Record Numbers of Young Voters Mobilize in Nigeria for Presidential Race

The youth vote can be unreliable in just about any electorate, but if Nigeria’s pre-election polls hold up, young voters are set to propel third-party candidate Peter Obi to a historic victory.

If the polls do not hold up, as many veteran Nigerian political observers expect, Obi will become the latest populist candidate to wonder where all those excited young supporters went on Election Day.

PBS reported on Wednesday that Obi’s legion of hopeful young voters is smashing records in registration, lofting Obi to the top of the polls even though his Labor Party barely managed to eke out 0.10 percent of the vote in the previous election.

“Nigeria is Africa’s most populous country, with more than 210 million people, and it has at least 93 million registered voters, almost 40 percent of whom are under 35. The country has one of the world’s largest youth populations, with about 64 million people aged 18-35 and a median age of 18,” PBS observed.

Presidential candidate of Labour Party Peter Obi looks on during the party campaign rally in Lagos, on February 11, 2023. (Photo by PIUS UTOMI EKPEI / AFP)

Presidential candidate of Labour Party Peter Obi looks on during the party campaign rally in Lagos, on February 11, 2023. (Photo by PIUS UTOMI EKPEI / AFP)

Radio France Internationale (RFI) added that over 42 percent of those young voters are unemployed. College students will account for 27 percent of registered voters in this Saturday’s election, and they overwhelmingly support Obi. 

Universities were shuttered for two weeks leading up to the election due to security concerns, which means students with time on their hands – and a reminder of how insecure Nigeria has become ringing in their ears – may be more likely to vote than usual.

“We really pray for a better leader. Someone who is responsible, and aware of our problems,” a student named Nawas Adam Abubakar told RFI, strongly hinting at Obi because few young Nigerians would describe either of his leading competitors in such terms, although Abubakar did not disclose who he plans to vote for.

“There are so many graduates, and less and less opportunity to work. We study to learn, but we do not count on our diplomas to get a job,” said medical student Rahila Mallo, who did profess to be an enthusiastic Obi voter.

Supporters of Nigeria's Labour Party's Presidential Candidate Peter Obi, chants during an election campaign rally at the Tafawa Balewa Square in Lagos Nigeria, Saturday, Feb. 11, 2023. Fueled by high unemployment and growing insecurity, younger Nigerians are mobilizing in record numbers to take part in this month's presidential election. (AP Photo/Sunday Alamba)

Supporters of Nigeria’s Labour Party’s Presidential Candidate Peter Obi, chant during an election campaign rally at the Tafawa Balewa Square in Lagos Nigeria, Saturday, February 11, 2023. (AP Photo/Sunday Alamba)

Obi is considerably younger at 61 than his rivals, 70-year-old Bola Tinubu of the governing All Progressives Congress (APC) party and 76-year-old Atiku Abubakar of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP). 

Obi is adept at using social media and has cultivated the youth vote with promises of reform, while Tinubu — ranked as the favorite in a typical low-turnout election model by veteran Nigerian political analysts — is making a big push for the Muslim vote in the more populous northern half of the country. Nigerian presidential tickets usually split between a Muslim and a Christian, but Tinubu is running with another Muslim against the Christian Obi.

“We are having one of our most polarized elections ever. Our campaign messaging is a lot more focused on competition between religions, competition between ethnic groups and trying to address political equity issues,” Open Society Foundation analyst Ayisha Osori fretted to NPR.


Bola Tinubu (AFP)

Young Obi voters assured NPR that this will not be a typical election. Some viewed Obi as their last chance to turn Nigeria around, and if he does not win, they will seek opportunity elsewhere.

“The typical response from our politicians when young Nigerians complain is that we don’t vote. Well, another generation has lately become aware of their responsibilities to join hands to make this nation work. And we have decided to vote,” youth activist Rinu Oduala said.

Political scientist Kester Onor said on Wednesday that Obi is the first candidate in recent Nigerian history to rely so heavily upon young voters, and “nobody knows how it will turn out.”

“Political movements driven by young people like Y’en a Marre in Senegal, Balai Citoyen in Burkina Faso, or Filimbi in the Democratic Republic of the Congo have met with relatively little success. However, the recent emergence of President William Ruto in Kenya’s presidential election has shown that some of Africa’s youth are making their mark on the continent,” Onor observed.

One of the obstacles faced by young voters is that Nigerian elections are not terribly clean, or safe. New election policies and voting equipment are supposed to cut down on fraud this time around, but Nigeria is still swarming with militant groups willing to use violence to influence elections, which is why universities have been closed until after Election Day. Nigeria requires in-person voting, so polling places have serious security concerns.

“There is a thick veil of violence shrouding the 2023 elections that undermines people’s fundamental right to vote. It is important for the authorities to swiftly restore public confidence in their ability to hold those responsible for electoral violence accountable and ensure the safety and security of all Nigerians,” Nigeria researcher Anietie Ewang of Human Rights Watch (HRW) said in early February.

“The elections are set to take place against a backdrop of impunity for abuses by security forces and other actors during the previous general elections in 2019. There have also been security threats from multiple groups across the country, including violent gangs in the northwest and groups in southeastern Nigeria who have been trying to undermine the elections,” HRW observed.

On Wednesday night, a senatorial candidate from Obi’s party named Oyibo Chukwu was murdered by unidentified gunmen in the southeastern state of Enugu. Chukwu was ambushed on his way home from a campaign event, just hours after Nigeria’s political parties signed a joint pledge to hold a peaceful election.

“He was shot dead and then set ablaze in his vehicle with his driver. It is a devastating development for us. We are suspecting political assassination because he is favored to win the election,” said Enugu Labor Party chairman Chinwuba Ngwu.

The leading Nigerian presidential candidates have significantly different security platforms. Abubakar essentially wants to give the approach taken by incumbent President Muhammadu Buhari more time to work, but with more police officers and a possible military escalation against the Boko Haram insurgency. 

Obi, who originally hailed from Abubakar’s party before launching his third-party bid, largely agrees but puts more emphasis on coordinating counterterrorism efforts with the other Lake Chad Basin nations.

Tinubu believes fixing Nigeria’s economy will drain extremist groups of recruits, while the fourth leading candidate, Rabiu Musa Kwankwaso of the New Nigerian People’s Party (NNPP), calls for quadrupling the size of the Nigerian military to defeat extremist groups – while also empowering military leaders to improve the economy by cracking down on corruption.


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