In Nigeria’s election, young people seek to wield new power

Idris Jimoh produces beats at his studio in Lagos. The 18-year-old is supporting a third-party presidential candidate popular among Nigeria's young people. (Andrew Esiebo for The Washington Post)
7 min

LAGOS, Nigeria — Idris Jimoh grabbed an empty Guinness bottle to illustrate what’s gone wrong in Nigeria.

Soaring prices mean beer costs five times what it did not long ago, he said. On top of that, there’s also joblessness, police brutality and, most recently, a crippling cash shortage. For too long, the 18-year-old said, Nigeria’s young people have made the mistake of remaining silent while living conditions deteriorate.

“It’s not supposed to be this hard,” he said, waving the bottle to punctuate his words.

Nigeria’s youths have propelled a third-party presidential candidate, Peter Obi, to the top of many polls ahead of elections scheduled for Saturday. Although he faces long odds as a political outsider with relatively little cash and little base in Nigeria’s populous north, experts say his rise demonstrates the power of young people — and the depth of their frustration.

Jimoh, who works as an electrician and at a barbecue grill to support himself, said that he will vote for Obi, a 61-year-old former governor, because “among the old politicians, no one is better.”

“But to be honest,” Jimoh added with a shrug, “I don’t think any of the politicians have the same mentality as us.”

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Nigeria is Africa’s most populous country, and because of its size, Nigeria’s election could have ripple effects across the region and beyond, in particular influencing future waves of global migration. As with many countries across sub-Saharan Africa, Nigeria’s youth population is massive, with 70 percent of its population under age 30. People ages 18 to 35 make up 40 percent of registered voters, and officials said that 8.5 million young people have registered to vote for the first time in this election.

“Already, the country is straining to provide services and opportunity for its youth,” said Joseph Siegle, director of research at the Africa Center for Strategic Studies in Washington. A 2021 World Bank report found that 43 percent of Nigerian youths are unemployed or underemployed and 52 percent say they want to emigrate.

In interviews across Lagos, which is Nigeria’s most populous city and a destination for youths from across the country seeking opportunities, young people said they saw the election as an inflection point.

“Everything is hanging on this election,” said Alexandra Maduagwu, 27, who plans to vote for Obi. “People are at their limits right now. Their only saving grace is that when the election comes, they know things are going to change. We just don’t know if it’s for better or for worse.”

Among Maduagwu’s friends at a skate park by the beach, there was a clear consensus: They were voting for Obi or not voting at all.

The candidates representing Nigeria’s two main parties are septuagenarians who have been involved in politics for decades.

Former Lagos governor Bola Ahmed Tinubu, from the southwest, is running on the slogan “It’s my turn” after decades as a kingmaker in Nigerian politics. He has the support of President Muhammadu Buhari, who is deeply unpopular and leaving office after eight years. Former vice president Atiku Abubakar, from the north, is on his sixth and likely final bid for the presidency. Obi, from the southeast, is campaigning as a reformer, promising a clean break with the corruption that has plagued Nigeria for decades.

Analysts say the race is so close that Nigeria could see it’s first runoff since democracy returned to the country in 1999.

As electronic music played at the Lagos skate park, Derin Ogala, a 23-year-old DJ, said she’ll be supporting Obi in part because Tinubu and Abubakar were around when her dad was a kid.

“These politicians are playing with our lives,” she said as she shook her head. “In the next 30 years, we’ll be here dealing with the consequences of their actions.”

She laughed bitterly as she tried to sum up all that had gone wrong, because there was so much. She pointed in particular to the government’s recent decision to remove old bank notes from circulation and issue new ones, leading to dire cash shortages.

Despair is so pervasive, Ogala said, that you can “walk into any place and sigh, and the next person will say: ‘I understand you.’”

Adewunmi Emoruwa, the lead strategist at Gatefield, a public strategy firm in Abuja, said Obi’s support stems in part from protests in 2020 when youths across the country rallied against police brutality, demonstrating the power of mass mobilization. The protests ended after police opened fire, killing at least 15 people.

He said that although support for Obi cuts across geographic and ethnic lines, it is generally strongest among urban, educated Nigerians — many of whom lack opportunities despite their qualifications.

But there are areas in Lagos where support for Tinubu, its former governor, eclipses that for Obi.

At makeshift soccer fields wedged between Lagos’s highways, many players said they are backing Tinubu. Rahman Bello, 27, described Tinubu as the best hope of fixing the economic situation that has left him with less than $3 in his bank account.

Obi will need a massive youth turnout to win. Jim Kaketch, a political scientist with the Partnership for African Social Governance Research, said Obi has succeeded in presenting campaign information in a way that appeals to young people, who have made him a social media phenomenon. But Kaketch said it’s not clear the extent to which support on social media translates to votes.

At the skate park, Kaima Abraham, 29, said that Obi feels like the country’s “only possible savior right now” but that she was so scared by the violence, including voter intimidation and killings, following the 2019 election that she’s decided not to vote at all.

“It’s just so exhausting being here,” said Abraham, who counts herself among the majority of young people looking to “japa” — a Yoruba word for “escape” that’s become slang for people who migrate.

Analysts said that if Obi loses, it will be important to watch whether his Labour Party remains a force in a political system traditionally dominated by his opponents’ parties and whether his popularity will force Tinubu and Abubakar to be more responsive to young people.

Asked what would happen if Obi lost, Crystal Agbor, 30, let out a massive sigh then paused to think. Already, she feels like the country is “on the brink of collapse” and that Obi is the only hope of getting it back on course.

“The future for youth becomes bleak,” she said. “We will be so scared.”

But she added, as a Christian, she also tries to think that it could be part of God’s plan, and to tell herself that even if Obi doesn’t win, they have nonetheless made a difference in terms of elevating a third party.

At the skate park, Abraham said she tries to think about the long-run. Sometimes “japa” is thought of as a one-way escape. While she plans to spend some time abroad — Paris and New York are her dreams — she said she wants to return to the country she loves.

“I have this thought of, ‘Let’s go and be better so we can come back and fight fully,’” Abraham said. “It’s not running away. It’s going to prepare.”

Ombuor reported from Nairobi.