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A nation must think before it acts.
Since its return to democracy in 1999, Nigeria has been ruled by a male gerontocracy. Muhammadu Buhari, the incumbent president, is eighty, and only 2.6 percent of the seats in Nigeria’s parliament are held by women. People under thirty constitute 70 percent of Nigeria’s population but, until the current election cycle, the country’s youth have been checked out of the political process.
The general elections scheduled for February 25, however, could see a change—a surge in voter registration by young people could very well determine the outcome and usher in a new and younger national leadership. While young voters have typically made up the majority of registered voters, they have seldom voted. In the 2023 general election, however, one of the three leading candidates, Peter Obi, has attracted the attention of youthful voters, and while it is not by any means a sure thing, seems poised to set Nigerian politics on a new course. Nigeria is Africa’s largest economy and most populous country with over 216 million people, and the outcome of the 2023 election will be watched closely by the rest of the continent and the world as a bellwether of the state of democracy in Africa.
A Challenge to the Status Quo
From 1960, when it gained its independence, until 1999, Nigeria had a checkered history with several military coups. The incumbent president, Muhammadu Buhari, for example, who was a major general at the time, overthrew the democratically elected government of Shehu Shigari (1979–1983), and served as head of state from 1983 to 1985, until he was ousted in a coup led by Gen. Ibrahim Babangida. Babangida stepped down in response to civil unrest and labor strikes in 1993, and appointed Ernest Shonekan interim president. Shonekan’s tenure in office lasted only three months. He was overthrown by his secretary of defense, Gen. Sani Abacha, who served until his death in 1998. He was replaced by Gen. Abdulsalami Abubakar, who promised to hold general elections and step down within one year which, to everyone’s surprise, he did.
The implementation of democratic elections in 1999, however, did not mean that Nigeria’s military was out of politics. The first democratically elected president, in fact, was Olusegun Obasanjo, who had been leader of a military government from 1976 to 1979, replacing Gen. Murtala Mohammed, who had seized power in a coup in 1975, and was assassinated in a failed coup attempt the following year. From 2007 to 2015, Nigeria has had two non-military presidents, Umaru Musa Yar’Adua (2007–2010) and Goodluck Jonathan (2010–2015). Buhari, who had unsuccessfully campaigned for president in 2007, was elected in 2015, becoming the second ex-military leader to achieve the office of president through elections.
While Nigeria’s early heads of state were relatively young, Lt. Col. Yakubu Gowon, who became head of state in a July 1966 military coup, was only thirty-one when he assumed power. He was overthrown in 1975 by Murtala Mohammed, who was a thirty-six-year-old brigadier general at the time.
The age of Nigeria’s presidents upon assumption of the office has been creeping up ever since. The youngest person to become president since 1999 was Goodluck Jonathan who was fifty-two when he took the oath of office in 2010. The incumbent was seventy-two when he was elected in 2015.
Term limits prohibit Buhari from running in the 2023 election, setting the stage for a younger (relatively speaking) president to take office.
The Main Candidates
The current front runner is Obi, a member of the social democratic Labour Party and former governor of Anambra state. At sixty-one, Obi is the youngest of the three main candidates in a field of sixteen total contenders. Formerly a member of the opposition People’s Democratic Party. Obi resigned shortly before the primaries in July 2022, and became the Labour Party candidate. Obi seems to have the best understanding of what young Nigerians want and can speak the language of the young and the diaspora. An Igbo from the country’s southeast, his support, from young people and celebrities, transcends ethnic and socio-economic divisions. Corruption or charges of corruption are commonplace in Nigerian politics, and Obi has not been spared, with accusations that he has set up and operated overseas businesses in ways that violated Nigeria’s laws.
Because of term limits, Buhari’s All Progressives Congress, which was formed in 2013 as a center-left opposition party to the center-right People’s Democratic Party, nominated former Lagos governor, Bola Ahmed Tinubu, age seventy, as its candidate. Though unsubstantiated, Tinubu brings a lot of baggage to the campaign. The most damning rumors are that he was an accountant for a Chicago-based, Nigerian drug smuggling ring in the early 1990s, before returning to Nigeria and entering politics. While he has been a dominant figure in Nigerian politics for decades, little is actually known about his background, including speculation that he is actually much older than he claims. In October 2020, Tinubu blamed those in the #EndSARS protest who were killed by security forces for their own deaths.
The PDP tabbed Atiku Abubakar, age seventy-six, as its candidate. He is a businessman and politician who served as vice president from 1999 to 2007 during the Obasanjo administration. Abubakar was a customs official and tax collector before entering the private sector in 1989 when he became involved in businesses ranging from agriculture to real estate. His estimated net worth is $1.4 billion. There have also been unsubstantiated allegations of corruption against him, and in December 2022, his campaign manager, Doyin Okupe, was convicted of money laundering and sentenced to two years in jail.
The Big Issues
Nigeria’s current condition can only be described as fragile. In fact, many indices of development show characteristics of a failing state. Multiple conflicts, feelings of marginalization and exclusion by many of the country’s citizens, increased levels of political and criminal violence, lax border control, crumbling infrastructure, inflation, food shortages, and unemployment are among the many troubling realities facing Nigerians as they go into the 2023 elections.
