligible voters in 2023; this increase is double the number that decided the last election. The majority of these new voters are young people between the ages of 18 – 34, and this new bloc has been the main drive behind Obi’s sudden popularity.
“Having lost hope in the country before, it’s more of trying for the last time to see if our vote can truly make a difference,” Theophilus concluded.