Nigeria's youth set to shape the outcome of elections

Nigeria's youth set to shape the outcome of elections

Nigerian tech entrepreneur Fred Oyetayo relocated to Britain last year, but the 29-year-old plans to fly back home to cast his vote in presidential elections on Saturday.

Nigeria protests - AFP

"We all want change," he told AFP, blaming Nigeria's current and past leaders for the country's myriad problems, from a disastrous economy to the biggest security crisis in years.

Despite the stream of grim developments in Africa's most populous nation, millions of energetic, creative, and successful young people are itching for the country to advance.

Almost 40 percent of registered voters are under the age of 35 and many are hoping to finally trigger change by casting a ballot to replace President Muhammadu Buhari, who is stepping down after his two terms allowed by the constitution.

"For the first time we have the usual terrible people and a good person," said 28-year-old Temidayo Oniosun who works in the space industry and has invested in dozens of early-stage startups.

That "good" person according to the Lagos-based entrepreneur is 61-year-old Peter Obi, who represents the first credible challenge the country's main two parties have ever had.

The ruling party's candidate is 70-year-old Bola Tinubu while the main opposition's candidate is 76-year-old Atiku Abubakar.

Both are perceived by many as being corrupt though they have never been convicted of any charges and both deny any wrongdoing.

- 26 million students -

Successful young professionals are not the only ones supporting Obi, who is also popular with students, a large pool of 26 million registered voters.

On the campus of the University of Abuja in the capital, Brandon Okori and Daniel Ononaye are rushing to their political science class.

"I am definitely voting (for) Obi," said 23-year-old Okori, while his friend Ononaye, 22, nods and adds: "Obi is not there for the money or the power, like the two others."

A combination of factors have energised Nigeria's youth in these elections. For one, economic hardship has reached extreme levels, with months of university strikes and youth unemployment at more than 40 percent, leading to a rise in criminality.

There is also a newfound belief that young people's voice matters, especially since youth-led protests erupted in late 2020.

For the first time since Nigeria returned to democracy in 1999, young people massively took to the streets across the country, demonstrating in a peaceful and organised way against police brutality and demanding better governance.

The movement was violently repressed, revealing "the ruptured social contract between the Nigerian state and society," according to Leena Koni Hoffmann, a fellow at the British think tank Chatham House.

"There is a lingering sense of political betrayal," she wrote, and late last year, the electoral commission announced that 76 percent of newly registered voters for 2023 were under the age of 34.

It remains to be seen if this cohort of young people will actually turn out to vote -- many did not pick up their voters card and therefore will not be able to cast a ballot.

And while Obi leads in several pre-elections polls, Tinubu and Abubakar have access to more resources and control governors and other leaders who hold considerable sway in their constituencies.

In addition, vote buying is common and voting patterns along religious and ethnic lines remain strong.

Zahra Abba is a student at the University of Maiduguri in northeast Nigeria, which along with the northwest have a majority-Muslim population and have traditionally had the highest turnout during elections.

"Who is Peter Obi? From which state? Anambra (a southern, mostly Christian state)? I don't like him," said the 22-year-old biology student, adding that she would have voted for Buhari if he was running again but will likely settle for Abubakar.

- 'Messiah' -

But the northern vote is split.

"We are trying not to see Obi as a messiah because we had a terrible experience with perceiving politicians in that sense," said 30-year-old Fakhrriyyah Hashim from the northern city of Kano and works in social development.

"But he has the stature of a messiah in the minds of young people and everybody believes this is someone who is going to turn the tide around," said the young woman.

She is aware of the risk of voting for a third party in a country where two largely dominate, and is still weighing her decision.

"I don't want to cast my vote for someone who may lose, and just hand the victory to the ruling party, so I might vote Atiku (Abubakar), I might vote Obi, it depends on what their chances look like in the next few days."

For many entrepreneurs like Fred Oyetayo, the election will have direct consequences on their burgeoning businesses but also on the lives of those around them.

"I know a lot of people who will leave (the country) if the right candidate does not win," said Oyetayo.

Temidayo Oniosun is optimistic. While the old guard "joke about the Obidient movement" that supports Obi, he and many others are readying to send them a wake up call.


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