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King’s Votes: Nigeria’s Choice in a Time of Crisis

Roar staff writer Guillaume Antignac addresses the upcoming Nigerian elections and the chances of outsider Peter Obi.

Huge crowds form in Abuja and Lagos, the scene of a massive street party, a festival. In whose honour? It is the ‘underdog’ candidate in the Nigerian presidential elections, Peter Obi, who has amassed huge support over his highly successful presidential campaign. His words address Nigeria’s youth: fighting corruption, increasing social investment, and ending financial and political insecurity. In recent years, the country has seen a deterioration in its economic and political situation, as a result of which the ‘Coconut-Head generation’ (those under 30) demand change.

As Africa’s largest democracy and economy, the outcome of this election and the future of its political situation is a big deal. Nigeria is a key player. Its large cultural impact affects not only the rest of the continent, but also much of the wider world. This puts the country in an important position – leading the way in both economic but also political success is important for the future of the continent.

Nigeria’s previous government, led by Muhammadu Buhari of the centrist ‘big tent’ All Progressives Congress (APC) party has deceived the people of Nigeria. Unemployment is high, there is nationwide fuel shortage, and due to a mismanaged recent introduction of new Naira notes, there is also a cash scarcity crisis. Inflation has surged to 21%. And aside this, there is a growing security concern as Islamist insurgent group Boko Haram continue to violently oppress and terrorise citizens, along with police brutality, crime rates and kidnappings rising. Nigeria is also currently facing a critical talent drain, with as many as 73% of young people saying they want to leave the country to work abroad.

It is not surprising that the upcoming elections have therefore brought up contempt with the status quo, especially amongst Nigeria’s young. This recent growth in Nigeria’s civil society amongst the youth largely stems from the tech start-up scene. It demands strong and flexible economic activity, and its push for democratic values has been a key factor in the recent #endsars protests, the social movement triggered by increasing violence and deaths caused by the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS). The electoral commission has registered 10 million new voters this election, more than three quarters of which are under the age of 35. This is unprecedented. In a country whose average age is 18, the youth can have a lot of control in elections – given the figures, it is clear this coming one will show it.

In Nigeria, the electoral process is very complicated and is impacted hugely by the country’s diversity. In terms of religion, there are slightly more Muslims than Christians, the former dominant in the north, the latter dominant in the south. Culturally, Nigeria has over 250 different ethnicities and over 500 different languages are spoken across the country. These factors usually play a significant role in people’s decision when it comes to voting. Currently, the main candidates are both Muslim, Atiku Abubakar for the PDP and Bola Ahmed Tinubu for the APC. But neither is entirely spared from corruption allegations and both seem to offer little change in the underlying issues Nigerian’s are worried about.

This is where Peter Obi comes in. He was the governor of the Anambra state, for which his work has been praised by many. In contrast with his opposition, Peter Obi is a Christian candidate. He is described as ‘the kind of man who carries his own briefcase’. There have been reports of him queuing in the regular line at the airport, and he generally moves with less staff and security. Obi embodies an altruistic politician and it is a large reason he has amassed so much support across his campaign. However, he is not exactly winning the elections as it stands.

In order to win an election in Nigeria, a candidate must win a majority of the national count, but they also need to win a quarter of the votes in 24 of the 36 states. This is to ensure fair representation across the country. Beyond that, though it is already unprecedented for there to be more than two leading candidates, there are a total of 18 running. And this doesn’t even address the issue that many citizens auction off their votes to agents representing parties, some for as little as 200 Naira, the equivalent of 36p. It is therefore going to be a tight election, which is very likely to lead to a run-off, the first in the country’s history.

Political instability, corruption and undemocratic tendencies are still present in modern Africa. It is the case that many of the continent’s countries are still considered ‘unsafe’ or ‘high risk’ destinations for foreigners, that business can be complicated or risky, and that it is generally a region of the world that suffers high rates of exploitation, deceit and manipulation from its political and financial leaders, as well as its vastly more powerful global partners.

However, Africa is rapidly industrialising and expanding its economic activity and Nigeria is a prime example leading the way. Also politically, beyond Nigeria, there have been large protests and movements to end corruption and dismiss authoritarian leaders, in Uganda, Ghana and Togo. Though famine, corruption and poverty are present issues for countries such as Nigeria, the typical western depiction of a hungry, terrorist-ridden or murderous place is an image far from the whole truth, and does a lot of harm.

And this is exactly why it is so important for Nigeria’s youth to see change in their politics. They desire a better image for their nation. The young are tired of leaders facing accusations of corruption, with authoritarian tendencies and a general political culture that is largely based around money. An example of how previous leaders mismanage the economy can be seen in Nigeria’s oil industry, heavily accused of corruption. Nigeria has the richest oil reserves of the continent, yet it doesn’t refine oil. Exporting crude oil,  and importing refined oil costs the country a lot. On top of this, due to the pandemic and inflation, the government needs to subsidise this imported oil, as the income of many Nigerians isn’t high enough for regular consumption.

After the governments of Mali and Burkina Faso failed to contain insurgencies, the countries saw coups and regime changes. For many worried experts, without wishing to sound too dramatic, Nigeria could be heading down a similar path. Not all take Obi seriously, saying he lacks depth or is overhyped. However, for many he represents hope for a change. In Nigeria, people use the term ‘Japa’ (a Yoruba term meaning ‘to run away’) in reference to the mass emigration seen amongst the young – it identifies the dissatisfaction and despondency many of Nigeria’s youth feel about their futures if they stay in Nigeria. The voting will begin soon. Only time will tell whether their hopes for change will come to pass.

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