By Jude Mutah & Chris M.A. Kwaja*
Nigeria, Africa’s most populous nation, heads to the polls next month to select new leaders. Unlike the previous elections, 2023 is unique – Over 70% of the 12 million new registered voters are youths under age 34. Another 40 million young people are registered, amounting to over 50 million potential youthful voters. According to the Independent National Elections Commission (INEC), about 95 million people in Nigeria have registered to vote. Nigeria’s youths, who before now showed little or no interest in politics, have a critical role in choosing Nigeria’s next president. The candidates would rely heavily on the young voters to access Nigeria’s most prestigious job – the president of the federation.
The demographic asset of the youths in the run-up to the 2023 elections has increased their strategic value, as evident in their role in the electoral process. For both the political parties and their candidates, the resort to ensuring young persons become an integral part of their operations have been quite evident. This resort to giving the youths such a space is not so much because they ‘believe’ in the youths; instead, they possess an electoral value that can not be ignored in the face of their costs.
Before now, young people’s interest in Nigeria’s political process was low for several reasons: electoral violence, manipulations, voting irregularities, candidate recycling, human rights abuses, widespread poverty, corruption, and mistrust of the government, among others. However, the heightened interest witnessed during the current voter registration process and other political activities only indicates that the tides may be about to change. The 2023 elections are also happening against the backdrop of the 2020 nationwide protest against police brutality led by young Nigerians calling for an end to the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) of the Nigerian Police Force, infamous for brutalizing, assaulting, and even orchestrating the forced disappearance of young people. The protests gathered widespread sympathy and set the stage for young people to rise to the occasion and select leaders catering to the well-being and interest of Nigeria’s enormous and burgeoning youthful population. Whoever assumes Nigeria’s presidency next year must be ready to confront the challenges of bad governance, insecurity, human rights abuses, inflation, and growing unemployment.
Unlike the previous elections, whereby only two main and usual political parties – the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) and the All Progressive Congress (APC) – locked horns, next year’s elections have a third contender, who seemed to appeal more to Nigeria’s young voting population. Compared to the Septuagenarian candidates for PDP and APC, Presidential candidate Peter Obi of the Labor Party is more youthful and relatively new in Nigeria’s political space, where the leaders are constantly recycled for decades. Mr. Obi’s candidacy offers hope to many young Nigeria; his supporters love him for simple things that most Nigerian politicians ignore: As governor of Anambra State, he “invested in education and paid salaries on time.” Others have revered his intelligence, excellent administrative prowess, and ability to manage resources. He also left the state coffers rich at the end of his tenure, although some have argued that it was out of frugality in the face of hunger and dwindling infrastructural development. However, with only a few months to the elections, the momentum continues to build behind the Labor Party candidate. The biggest challenge now is converting the growing youth interests in the political process and the enormous number of young registered voters into actual votes for Mr. Obi in 2023.
Since 1999, successive governments have not addressed the youth question regarding their effective participation in governance. Instead, they have been more or less used as mere voters whose electoral values come and go on the day of elections, despite their substantive electoral value. As we advance, in the run-up to the elections and their aftermath, youth-led campaigns and governance remain essential areas in which the political class should invest. The youth must be ready to transform their electoral value into concrete democratic dividends in 2023. This is the surest pathway to making their voices heard and their votes count.
*Jude Mutah, Ph.D., is a program officer for Africa at the National Endowment for Democracy in Washing, DC. Before that, he served as a program officer for Africa at the United States Institute of Peace, where he led the day-to-day management of peacebuilding and governance initiatives in Africa. He is an adjunct professor of international affairs at the School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Baltimore, Maryland. He recently joined the State University of San Diego as an adjunct professor of Criminal Justice in the School of Public Affairs.