50.50: Analysis

Young Nigerians struggle to disrupt old power at upcoming election

Millions of young people have registered to vote, but the candidates in next year’s election are old and limited

Ope Adetayo Obinna Tony-Francis Ochem
29 September 2022, 9.57am

Supporters of Peter Obi, the Labour Party candidate for president, at a rally in Abuja, Nigeria, September 2022

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Majority World CIC / Alamy Stock Photo

Young Nigerians have signed up in record numbers to vote for the first time in next year’s general election, but the candidates they face are elderly, unappealing and out of touch with the country’s increasingly youthful population, say campaigners and new voters.

Johnbosco Egbuka is already disillusioned about his homeland, despite being only 22. “I am at a place where I have removed my hands from whatever concerns Nigeria,” he says.

Like millions of other youth grappling with Nigeria’s many problems, including an economic downturn, insecurity, rising unemployment and continued school closures, Egbuka at first felt that the general election, scheduled for February 2023, would not change anything. But in May, thanks to massive campaigning by youth leaders, he registered to vote.

“The small ray of hope comes from the way we [young people] have been going about the election. I felt the pressure of the campaigns,” Egbuka says.

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Youth-led campaigns

The Independent National Electoral Commission announced in August that 10.5 million Nigerians have joined the electoral register, bringing the total of registered voters to 94 million (almost half the country’s population). Some 84% of the new voters are aged under 35; only 3% are over 65.

This surge in interest is being driven by a web of youth-led campaigns, many of them born alongside or inspired by the #EndSARS protests that shook Nigeria for 12 days in October 2020.

Millions of young people took to the streets to protest against the brutality of a rogue police unit (the Special Anti-Robbery Squad), only to be met with more violence from the state. In trying to disperse the protesters, state security killed at least 12, according to Amnesty International. In total, more than 50 people died during protests across the country.

Kawthar Salaudeen, 25, started The Civic Construct last December to encourage young people, such as Egbuka, to participate in elections. Her team went to markets and college campuses, spoke on the radio and appeared on TV, first in Oyo, in the south-west of the country, and then in other states. Salaudeen said her team registered about 20,000 people as new voters.

According to Salaudeen, Nigeria has “core problems with public participation” in its governance. In the 2019 presidential election, voter turnout was about 35%. And relatively few young people participate in elections, despite the median age being 18.

Youth apathy helped sustain the hold of the country’s two major parties: the All Progressives Congress (APC) and the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP).

Following the violent repression of their voices in the End SARS protests, on the orders of veteran politicians, “young people now understand that we all have to make bold ventures into elections and the electioneering process in Nigeria,” says Salaudeen.

Abideen Olasupo, aged 28, launched YVote Naija in January last year, shortly after the anti-SARS protests. Based in Kwara, in the North Central region, Olasupo’s team created an app to send automatic reminder messages, provided buses to registration centres and paid for regular radio jingles encouraging people to register and collect their voting card. The organisation expanded to several other states and also persuaded state governments to give civil servants time off to register to vote.

Olasupo says the goal is “a reorientation of the mindset” of Nigeria’s youthful population, “to let them know we have to carry our destiny in our hands”.

A country of old men

While the enthusiasm of Salaudeen, Olasupo and their teams is a breath of fresh air, there are still bleak reminders that there is no space for young people in Nigeria’s politics.

After years of campaigning from civil society, the incumbent president, Muhammadu Buhari of APC – now aged 79 – signed the ‘Not Too Young to Run’ bill into law in 2018. The bill amended the constitution to lower the age qualifications for politicians: from 40 to 30 for president, 35 to 30 for governors and senators, and 30 to 25 for representatives. The aim was to open up high-level politics for young people, but that is yet to happen.

All the key contenders for next year’s presidential election are over 60. The two major parties have fielded septuagenarians: Atiku Abubakar (PDF) is 75 and Bola Ahmed Tinubu (APC) is reportedly 70, although his age has been a subject of long-running debate. The third wheeler – and apparent youth favourite – Peter Obi of the Labour Party is 61. (Buhari has served two terms and cannot run again.)

The choice of candidates, all of whom have dominated Nigeria’s politics for the past two decades, is unappealing, especially to new voters. Egbuka said he is not happy that he had no new options to choose from.

Samson Itodo, founder of Yiaga Africa, the organisation that led the push for the age-reduction bill, told openDemocracy that another major obstacle for young people is the sheer cost of campaigning in a Nigerian election.

In a country where the unemployment rate is 35% and the monthly minimum wage 30,000 naira ($64), the ruling party APC sold its nomination forms for the presidency for 100 million naira (c.$235,000) and 50 million naira ($118,000) for state governor. PDP sold its nomination forms for the presidency for 40 million naira (£94,000) and 21 million naira ($49,000) for governor.

“That needs to change. We need to reduce the costs of politics and the costs of running for office,” said Itodo.

No choice for LGBTIQ+ youth

Public homophobia is not being weaponised in the current election campaign as it was in 2014 when then-president Goodluck Jonathan, who was running for another term, proposed a law to prohibit same-sex marriages – even though they were neither happening nor being campaigned for in the country.

The law, which threated same-sex individuals who marry with 14 years in prison, was passed, increasing attacks on LGBTIQ+ Nigerians. However, Jonathan failed to be re-elected.

This time, LGBTIQ+ voters are at a loss about who to vote for. Many voters who identify as LGBTIQ+ are young, and have sympathies for the youth favourite, Peter Obi, who is seen as a third force that might break the hold of APC and PDP. “Though I don’t want to vote, I want Peter Obi to win,” says Victor, a young bisexual Nigerian.

But Obi’s choice for vice-president is Yusuf Datti Baba-Ahmed, who, as a senator when the anti-gay marriage law was passed, called for the killing of LGBTIQ+ people. “I feel like Obi should make his VP apologise. It’s not right to call for people to be killed,” Victor says.

However, Obi is unlikely to ask for such an apology, given that, even among Nigeria’s young people, only 16% support gay marriage.

“No candidate could be said to be a queer ally. I feel gay people should be indifferent about the election,” says Inno, a gay Nigerian writer, adding that LGBTIQ+ Nigerians won’t be saved by anyone in power, but through grassroots activism.

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