Will Nigeria’s young voters break the mould?

Nigeria’s two big political parties are likely to pursue the tactics that have brought them success in the past, but Peter Obi's insurgent candidacy will test the strength of the country's youth vote.


Image : Samuel Alabi/AFP

Recent Nigerian elections have typically been won through ethnic and religious alliances rather than through the manifestos and policies articulated by the political parties. Will the 25 February presidential election be any different?

That’s a major question as the country goes into the final weeks of campaigning for what many pundits are already billing as the most crucial election in the country’s history.

Four candidates out of the 18 in the running to succeed President Muhammadu Buhari are generally perceived as viable: Bola Ahmed Tinubu (70), the candidate of the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC); former vice-president Atiku Abubakar (76), the candidate of the main opposition People’s Democratic Party (PDP); Peter Obi (61) of the Labour Party; and Rabiu Musa Kwankwaso (66) of the New Nigeria People’s Party.

Only the APC and PDP have tasted power before, but both Obi and Kwankwaso were formerly members of the latter. Both Abubakar and Kwankwaso were also at one time members of the APC.

Obi, who was elected a state governor under the All Progressives Grand Alliance, a regional party, two decades ago, later switched to the PDP and was Abubakar’s running mate when he challenged Buhari in 2019.

Obi was initially seeking the PDP’s nomination ahead of this year’s vote and only joined the Labour Party when he found no pathway there. This underscores the fact that there are no major ideological scores to settle, with all the top candidates apparently committed to market economics.

Obi’s gamble

Yet Obi’s latest switch appears to be proving the most consequential of his political career. Most opinion polls are projecting him as the likely winner, with Nigerians fed up with the ineffective and often corrupt rule of the two parties that have wielded power.

Obi has discarded the old path to power based on ethnic and religious horse-trading in favour of taking his plans and vision for the country directly to the electorate. His bet appears to be paying off.

His messaging has been aided by his record of frugality and investments in education and infrastructure during his two terms as governor of Anambra state in the southeast. His argument that the country needs to move “from consumption to production”, with “no more sharing of the national cake by a few” appears to have resonated, particularly with younger people.

It is a compelling narrative that could take him all the way to the presidential palace, but the APC and PDP’s records of electoral success are a formidable barrier for an insurgent candidate representing a party with no record of national government.

In contrast, Tinubu and the APC have long cultivated alliances with ethnic political chieftains. In the 2015 presidential election, a pact brought together voters from the predominantly Muslim and Hausa-speaking north beholden to Buhari and ethnic Yoruba voters of the southwest loyal to Tinubu, ending 16 years of PDP rule. As the candidate of the APC, Tinubu expects the same alliance to deliver the top job to him.

Abubakar’s challenge

In 2015 and 2019, the PDP swept the southeast, the oil-rich Niger Delta and some parts of central and northeastern Nigeria. But it wasn’t enough to give it victory.

PDP strategy assumes that a stronger showing for Abubakar in the north, which mostly went to Buhari in 2019, along with victories in the ethnic Igbo southeast and among the Delta minorities, could put the presidency within his reach.

That calculation appears to have been upended somewhat by Obi’s candidacy, which is enthusiastically supported among the Igbo and appears competitive as well in the minority areas of the Niger Delta and central Nigeria.

Kwankwaso has had less of a clear path. But he has undoubted popularity in the northwest, where his welfarist interventions as a two-term PDP governor of Kano state endeared him to the people. Kwankwaso has said in the past that he will back Tinubu if he finds himself unlikely to win. So far, he hasn’t done so, but with the APC and PDP both vying for northern support, he may yet have a chance to use his leverage.

In a country almost evenly split between a predominantly Muslim north and a largely Christian south, Tinubu, a Muslim from the southwest, chose Kashim Shettima, a Muslim from the northwest, as his running mate. However, this attempt to sweep the north could cost him the support of some northern Christian minorities who have suffered a rise in jihadist attacks.

Meanwhile, Abubakar, who shares the same Fulani ethnicity as outgoing President Buhari, is pitching for the support of his native northeast, which has yet to produce a Nigerian president.

The youth election?

The APC’s chances could also depend on perceptions of the outgoing President’s performance.

With some 133m Nigerians living in poverty amid escalating national debt and worsening insecurity, opponents of the party have a lot of ammunition. Anti-government sentiments exploded into nationwide protests against police brutality in October 2020.

This bred widespread anger among younger people, many of whom vowed to oust the APC at the ballot box. The Labour Party seems to be the primary beneficiary of this anger, with Obi’s defection to the party triggering a surge of voter registrations particularly among young people.

The 2023 election belongs to “young people” the chairman of Nigeria’s Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), Mahmood Yakubu, told an audience at London’s Chatham House think-tank on 17 January. He pointed out that those aged between 18 and 34 represent 39% of registered voters, followed by middle-aged voters, who make up 35%. Between them, these two demographics will essentially determine the winner of the presidential election.

However, for Obi to take full benefit of the youth vote, he will have to dodge his opponents’ occasionally lurid allegations in an increasingly dirty campaign. Tinubu’s campaign has tried to tie Obi to the Biafra separatist movement in the southeast. Abubakar has been criticised over allegations of corruption dating from his time as vice-president.

Tinubu’s opponents have in turn dredged up evidence that he was forced to forfeit hundreds of thousands of dollars in the 1990s in Chicago, which were alleged by prosecutors to be the proceeds of drug trafficking, although he was never convicted of such an offence. Questions have been raised about his health following a number of mental and physical stumbles in public.

It will take the outcome of the elections to determine whether the mud has stuck to any of the candidates. If either Tinubu or Abubakar wins, it will be the triumph of the old style of politics in Nigeria. But if Obi sweeps to power on the youth vote, Nigeria’s cosy political system will have been thoroughly upended.

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