According to a report from the Centre for Democracy and Development, one of the biggest challenges to free and fair elections is the insecurity in the country. The report said that the role played by Nigeria’s security services and judiciary will be important in determining the credibility of the elections, and advised the security agencies to act professionally and impartially and not use insecurity “as a tool to serve political interests such as voter suppression in some parts of the country.”
How the Candidates Stand
Obi has committed to the devolution of power to promote harmony and peaceful coexistence among the various states and regions of the country. He has also taken a shot at gerontocracy. On January 5, 2023, in Ekiti State, he said the presidency should not be “a retirement home.” Obi has attracted support from younger voters who have traditionally been apathetic, and has also won the support of a number of celebrities, including former President Olusegun Obasanjo, who publicly declared his support on January 1 in an open letter to the youth of Nigeria. In addition to praising Obi’s competence and ability to govern, Obasanjo reinforced to the young people that it was time for the young to take awa lokan (our turn), not with a sense of entitlement but with a commitment to unity and transformation. In a September 2022 poll conducted for Bloomberg News, 72 percent of decided voters of all ages, genders, and ethnicities were for Obi and 45 percent of those who were undecided still expressed a preference for Obi. Among decided voters, Tinubu got 16 percent and Abubakar 9 percent. Since declaring his candidacy, Obi has built up a base of enthusiastic supporters known as “Obidients.” Initially only online, they are increasingly talking to the streets.
Nigerian voters, according to the Bloomberg poll, are most concerned about the economy and jobs, corruption, and national security. More than 65 percent of those polled view Obi as the candidate best able to improve the economy, do something about corruption, and reduce insecurity. Tinubu ranked second on each of these issues, and Abubakar ranked third.
As for the platforms of Tinubu and Abubakar, according to Howard French in a January 2023 Foreign Policy article, Tinubu seems to be saying “It’s my time,’ and Abubakar is saying that he has ‘paid his dues.’” French added that Nigeria, which was once the leading peacekeeper in West Africa, is now “unable to establish security in broad swaths of its own territory, especially in the northwestern and northeastern regions where Islamist insurgents have waged terrorism campaigns, kidnapped hundreds of children, and rendered long-distance travel increasingly perilous.”
According to French, Tinubu and Abubakar, with their large, well-established party machines, center their strategies on vote-buying. In poor areas, the money some people receive in exchange for their vote is more than they’ve ever had at one time in their lives.
Nigeria Matters … And Not Just in West Africa
Obi currently leads in many polls, with the exception of an October Economist poll, which predicts a win for Tinubu, which would essentially mean the preservation of the status quo.
Such an outcome would not be a solution to Nigeria’s problems. With a population whose median age is approximately eighteen years, Nigeria will have to generate programs to provide better opportunities for its youth. If it fails to do so, it will face even greater problems than it currently does, and if Nigeria fails, it could sink its neighbors. Moreover, the outflow of people fleeing a failing Nigeria, whether well-trained emigrants or destitute refugees, could generate problems in labor markets and foment immigration crises in Europe and even North America.
Obi, in addition to being the youngest of the front runners, is also the only Christian and the only prominent ethnic Igbo. He enjoys support from Christian voters and the Igbo middle and lower classes as well as some non-Igbos, such as the Yorubas in the southwest and other groups in the north who believe that he will do better than the establishment candidates in promoting equity among the country’s major ethnic groups. Despite this support, and the fact that he appeals to young voters disenchanted with the corruption and venality of the politicians of the two main parties, he faces long odds.
Given the current state of play, it is very likely that no candidate will garner a clear majority, requiring a runoff election, the first ever in Nigeria’s history, which could lead to violence on an even larger scale than in the past.
According to the authors of a December 2022 report from the International Crisis Group, candidates, parties, and their supporters need to tone down the incendiary rhetoric, at rallies and online, that has characterized the campaigns so far. Candidates should instead focus on substantive issues, particularly plans to improve the economy and promote security, and they should commit to accept the election results, or if they dispute them, to do so in court, not on the streets. Social media companies should block or delete all incendiary messages coming from the various political camps. The electoral commission should make all necessary arrangements to deliver credible elections. The anti-corruption agencies and the state security agencies ought to intensify surveillance of politicians and banks to limit vote buying, and the federal and state governments should implement security operations in areas where armed groups are active to enhance public safety and protect electoral commission offices and election-related materials.
There have been twenty-four years of democracy since the end of military rule in 1999, the longest period of democratic rule in Nigeria’s history. The 2023 election will also mark the second time since 1999 that a Nigerian president has peacefully left office after two terms as required by the constitution. Despite these achievements, the Nigerian public is dissatisfied with the government, with politicians, and with the way democracy has worked—or not worked—for them. The upcoming elections will be an affirmation of Nigeria’s democracy, but Nigeria’s voters, especially the youth, will be looking at them as an opportunity to chart a new course to reform governance, curb corruption, improve the economy, and restore security.
It remains to be seen if the field of candidates in the 2023 election, win or lose, is capable of delivering what the people want.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.