For all our enthusiasm, many young Nigerians fear a return to the country’s tradition of electoral malpractice

February 27, 2023 6:07 pm(Updated 6:08 pm)

Nigeria is at a delicate time in her political history. On 25 February, millions of Nigerians made their way to polling units to elect a new president. The choice was stark: Peter Obi, a younger than usual presidential candidate from the Labour Party (a much smaller, fringe political party) against the old guard: The People’s Democratic Party and All Progressive Congress (the ruling party since 2015), both legacy parties with historically corrupt candidates.

The energy on that day was tense and rife with anxiety – all for good reason. Nigerian elections are historically turbulent. Opposition parties looking to gain footing against each other have been known to resort to aggressive vote-buying, violent ballot snatching, bribery, destruction of polling units to discourage voters, and so on.

Despite the hopes of many, this year’s elections were no different. Across the country, voters reported being chased and shot at in polling units by unidentified thugs, voting materials were destroyed and some voters were injured in all the chaos. But unlike past elections, many of the voters stayed put, insistent on their right to vote. Vandalised polling units were fixed and the election process restarted; voters injured in the raids treated their wounds and came back to cast their votes. If there was ever a time when Nigerians, old and young, showed their commitment to getting their voices heard, it was on Saturday.

But this decline in the country’s historically high political apathy didn’t happen overnight. In October 2020, after military personnel shot hundreds of fellow young Nigerians at Lekki Toll Gate, our political ideologies shifted. The shootings happened at the tail end of the historic #Endsars protests against police brutality, and the reaction from the government was, to say the least, inhuman.

The Muhammadu Buhari administration denied any involvement in ordering the soldiers. The Lagos State Governor, Babajide Sanwo Olu, in whose state the shooting happened, minimised the impact, insisting that no one was killed in the shooting. But worst of all, the Nigerian government refused to hold anyone responsible for ordering the military to shoot at unarmed young Nigerians, many of whom lost their lives, with others sustaining life-altering injuries.

While the situation left us feeling unmoored, certain beyond any doubt that the present administration and any of its political affiliations will not hesitate to cause its people harm, it also radicalised us. The #Endsars protests were a huge political awakening for a substantial number of young Nigerians who, before then, were politically apathetic, resolute in the understanding that the Nigerian government system is so corrupt that almost nothing can be done.

That radicalisation manifested greatly in the 2023 general elections, as many Nigerians, old and especially young, figured that the best way to rebuild the country was to weed out government officials who avoid accountability and remain complicit in the oppression of their own citizens.

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During the lead-up to the general elections, young Nigerians aged 18-34 made up the highest percentage of registered voters with over 37 million young people registered to vote. Since early 2022, young Nigerians have put their weight behind election outsider Obi. On social media and across the streets, the zest to see a new party, fronted by a political leader who isn’t in their eighties (he’s 61) and whose past isn’t riddled with shady activities, ignited a vibrant campaign.

For many, Obi not only represents a progressive future for the country. The support that carried his campaign as far as winning in Lagos (a state where fellow presidential candidate and Obi’s strongest contender Bola Ahmed-Tinubu of APC has immense political influence) sends a strong signal to Nigerians about the power we possess, a power that has often seemed nonexistent with the emergence of one bad leader after another.

But for all our enthusiasm, many young Nigerians, myself included, fear a return to the country’s tradition of electoral malpractice. It’s been two days since Nigerians cast their votes and, at the time of writing, Nigeria’s electoral body, INEC (Independent National Electoral Commission), is still collating the election results. This is despite claiming to have advanced digital reporting systems which would have delivered all election results earlier, ensuring a winner is announced in good time.

There have also been claims of electoral doctoring and complicity in rigging within the organisation as the reported votes from the polling units (which were verified by voters before they left their polling units) do not appear to match the results announced by INEC, results that grossly favour the APC, over what is undeniably the people’s choice, the Labour Party.

At this juncture, watching an unreliable independent body like INEC make a shoddy job of handling the election has reminded many of us of the corruption and ineptitude-ridden pattern of past elections. It is a terrifying and weakening situation to be in. But as we hope for total outsing of the old guard, it is important to remember that Nigerians, particularly young Nigerians, made their voices heard in this election.

If nothing else, it sets an incredible precedent and points to a more radicalised future for the country.

Nelson CJ is a Lagos-based journalist and columnist at Teen Vogue. He has also written for The New York Times and TIME magazine

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