Nigeria’s youth made up the bulk of new voters in the 2023 elections, but were they the ones to decide? Historically, Nigeria’s elections have been affected by low voter turn-out, with seemingly inalienable voter apathy. The 25 February elections, however, put a question mark on previous voter turnout data.
The elections have come and gone and the question persists—what happens now? Did Nigeria’s youth get to decide this time?
According to voter registration data from the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), more than half of new voters are young people aged 18-34 years. Of the 9.4 million newly registered voters, 7.28 million or 76 per cent of them are young people. In terms of occupation, the data showed that 40 per cent of new voters identified as students, who at 27.8 per cent, made up almost twice the number of the next class of voters—farmers at 15.8 per cent of all voters.
Ahead of the polls, important questions were raised about what the elections could look like. Under democracy, the majority chooses and this year, the majority includes a demographic full of first time voters. It was expected that these numbers could spell a change in the political landscape in Nigeria. But a change in what way? In what direction?
At the moment, it is difficult to see the power of the electorate given the widespread disenfranchisement and violence that marred the recently concluded elections. Still, it remains worthwhile to understand the reason not only why Nigerian youths were active in the political cycle, but also why they trooped out en masse to make their voices heard. What are the nuances of the youth’s politics and ideologies? Why did the new generation of voters register in unprecedented numbers?
Insights, applicable not only to Nigeria’s political terrain, can be drawn from the elections. The 2023 general elections, and the build-up to them, can provide a window into understanding the nuances of political participation within Nigeria, and African democracies as it relates to the youth. Can insight be drawn from other African countries previously in a condition similar to Nigeria’s current political landscape? One where young people had the opportunity to swing the elections in their favour due to their strength in numbers, but yet, were unable to.
Drawing these parallels would be valuable in understanding how to protect, sustain, strengthen and perhaps overhaul weaker practices within African democracies as younger voting generations exercise their civic duty. Within Nigeria, the immediate benefit of participating in the elections is all too obvious—young people are the ones most likely to deal with the long-term outcomes of choices made today. The elections, both 25 February and 11 March, could be a turning point in what the future looks like for Nigeria’s youth.
Youth participation in the elections stemmed largely from dissatisfaction with the status quo, especially in the recent past. The generation that makes up Nigeria’s youth has had to deal with unique frustrations, ranging from dire economic conditions to frustrations about extra-judicial killing by security agents and the administration’s general handling of the #EndSARS protests in 2020. In addition, the eight month long strike in 2022 by the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) was a particular pain point among young would-be voters.
Many students across the country’s public tertiary institutions had to deal with the frustration of watching a protracted back and forth negotiation between the union and the federal government over unpaid lecturers’ salaries. Strikes are common in Nigeria but the strike action in 2022 was the second longest in the nation’s history.
The effect on the academic progress of students was particularly pronounced, considering the many other recent disruptions to the academic calendar such as the Covid-19 pandemic. Timilehin, a newly admitted student of the Federal University of Akure will only resume academic work in March this year, despite being admitted for the 2021/2022 session.
My experience with the strike…involved me staying at home and waiting for the strike (to be called off) while others (in private institutions) were in school, it was at some point unbearable. Knowing that the strike was an indefinite one, there was no sense in reading every day when no one knows when it will be over.
When the strike was eventually suspended, it was done so based on promises made by the federal government to pay the owed funds—a situation that is still awaiting rectification
Against the stressful process of gaining a university education, the outlook of life after higher education does not appear any better. Nigeria’s unemployment rate has steadily grown in the past few years, and the Nigerian Economic Summit Group predicts that unemployment in 2023 could reach 37 per cent. This indicates that over a third of Nigerians would be unemployed, a situation that is particularly grim considering Nigeria is a country with a large share of the world’s extremely poor.
The current administration has been responsible for two economic recessions in the eight years it has been in power. The outlook for youth in tertiary institutions, and after graduation appears difficult.
Perhaps one of the most grievous actions of the current administration is the handling of 2020’s #EndSARS protest, where the government employed propaganda to deny the deaths of unarmed protesters in October. Young people across Nigeria watched an Instagram live-stream of officers of Nigeria’s army shooting down unarmed protesters. The country wanted answers for the atrocities, and the response from the government was a televised address by the presidency advising youth to stop further protests. Perhaps, this is where the youth realized the true attitude of the current administration to their existence—one that was not designed to protect the fundamental human rights of Nigerian citizens.
Although the protests ended tragically, they signalled the first time that Nigeria’s new generation of youth felt collectively empowered to speak out, to take action against the failures of the government. The outcome of the protests might have been discouraging, but it taught us one thing—political participation is not only done with protests. If the government would not listen to the voices in the streets, perhaps they would listen to the noise at the polls.
There was a certain hope that could have motivated the new turnout of youth to register to vote, one that is a lot quieter than the hope in the #EndSARS protests, but it remains to be seen if this would be effective in achieving the youth’s ultimate goal: a Nigeria that works for them.
THE ROAD LESS TRAVELLED
While the motivators for youth participation in the 2023 elections are obvious, the threats to voter turn-out need to be considered as well. It is one thing to get a large number of people to register to vote for elections, but one could argue that the harder thing to overcome is getting people to show up to vote on election day.
The 2019 elections showed record-low turnout among voters, with only 35 per cent of registered voters participating in the elections, according to INEC data. This used to be the lowest recorded voter turnout since Nigeria’s return to democratic rule in 1999. This is glaring as neighbouring West African countries like Ghana and Liberia had voter turnouts of 68.6 per cent and 56 per cent during presidential elections in a similar period.
