How Nigerian youth are galvanising for upcoming presidential vote

More than a third of Nigeria’s 93.4 million registered voters are young people who are gearing up to vote after years of low turnouts. What has changed?

A demonstrator salutes as he raises the Nigerian flag during a protest over alleged police brutality in Lagos, Nigeria, October 17, 2020 [File: Temilade Adelaja/Reuters]

Lagos, Nigeria – Onyinye Odinmah is excited about voting for the first time as Nigeria’s presidential election nears.

After two months of long waits at the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) office in Shomolu, Lagos, she secured a biometric Permanent Voters Card (PVC), becoming one of a record 10 million new registered voters ahead of the February 25 election.

Of that number, 84 percent are aged 18 to 34, according to INEC. Young people in that demographic represent more than a third of 93.4 million registered voters – the highest compared with previous elections.

“I didn’t get my PVC and [didn’t] vote in the last election [in 2019] because I felt they already knew what the outcome would be, and our votes do not count,” Odinmah, a 26-year-old guidance counsellor based in Lagos, told Al Jazeera.

“It’s different this time because I participated in EndSARS [protests of October 2020]. I felt there was no need to start complaining but to do the right thing [vote],” she added.

A tipping point

Nigeria has one of the highest population growth rates globally and more than two-thirds of its citizens are below the age of 30.

Some refused to vote or even register to do so in previous election cycles for multiple reasons ranging from fear of violence during elections to a trust deficit in state institutions and others.

The 2019 presidential election witnessed the lowest turnout since Nigeria’s return to democratic government in 1999 – only a third of registered voters showed up at polling units.

But it followed a pattern of routinely low participation in the process – only twice has voter turnout reached or surpassed 50 percent of total registered voters since Nigeria’s first presidential elections in 1979.

But now, an increasing number of Nigerians, especially those who have become eligible to vote since the 2019 general elections, seem willing to do so, more than ever before.

Nigeria has also suffered two recessions in the eight years of the Muhammadu Buhari presidency, a situation worsened by incessant fuel scarcity, an energy deficit and cash shortages.

That has led to many seeking change.

But the October 2020 nationwide protests against the extrajudicial torture and killings by the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) police unit, which trended as #EndSARS on social media, spearheaded by young people has been pinpointed as a tipping point.

At least a dozen people were killed and an unknown number of others wounded – according to Amnesty International – after the army opened fire on protesters as they sang the national anthem at a known national landmark in an upscale Lagos neighbourhood.

The massacre remains etched in the minds of many Nigerians, especially as police brutality and impunity continue to date.

Since then, young Nigerians have been mobilising online and offline due to civic education from civil society organisations and other volunteer communities.

“It [#EndSARS protests] underscored for young people the need for direct engagement with the political and electoral system to reform and get it to be responsive to their needs,” Ikemesit Effiong, head of research at Lagos-based geopolitical consultancy SBM Intelligence, told Al Jazeera.

The widespread discontent with the state of governance has also galvanised the youth to vote after lecturers in public universities went on strike for eight months last year because of a wage dispute with the authorities.

It was the 16th strike in 23 years – much to the chagrin of students nationwide. According to INEC, 40 percent of the newly registered voters are students.

“It is now clear to young people that elections do have consequences, and that era of sitting at home on elections day, watching TV, and playing football rather than exercising their civic responsibility is now over,” Stanley Achonu, country director for ONE Campaign, told Al Jazeera.

‘The presence of Peter Obi’

Ahead of the polls, the traditional dominance of Nigeria’s two parties – the ruling All Progressive Congress (APC) and the main opposition People’s Democratic Party (PDP) since Nigeria’s return to democratic rule in 1999 – is being strongly challenged for the first time.

Last May, Peter Obi, a two-time governor of the southeastern state of Anambra, left the PDP for the lesser-known Labour Party (LP) to challenge flagbearers of the two major parties: Ahmed Bola Tinubu of APC and former Vice President Atiku Abubakar of PDP.

A fourth candidate, the New Nigeria People’s Party (NNPP)’s Rabiu Kwankwaso, is also seen as a wildcard in the presidential race.

Obi, a wealthy businessman, has long gained a reputation for being frugal and accountable. His message of prudent management of national resources has resonated with many young people who see his opponents as symbolic of the established order in Nigeria where corruption seems endemic.

Analysts say Obi’s emergence has galvanised hitherto apathetic voters to participate in the country’s electoral process.

“The presence of Peter Obi on the ballot is a significant investment in political education which has driven voter registrations to record levels and a motivated lower income class, which will lead to a rise in turnout,” said Effiong.

Protesters hold a poster as Nigerians mark the first anniversary of the #EndSARS anti-police brutality protest in Abuja, Nigeria, October 20, 2021 [File: Afolabi Sotunde/Reuters]

The role of social media

Young Nigerians have long relied on social media to get information and gauge public opinion as smartphone penetration rates increase and internet connectivity costs decrease in the country. In 2015, the APC co-opted social media for campaigns that helped end the PDP’s 16-year grip on democratic power.

During the #EndSARS demonstrations, social media played a vital role in getting young people on the streets to protest. Since then, they have congregated on social media networking sessions, getting an education on the country’s governance and electoral process from influencers and political groups.

Olisaemeka Nwosu, a first-time voter and Lagos-based product manager, participated in the anti-police brutality protests and attended different virtual conversations on the need to vote.

“The Instagram Live series of celebrities like Falz and Mr Macaroni [two popular Nigerian activists] on the need for political participation inspired my decision [to get a PVC and vote],” he told Al Jazeera.

Particularly of note are Obi supporters, who call themselves “Obidient” who have capitalised on the power of social media to entice new believers and create a groundswell of support for their preferred candidate.

They have formed groups on WhatsApp and Facebook, raising funding to pay for logistics on the ground to convince more people to register and vote for Obi.

“The 10 million new registered voters is directly tied to the Obidient Movement,” Joseph Onuorah, a founding member of the WhatsApp group Obidient Movement, claims.

“The messaging was united across all the support groups. To change Nigeria, we need to elect Peter Obi, to achieve that starts with going to get your PVC,” he told Al Jazeera.

Volunteer groups with no political affiliations have been offering taxi people free rides to pick up their voter cars across Lagos and a number of other cities.

To win the Nigerian presidency, a candidate has to garner the highest votes and at least 25 percent in 24 of the 36 states.

Several polls have projected an Obi win in the February 25 vote.

But his critics deride him as a “social media candidate” and call the projections “social media polls”, saying the Labour Party needs a nationwide structure to get a national spread of votes.

His supporters disagree.

“Obi is a breath of fresh air,” said Odinmah, who convinced her sister to get a voter card and is talking to her friends who have theirs, on the need to vote.

At the INEC office in Somolu where she retrieved her voter card, most of the others in the queue were youths, she told Al Jazeera.

“I’m so happy seeing young people go out against all odds to get their PVC and vote right this time,” she told Al Jazeera. “It feels good to be part of a revolution like this.”

Source: Al Jazeera