Can Nigerian ‘new broom’ candidate sweep the youth vote?

Esa Alexander/Reuters
Electoral campaign posters line Numan road, in Yola, Nigeria, Feb. 23, 2023, ahead of Nigeria's presidential elections.
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Nigerians go to the polls tomorrow for what has turned out to be the tightest presidential race since the end of military rule in 1999.

Enlivening the field is a third-party candidate portraying himself as an outsider and a new broom. Peter Obi has found that message resonates especially with young people.

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Peter Obi’s outsider presidential campaign has caught the mood of young people, pledging clean governance and a fresh eye. But will the “Obidients” turn out in sufficient numbers to elect him?

And in Nigeria, young people count, so long as they vote. Seventy percent of the population is under 30.

Youth unemployment is running at 33%, and young people say they are fed up with widespread corruption and police brutality, which Mr. Obi has pledged to tackle. His promises of clean governance and a fresh perspective have caught the imagination of a generation. His supporters call themselves his “Obidients.” 

Certainly, popular discontent with Nigeria’s current leadership is running high. The country is currently in the grip of a massive cash shortage, because the government bungled the rollout of new banknotes. Violent crime is rampant, the economy is stuttering, and criminal gangs steal 20% of the country’s oil output.

But some see hope in Mr. Obi. “Voting is like a step for me to liberation,” says Chizaram Ebegbulem, a political science student at the University of Lagos. “I know that Peter Obi has the youths’ interests at heart.”

It’s mid-morning on Wednesday in Lagos, Nigeria’s commercial capital, as Prosper Uka sidles up to a group of women standing in a crowd outside a bank.

Have they heard of a man named Peter Obi? he asks, shouting to be heard over the roar of motorcycle engines and honking cars on the busy road nearby. Mr. Obi is a candidate for president of Nigeria, Mr. Uka explains, and he’s going to make sure they never end up in a mess like this again.

The women nod. They’re listening. Like the others in this group, they’ve been waiting for hours in the Lagos heat, hoping to withdraw a few dollars from the bank. As Saturday’s presidential election approaches, Nigeria is in the grip of a massive cash shortage caused by a bungled rollout of new banknotes. It has left many people unable to access their money, and without the means to buy anything.

Why We Wrote This

A story focused on

Peter Obi’s outsider presidential campaign has caught the mood of young people, pledging clean governance and a fresh eye. But will the “Obidients” turn out in sufficient numbers to elect him?

If voters in Africa’s most populous country weren’t already fed up, they are now. So when Mr. Uka begins to describe a presidential candidate who will change all this, who promises to make life in Nigeria a little easier, the women lean in closer.

“Make a vote for LP. Labour Party. Peter Obi,” he says.

Nyancho Nwanri/Reuters
Labour Party presidential candidate Peter Obi attends a campaign rally in Lagos, Nigeria, on Feb. 11, 2023, ahead of the Nigerian presidential election.

The stakes of Mr. Uka’s canvassing campaign could hardly be higher. For the first time since military rule ended in Nigeria in 1999, a third-party presidential candidate, Mr. Obi, has a genuine shot at victory. His candidacy has been propelled by his popularity with people in their 20s and early 30s, who make up nearly 40% of the country’s 93 million registered voters. They could prove decisive.

In a country with a median age of 18 and the largest population of young people on earth, Mr. Obi’s popularity alone sends a resounding political message. This is no longer a country for old men.  

“Voting is like a step for me to liberation,” says Chizaram Ebegbulem, a political science student at the University of Lagos. “I know that Peter Obi has the youths’ interests at heart.”

Carlos Mureithi
Chizaram Ebegbulem, 20, at the University of Lagos on February 17, 2023.

“Never had it so bad”

It’s not that Mr. Obi, who is 61, is particularly youthful himself, though he is the youngest major presidential candidate by a decade. But in a country where young people have been pushed to the periphery by unemployment, corruption, and police brutality, Mr. Obi’s promises of clean governance and an outsider’s perspective have caught the imagination of a generation. His supporters call themselves his “Obidients.” 

“Nigeria today is at a critical juncture, and the people, led by the youths brutalized by bad leadership, are awake and leading the movement to transform Nigerian politics,” Mr. Obi said in a speech at Chatham House, a think tank in London, last month. 

He is campaigning to succeed Muhammadu Buhari, who is in many ways a textbook example of Nigeria’s old guard. At 80 years old, he was the country’s military dictator in the mid-1980s, before becoming the democratically elected president in 2015. His eight-year administration has been marred by violent insecurity and a shuddering economy in Africa’s most populous country. During his presidency, the country has undergone two recessions and unemployment has risen sharply. In recent weeks, a sudden change to new banknotes has caused a massive shortage of cash, preventing people from buying basics such as food, water, and bus fares.