If voter apathy is a reason for voters staying away from the polls, what are the factors that create that apathy among Nigerians in the first place? The answer is simple, Nigeria’s elections are unlikely to be violence-free—and the recent elections made that all too clear.
As voters queued up at their polling units to cast their votes, they were met with numerous acts of violence by unknown gunmen and attackers. These instances of violence, in many cases, disrupted the voting process by dispersing the voters, as was the case in Lagos. Apart from the violence, there were also numerous incidents across the country of INEC officials arriving late to polling units, and in some areas, not arriving at all.
In the 2019 general elections, there were numerous accounts of election day violence created by state security forces and political thugs alike. These acts of violence resulted in the recorded deaths of at least 629 people during the 2019 election cycle. Following the #EndSARS protests, the threat to life is not only real but also quite fresh in the collective consciousness. The price to pay for political participation could be as steep as one’s life.
Before the elections, there were already incidents occurring across the nation with INEC local government offices being attacked, such as the INEC office in the Izzi local government area, Ebonyi State that was set ablaze. Other states such as Imo, experienced attacks in four different INEC offices in less than a month.
INEC reported a significant loss of costly election materials such as ballot boxes, voting cubicles as well as several Permanent Voter’s Cards (PVCs) meant to be distributed. These attacks were condemned by INEC but they already cast a frightful shadow over the possibilities of the elections, even before they happened.
It is clear that the efforts made by Nigerians to register to vote, or to vote at all, have been rewarded with violence from unknown sources, and could be a deterrent to youth remaining involved in the electoral process. Sadly, it encourages an apathy that although understandable, is deeply costly to nation building.
Despite these numerous challenges, the problems Nigerians face have been experienced by other African countries, some of whom even triumphed over them.
Zambia’s recent federal elections in 2021 were particularly notable as they brought an entirely new administration to power. The presidential election was held in the early aftermath of the pandemic’s devastating effects. The record high unemployment rate, disruption of Zambia’s ability to service the twelve billion dollar external debt it owed, and crackdowns by the administration on human rights and freedoms reinforced participation in politics.
During the electoral campaigns, there were numerous attempts by the then-incumbent administration to overturn the movement of youth to vote, some of which included a restriction of internet services that had been employed by youth to mobilize citizens to register and vote in the upcoming elections. The then-incumbent president, Edgar Lungu enacted a law called the Cyber Crimes Act that targeted online activity and social media use, often limiting the internet access of Zambia’s 9.4 million internet users.
This culminated on a sudden suspension of WhatsApp on election day, a move that was clear in its intent to discourage online mobilisation and information dissemination as people took to the polls.
Despite this, in the 2021 election, young people who accounted for about 54 per cent of registered voters showed up in unprecedented numbers to vote on Election Day. The voter turnout was the second highest in the nation’s history, at 70.6 per cent, resulting in the shift into a new administration with a landslide victory.
The newly elected Hakainde Hichilema won the election with 2.8 million votes to his opponent’s 1.8 million votes. Thus securing a victory over an incumbent president, and a political party that had been ruling Zambia since its first multiparty election in 1991.
Many parallels can be drawn between Nigeria and Zambia concerning the state both countries were in during their presidential elections—the growing dissatisfaction among youth concerning the economic situation, the numerous human rights abuses, and even the social media black-outs (Twitter was suspended in 2021 for several months by the Nigerian government).
Nigerians, responded similarly to Zambia’s youth, braving the challenges set up by the establishment and trying to prevailing over the negative electoral status quo, to create the pathway for a democracy that could be include of the interest of the youth.
CAN THERE REALLY BE CHANGE?
Before the elections, many young Nigerians had been involved in encouraging fellow citizens through grassroots mobilization efforts to pick up their PVCs, to show up to vote. Henry Daniels, a student of a University in Ondo state, described a grassroots mobilization he did in 2022, where he invited officials from the local government’s INEC office to register fellow students for their PVCs.
When asked what his motivating factor was, he said:
Young people don’t participate enough in elections. I thought (registering for PVCs) would be a means to empower young people to vote and have a say in electing a person…someone who they believe has their own interest at heart. I used WhatsApp mostly, and fellow students contributed in spreading the word. Almost all the people who participated now have their voter’s cards.
Many others mobilized people in their communities too, in the hopes that the efforts could turn the tide of the election.
The deterrents and motivators for elections will need to be studied for the future of Nigeria and for other African democracies being plagued by many of the things Nigerians also face—economic downturns, human rights abuses, a lack of faith in government institutions.
As it is, African democracies remain very fragile, almost half-formed, and Nigeria’s democratic landscape reveals this particularly well. Given the history of elections, voters’ hopes in their power to create wide-sweeping change across the country, were at best tentative.
Young Nigerians despaired at the reoccurrence of the same candidates that had been in many election cycles in the two decades since Nigeria returned to democracy and the fact that the presidential candidates for the 2023 elections were decided by intra-party votes that weren’t open to the general public, cast aspersions as to how much choice Nigerians really had in terms of their next president.
Notwithstanding, there is still something to be said about the palpable hope among Nigerians, especially the youth who took a leap of faith in the country, came out to vote, and in some cases, returned to polling units that had been attacked by thugs. It signals at the very least, a renewed belief in the value of political participation.
Regardless of the election’s conclusion, history was made—evident in some of the results from the elections. For instance, Enugu State is a historical People’s Democratic Party but after the polls, all 17 local government areas were won by an opposition party.
The youth got it right this time by showing up to make their voices heard, and in doing this, they moved the needle of change an inch in the right direction, by being active in what was decided. They had the numbers to do this and perhaps it would be even louder if democratic institutions supported this collective voice more.
Whatever happens now will be coloured by the fact that a new generation has realized its agency in political participation and who knows what future that could create⎈
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