Nigeria’s Young Voters Are Backing an Outsider for President

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Peter Obi belongs to the Igbo minority and lacks a major party platform, but he promises a break from the country’s corrupt gerontocracy.

For eight months, the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU), the umbrella body for lecturers in Nigeria, were on strike over the federal government’s inability to abide by a 2009 agreement signed with the union. The lecturers wanted improved wages, better infrastructure on campuses, and adoption of a payment system developed by their group. The government’s refusal left more than 1 million students stranded at home.

University strikes have been a recurrent phenomenon in Nigeria for decades and students are usually the collateral damage, with their academic progress getting stalled and life plans disrupted. This is one of the major reasons why anyone who can afford to get their degrees in any country outside Nigeria do so.

With Nigeria’s general elections coming up in less than seven months, this is political suicide for the ruling party, the All Progressives Congress (APC), which formed in 2013 through a merger of four political parties, anchored on social democracy and the welfare and security of citizens. ASUU’s recurrent strike has whipped up public sentiment against the ruling party, and young people are turning to former governor Peter Obi, whose candidacy under the Labour Party is fast turning into a formidable third force.

The use of social media is driving awareness of his strengths and capabilities, and it is also a mobilization ground for his teeming fans. Young people are saying Obi, nicknamed “Okwute,” or “the rock” in Igbo, is the only one who can repair the failing economy.

Since Nigeria returned to democracy in 1999, the academic union has gone on strike 16 times. The recent strike has is one of the longest in history, only second to the 10-month strike in 2020. Students are the victims in this unending standoff: Most are between 17 to 24 years of age. And Nigeria’s job market is notorious for setting an age ceiling that disqualifies applicants older than 24. With the strike, many students come out of school too old to access the slim opportunities and are destined to join the growing ranks of the unemployed.

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President Muhammadu Buhari’s government did not make serious moves to reach a deal with the union until the country’s industrial court ordered the union to end the strike. Rather, the president asked parents and stakeholders to appeal to the lecturers as the country’s future was at stake. This is, rather, a show of inefficiency to ask parents to beg teachers rather than to look for a way to solve the problem. The young are simply giving up on the old guard. With 70 percent of the population under 30, the 2023 elections pose a challenge for presidential aspirants who have been criticized on the basis of their age or health.

There has been an increase in voter registration in recent months. According to the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), of the more than 10 million new voters, over 6 million are youths, a very formidable voting bloc that has historically largely been ignored as they are seen as apathetic when it comes to voting.

This reinvigoration of youth participation in politics has created a fright for the major parties, especially the APC, which has failed to deliver on its campaign promises to fight corruption, bolster national security, stabilize the economy, and stop university strikes in more than seven years of governance. The #EndSARS protest in October 2020, which resulted in the death of at least 12 protesters and left many others injured, revealed what the anger and determination of the people could achieve.

Bola Tinubu, former Lagos governor and current APC presidential flagbearer, is on the record blaming the victims of the Lekki massacre. His People’s Democratic Party (PDP) counterpart, Abubakar Atiku, a former vice president who has been running for president for the past two decades, is famous for paying lip service to situations of public concern. Recently, he deleted a tweet condemning the killing of a female student who was attacked and burned by a mob in Sokoto.

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Some young people will not support Tinubu because they feel his choice of a Muslim running mate undermines Nigeria’s religious diversity. Historically, candidates from major parties have chosen a running mate from another region and religion to foster a sense of unity. Young Nigerians are eyeing the forthcoming elections as their chance to make a bold statement to show the old power brokers that the real power belongs to the people.

To curry the support of the youths, both leading candidates have spoken about their plans to end to the incessant ASUU strikes if elected. Tinubu met on July 14 with the executives of the National Association of Nigerian Students to discuss the ongoing strike. Young people recognized that it was just a medium to “show face” or appear empathetic to issues affecting common people. Atiku said he would work with varsity authorities to end the strike and decried the inability of the incumbent government to find a solution. But neither achieved any lasting solutions and made no further efforts.

But it is Obi, the former governor of Anambra state running under the banner of the Labour Party—a movement that enjoys the support of trade unions and the working class—who seems to be capturing the attention of young people this campaign season. Many see him as a beacon of hope who could turn the country’s fortune around with his background in banking. His relative youthfulness and trove of achievements during his time as governor, especially in educational reforms, make him look like someone who understands the youth and can implement projects that help them.

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This is very unusual because the voting public historically gravitates toward the more popular candidates from the governing APC and the largest opposition party, the PDP, who are most likely to emerge as winners. Older people, although bothered by the effect of the strikes, do not necessarily see recognize Obi as a savior. The strikes may not change their voting culture given ethnic sentiments and rampant vote-buying.

Obi’s increasing popularity has forced political strategists to reconsider typical voting patterns and how the 2023 elections could radically transform electoral outcomes. His selling points are his relative youth (he is 61) and his enchanting speech—usually delivered in a calm, soft voice urging young Nigerians to join him to take back the country for the youth—and his ethnic identity.

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