'Now Or Never': Young Nigerians Pin Hopes on Key Election

ABUJA, Nigeria (AP) -- Frustrated by high unemployment and worsening violence, many younger Nigerians are flocking to a candidate outside the political mainstream in this month's presidential election.

Despite being Africa's largest economy and and one of its top oil producers, Nigeria is in economic crisis. A currency reform effort has left many unable to access their own money, even to buy food. Meanwhile, extremist violence has continued, leaving thousands dead in the past year. Many young people have left the country, seeing no future at home. But many of those who have stayed hope the Feb. 25 election will bring real change.

So many people registered to vote that many spent days waiting in line to collect permanent voter cards, which are required to cast a ballot. Nigeria's election commission extended the deadline to collect the cards by two weeks in response.

On Feb. 25, voters will choose among 18 candidates in a first-round vote to succeed incumbent President Muhammadu Buhari, who is winding down his second and final term. A runoff will be held unless one candidate gets at least one-quarter of the votes in each of at least two-thirds of all the states.

"Either we get things right now in Nigeria, or never," said Kingsley Chima, 26, as the first-time voter waited to collect his voting card from Nigeria's election commission.

Nigeria is Africa's most populous country, with more than 210 million people, and it has at least 93 million registered voters, almost 40 percent of whom are under 35. The country has one of the world's largest youth populations, with about 64 million people aged 18-35 and a median age of 18.

Young people have made a third-party candidate with social media appeal into a serious contender in the polls.

That's surprising in a country where elections have long been usually dominated by Nigeria's two largest parties.

Bola Tinubu, 70, of the All Progressives Congress has served as governor of Nigeria's economic hub of Lagos, while Atiku Abubakar, 76, of the Peoples Democratic Party has served as Nigeria's vice-president. Tinubu was an important backer of the current president, and is known as a key funder for the ruling APC. Abubakar, one of Nigeria's richest businessmen, ran for president in 2019 and lost to Buhari.

Both men have been fixtures in Nigerian politics since 1999.

In 2015, Buhari rode a wave of goodwill to power by promising to curb Nigeria's rampant corruption and extremist insurgency, but he failed to make headway on either challenge. Frustration with mainstream parties made room for former governor Peter Obi, 61, to position himself as a change candidate.

"The hopes we placed in the current president have been crushed," said Rinu Oduala, a youth activist. Oduala was among the leaders of unprecedented nationwide demonstrations held in 2020 by young Nigerians to protest police brutality and bad governance. Now, she's mobilizing voters, supporting Obi.

Initially seen as an underdog with little political experience, Obi has emerged as a leading candidate, coming ahead of or close behind Tinubu and Abubakar in most polls. He's the candidate of the Labour Party, which won 5,074 votes in the 2019 presidential election, under a tenth of one percent of the vote.

He's spoken to young people, promising jobs, and to Nigeria's vast diaspora, promising changes that will give them a reason to return.

Tinubu has focused on another bloc: Nigeria's Muslim majority. Presidential candidates usually balance their tickets, choosing a running mate from the other side of Nigeria's religious divide, but the APC candidate has chosen a fellow Muslim. Some members of the ruling party see the Muslim-Muslim presidential ticket as Tinubu's biggest chance of securing votes in the Muslim-dominated north, which has more registered voters than the Christian-dominated south.

That strategy could deepen the country's religious divisions, said Hassan Idayat, who leads the Center for Democracy and Development, Nigeria's largest democracy-focused group.

"Nigeria is a giant that has never been quite stable," said Ayisha Osori, an analyst with the Open Society Foundations.

"We are having one of our most polarized elections ever (and) our campaign messaging is a lot more focused on competition between religions, competition between ethnic groups and trying to address political equity issues," she said.

A key question is how many people turn out to vote. Turnout in Nigeria's recent elections has been low. In 2019, only 34% of registered voters cast their ballot in the presidential vote. It reflects both cynicism about politics, and high barriers to participation. Voters can cast ballots only in person, and only at their place of registration.

Long lines to collect voter cards, and enthusiasm online and at rallies, lead many to think this time will be different.

"This time around, it is the young people who are very involved in the process; they are not just involved as voters but they are actually the mobilizers," said Idayat. "They are going to vote."

Youth turnout could be further boosted by a decision to close the country's universities for two weeks before the election. Officials cited security concerns as the main reason for the move, but it will also mean many young people are at home to cast ballots.

"The typical response from our politicians when young Nigerians complain is that we don't vote," Oduala said. "Well, another generation has lately become aware of their responsibilities to join hands to make this nation work. And we have decided to vote."

Among those driving the surge in voter registration is Chukwuenye Igwe in the southeastern Enugu state where she has embarked on a personal campaign urging people to sign up to vote.

"People have really woken up, especially the youths," said Igwe. Last year, the 26-year-old was keen to join other young Nigerians leave the country at a level unseen in recent years. She eventually could not move but many have, often citing economic hardship caused by spiraling unemployment rate of 33% and insecurity.

Among those who have recently relocated from Nigeria is Jude Edozie, who left last year as a pharmacist to further his studies in Ireland. He can't vote abroad, but is watching closely.

"I don't plan on returning any time soon, but how it ends will either increase or reduce the chances of that happening," Edozie said "I hope the election this time is different."