“I know Nigerians always say we have never had it so bad, but truly, truly, as nearly everyone will tell you, we have never had it so bad,” says Sully Abu, a Lagos-based journalist and co-founder of FrontFoot Media Initiative, a journalism nonprofit. In that context, he says, Mr. Obi “has fired the popular imagination.”

Sunday Alamba/AP
Supporters of Bola Ahmed Tinubu, presidential candidate for Nigeria's ruling party, rally in Lagos, Nigeria, on Feb. 21, 2023. Angered by high unemployment and growing insecurity, younger Nigerians are mobilizing in record numbers to take part in Saturday's presidential election.

Historically, Nigeria’s presidency has bounced between Mr. Buhari’s party, the All Progressives Congress (APC), and its rival People’s Democratic Party (PDP). The APC’s candidate for president this year, former Lagos state Gov. Bola Tinubu, is literally campaigning on the slogan “It’s my turn.” And the PDP has put forward former Vice President Akitu Abubakar, who has run for president five times before. Like about half of Nigeria’s population, both men are Muslim, as is Mr. Buhari. 

In this context, Mr. Obi has successfully marketed himself as new blood. He is a Christian running on the ticket of the Labour Party, a lesser-known party with minimal representation in the Senate or House of Representatives.

“He is the candidate that the major candidates did not take seriously, but as time has gone on, it has proved a fatal error on their part,” says Tunde Ajileye, a Lagos-based partner at SBM Intelligence, a geopolitical research consultancy. 

Will young people turn out?

For a so-called outsider, Mr. Obi has a long track record in Nigerian politics. He was governor of his home state of Anambra, in Nigeria’s southeast, for nearly a decade. And in 2019, he ran as the PDP’s vice presidential candidate. 

Still, young Nigerians have been energized by his promises to clean up corruption and create jobs. 

“People want something different,” says Amaka Anku, head of Africa Practice at Eurasia Group, a geopolitical risk firm based in Washington, D.C. “They feel like the old rulers have not brought development.”

Sunday Alamba/AP
Supporters of presidential candidate Peter Obi chant during a campaign rally in Lagos, Nigeria, on Feb. 11, 2023. Mr. Obi is making a special appeal to younger voters keen to see the change he is promising.

For many, the tipping point came in October 2020, when young people launched mass protests seeking the disbandment of a police unit notorious for harassment, illegal arrests and detentions, rape, extortion, and extrajudicial killings. The movement quickly expanded to include demands for better governance. At least 51 civilians and 18 members of the security forces were killed in the protests. 

At the time, Mr. Obi publicly expressed his support for the movement, known locally by the hashtag #EndSARS after the name of the rogue police unit. And as a presidential candidate, he has made it part of his promise to “reset and reboot” Nigeria. 

Going into voting day, some polls have Mr. Obi leading the presidential race. To win in the first round, a candidate must garner the most votes, including at least 25% of the votes in two-thirds of the country’s 36 states and the capital, Abuja. So a runoff election is a possibility.

Experts say that to win the election, Mr. Obi will need a massive turnout from his base, many of whom have never voted before. Indeed, 84% of the 10 million people who registered to vote ahead of this election are under 35.

Analysts also warn that a lack of strong party machinery may set Mr. Obi back. His main competitors’ older and more established parties have more local branches, women’s and youth groups, and – importantly for election day – agents stationed at polling centers to act as observers to the voting and counting processes.

“If you don’t have that, boots on the ground,” cautions Ms. Anku, the Eurasia Group analyst, “it is very difficult to turn voting intentions into votes.”

The “gospel spreader”

For some voters, that kind of existing political infrastructure is reassuring. Shola Adebanjo, a high school teacher in Ogun state, says Mr. Obi is a “social media politician” whose promises to voters are unrealistic. Mr. Tinubu, on the other hand, “is ready to lead this country,” he believes. 

Carlos Mureithi
Prosper Uka, 32, a volunteer with Peter Obi's youth-oriented presidential election campaign, shows mock ballot papers at Lekki New Market in Lagos, Nigeria, on Feb. 22, 2023.

Mr. Obi is relying heavily on his informal network of “Obidients” to turn out the vote for him Saturday. Mr. Uka, for instance, has a day job in printing on Victoria Island, the main business and financial center of Lagos. But he “spreads the gospel” of Mr. Obi every chance he gets.

“I walk on the road, I do it. I stay with friends, I do it, I stay with family – every opportunity,” he says.

At Lekki New Market, he approaches two hairstylists at an informal roadside salon. He shows them a mock ballot paper and explains to them how to identify Mr. Obi’s party and mark their vote.

Then he bends, turning to speak to the 2-year-old child of one of the women.

“There is hope for you,” he tells him. “Tell your mummy, tell your daddy: vote Peter Obi.”

Ikenna Omeje contributed reporting to this article.

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