How young voters can rock Nigeria’s next election

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Nigerians are preparing to elect a successor to President Muhammadu Buhari, whose eight-year tenure was marked by economic decline, rising unemployment, heightened insecurity and an exodus of the educated elite. In the February 25 vote in Africa’s most populous country, well-known politicians in their 70s will be up against a challenger from a fringe opposition party that had a clear lead in early polls. The election has sparked unprecedented interest among young Nigerians, fed up with being ruled by an old guard of leaders who have done little to improve their standard of living or their chances of finding a job. Around 40% of the 93.5 million registered voters are under the age of 35. In the US it’s about 25%.

1. Why is this choice so important?

Though Nigeria’s fortunes have slipped in recent years, it is still Africa’s largest economy and oil producer, and a key regional power broker. Its population of over 200 million will more than double by 2050, making it the third most populous nation in the world. Previous presidential elections held in Nigeria since the return to democracy in 1999 have been dominated by candidates from the ruling All Progressive Congress and the rival People’s Democratic Party. But the shift in voting demographics is shaking the status quo, with Peter Obi, a former Anambra state governor and Labor Party candidate, gaining support from the youth.

2. What are the key campaign themes?

economy and insecurity. By any economic measure, Nigerians are worse off than when Buhari came to power in 2015. About 90 million live on less than $2 a day, one of the highest numbers in the world, according to the World Bank. Most potential workers are underemployed or unemployed. A lack of economic opportunity has fueled crime, including a thriving kidnapping industry for ransom. The country also continues to fight a jihadist insurgency in the north-east that has claimed thousands of lives and a secessionist movement in the south-east. In addition to overcoming these challenges, the winner must bring the runaway national debt under control and decide whether to scrap popular gasoline subsidies.

3. Who are the leading candidates?

There are 18 contenders but only three have a realistic chance of winning: Bola Ahmed Tinubu, 70, the ex-governor of Lagos state who is running on the ruling party list; PDP candidate Atiku Abubakar, 76, a wealthy businessman who served as vice president in the early 2000s and has previously served five unsuccessful presidential runs; and Obi, 61, a former bank executive. A September 2022 poll commissioned by Bloomberg News found that nearly three-quarters of the 3,973 respondents supported Obi; He has also taken the lead in three other polls. Tinubu and Abubakar, who scored 16% and 9% respectively in the Bloomberg poll, have long been dogged by corruption allegations, which they deny. The Pandora Papers linked Obi to companies registered in offshore tax havens. He denies not disclosing this information when he became governor of Anambra or breaking any other laws.

4. What do they promise?

The three main candidates have made very similar campaign pledges, focused on boosting economic growth, creating jobs and tackling insecurity. To achieve these goals, they intend to boost oil production, which has hit historic lows in recent months, and to increase police and military resources. They have all also pledged to scrap fuel subsidies that cost the struggling government billions of dollars a year — a move the Buhari government has long resisted despite pleas from the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. Obi said he intends to extend the nation’s loan repayments. Nigeria’s total debt stock has nearly quadrupled under Buhari’s rule, reaching about 44 trillion naira ($95 billion) by the end of 2022, and the government spends 80 cents on every dollar raised on debt servicing.

5. What are Obi’s choice weaknesses?

His power base is concentrated in Nigeria’s predominantly Christian south, and there are doubts about his ability to find support in the predominantly Muslim north, home to the majority of voters. His Labor Party, which currently has a single seat in the Senate, does not have the national profile and organizational capacity of its larger rivals, which will hurt his chances. He may also lack the financial muscle to ensure victory, as in most previous Nigerian elections candidates have spent vast sums of money on voters and officials to shore up their campaigns. The use of a new voter authentication technology is intended to make the upcoming vote more transparent and more difficult to manipulate than previous competitions.

6. Why is the oil economy struggling?

Nigeria benefits only to a limited extent from the current high international crude oil prices, as it has no refinery capacity and has to import expensive fuel from abroad. Oil production has also been falling since 2020, hitting its lowest level in decades last year, a slump the government attributes to the theft of up to a fifth of production from pipelines criss-crossing the oil-rich Niger Delta. With limited capacity to generate additional revenue, Nigeria has mimicked several other African countries in borrowing to offset the impact of the coronavirus pandemic and prop up the economy, further straining its already strained finances.

7. How will this election work?

To win the presidency on the first ballot, a candidate must obtain a majority of the vote nationally and more than 25% in at least 24 of the 36 states and the federal capital area. If no one meets those criteria, a runoff between the candidate with the most votes and the candidate with the widest spread of support in the states must be held within three weeks. A simple majority is required to win this contest.

8. What are investors hoping for?

All three leading presidential candidates have signaled that they will take a much more pro-business approach than Buhari, and the winner is expected to do more to attract investment, cut red tape and improve patchy power supplies and ailing transport links. The new government will also be under pressure to stave off a possible debt crisis, introduce more orthodox monetary policy and unify the country’s various exchange rates.

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