Nigeria Decides 2023
The 2023 general election indicates the youth can save Nigeria and its faltering democracy.
Nigerian youth face acute socioeconomic challenges. Unemployment and under-employment rates in the demographic are 42.5 percent and 21 percent, respectively. With incessant strikes by university lecturers, poor funding of tertiary educational institutions, and general decline in the application of standards in the country, many fresh graduates have poor learning outcomes and are deemed unemployable.
Graduates who manage to find work are given remunerations which, when adjusted for inflation, are well below what people with their qualifications used to get five decades ago that launched them straight into the upper middle class. Yet, the youth of today face social stigmatisation by the older generations who accuse them of wanting to get rich quick.
The plight of the Nigerian youth is dire, but they are not getting kind considerations from impactful quarters. In the circumstance, what they have left is their sheer will to survive, sporadically displayed in two moments that they have mobilised themselves in the last two and a half years. The first was in October 2020, when through the EndSARS movement, they organised a peaceful protest against police brutality against citizens, especially their peers in the country.
The 2023 general election is the second intervention by the youth. But these two legitimate engagements were met with counter-responses by the government, its agents, and allied political establishment. Thus, when the youth attempt to inspire change because ill-considered public governance has become insufferable, the state responds with deliberate repressive actions.
According to the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Nigeria’s population reached 216 million in 2022. About 129 million Nigerians – approximately 60 percent of the population – are aged 35 years or younger. Within this age bracket are over 45 million young people officially designated as “youth”, of ages 18 (at which suffrage is attained in Nigeria) to 35. Nigerian youth outnumber the entire population of Canada at 39.2 million in 2022 and only about seven million short of doubling Australia’s 25.9 million population.
By their sheer number, Nigerian youth represent a great economic asset. Although many of them are poorly trained, they can supply semi-skilled labour that would drive Nigerian economic output growth should the government get serious about enabling the industrial take-off of the economy. With the right investment in their training and continuous education, the youth can help the country to move up on the global value chain.
Much of the potentials of Nigerian youth have been on display throughout the country’s history. In contemporary time, we have Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie who became an international-award-winning author before she was 35 years old. On Friday, 24 February 2023 – the eve of the national election in Nigeria, Olugbenga Agboola, the founder of Flutterwave, a pan-African payment technology firm, rang the closing bell at the New York Stock Exchange. The young Agboola’s fintech, valued at over $3 billion in 2022 and the biggest African startup, is planning to list on NASDAQ.
Amongst Nigerian social media influencers are successful and fearless young people, including Rinu Oduala (SavvyRinu), David Hundeyin, Folarin Falana (Falz), and Adebowale Adedayo (Mr Macaroni) who have put themselves on the frontline in the fight for a good future for the country, by raising their voices against public misgovernance and for public probity. The brain and brawn of the Nigerian youth have catapulted the country’s movie industry (Nollywood) and the music industry to world renown. Nollywood alone is estimated to be worth $6.4 billion in 2021, with the entertainment sector as a whole helping to raise the artistic and cultural profiles of the country globally.
Real Political Structure
Nigerian progressive youth declared an interest in the 2023 general election. They clearly backed a dark horse, Peter Obi, for president. As they built momentum on Twitter for a decisive intervention in the elections, they were publicly jeered at by pro-establishment forces as mere online activists and were also told that elections are not conducted on social media. But very quickly, Mr. Obi and his adopted Labour Party became the “third force” challenging the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) and main opposition: People’s Democratic Party (PDP). Weeks before the election, Obi became the frontrunner in a tight presidential race, according to several local and international polls.
The results of the presidential election as announced by the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) are now in. Obi’s Labour Party came a close third with 6.09 million votes, compared to 8.80 million for Bola Tinubu’s APC – who has been declared President-Elect – and 6.98 million for Atiku Abubakar’s PDP. Interestingly, the three major candidates each won 12 of Nigeria’s 36 states, with Obi also winning the Federal Capital Territory.
For sure, the youth did not rely on their votes alone in their attempts to get Obi elected. They were campaigners for change – and generational shift – in the country’s politics and governance in their families. Many of them were successful in swaying their parents to vote for their adopted candidates. But those who could not convince their parents stayed with their resolve, causing a somewhat healthy partisan division at the family level. In the polling units (PUs) in one estate in Lagos where majority of the homeowners are beneficiaries of the de facto monocracy in the state since 1999, the presidential election became mainly a contest between the candidate of the parents and that of their children, with the latter winning, according to results collated after voting at the PUs.
The challenge that the progressive youth movement posed to APC and PDP was tactically being unstated by their claim that Obi’s momentum was all in cyberspace, without the “structure” for on-the-ground mobilisation of votes. Even the contentious results that INEC announced has now contradicted this self-interested assertion.
The national elections that held on 25 February 2023 – and the next day to complete the casting of ballots – have been widely discredited by local and international observers. The elections were marred by violence, logistical failures by INEC which delayed or prevented voting, INEC’s violation of its own guidelines for the posting of results at PU level and their electronic transmission via the Bimodal Voter Accreditation System (BVAS), and lack of transparency fostered by the seemingly contrived failure of the INEC Results Viewing Portal (IReV).
According to the Electoral Observation Mission of the European Union, which was in the country to monitor the election, “INEC lacked efficient planning and transparency during critical stages of the electoral process, while on election day, trust in INEC was seen to further reduce due to delayed polling processes, and information gaps related to much-anticipated access to results on its Results Viewing Portal.”
Electronic transmission of results was one of the confidence-building mechanisms for the election. The ability of citizens to view the electronically transmitted results online and in real time further raised citizens’ hope that the election would be credible. Moreover, a princely sum of N305 billion was approved for INEC for the purpose of the election despite the fiscal dire straits the country is in.
This enthusiasm would have seen record turnout of voters. Indeed, the mammoth crowds seen on election day in many polling units suggested this would be the case, causing a reversal of the downward trending of total votes in the presidential elections since 2011. The total number of votes in 2011 was 39.46 million; 29.43 million in 2015; and 28.61 million in 2019. But alas, the total number of votes in 2023 was 24 million.
The credibility of a democracy hinges on popular participation. Hence, many democracies over time expanded suffrage to previously disenfranchised demographics, including women, minority groups, and indigenous people. At face value, the decline in the total number of votes to 25.8 percent of total registered voters in 2023 is clear evidence of the low credibility of Nigeria’s democracy. As per the results announced by INEC, the poor turnout in the 2023 presidential election tells that the election is not credible; the President-Elect polled only 36 percent of the total votes, or 9.4 percent of total registered voters.
Violence and voter suppression were reported across various partisan enclaves in the country. But they were rife in opposition strongholds, especially Lagos, South East, and South South. In that scenario, Obi and his youth support base could feel they were targeted – and denied. Part of the imponderables of the Nigerian democracy is the dominance of power by aged citizens – granted that they came early into politics – whereas the population is youthful with the median age at 18 years. The official results of the 2023 presidential election have created further divergence between the country’s power and population structures. According to INEC's data on registered voters for the 2023 general election, the youth (ages 18-34) represent the highest demographic with 39.65 percent of the total registered voters, closely followed by voters within ages 35-49 accounting for 35.75%.
It is a missed opportunity – if not counterintuitive – that a higher level of interests in the 2023 elections, as per the number of registered voters and the youth voting population, would translate to lower voter turnout. The total number of registered voters had increased by 11.3 percent, from 84.0 million in 2019 to 93.46 million in 2023.
Here to Stay
Despite the disappointment that a majority of Nigerians and the youth themselves may have in the 25 February elections, the roles of the youth in Nigerian politics – and elections – are here to stay. The current 2.8 percent birth rate has locked in the youth bulge in Nigeria’s population for at least the next three decades.
The youth should be encouraged by the increased interest they have helped to generate in the 2023 election outside of their demographic, even if undermined by voter suppression. The lesson has also been learnt that the candidates supported by them has a good chance of succeeding. With the backing of the youth, a dark horse with a good professional background and proven good character stands a good chance of winning the presidential election, more so if the election is competently organised and free and fair. The electoral powerbase of the country’s democracy has shifted to the youth for the next decades.
The political parties are expected to take note of this. Accordingly, APC and PDP may advisedly start to build a youth base. But such efforts can only succeed if accompanied by good governance in the various public offices they control.
Should the progressive youth movement remain patriotic and ethical, they will have more influence in future elections. They can also continue to organise and intervene with their voices on social media, as the potency of this can no longer be in doubt.
The future of the country belongs to the youth despite their current travails. They should neither retreat nor surrender in their quest for a better Nigeria.
Jide Akintunde is the Managing Editor of Financial Nigeria publications, and Director, Nigeria Development and Finance Forum.
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