The floor space was packed in one of Lagos’ most iconic venues as artist after artist took to the stage to deliver a simple political message: vote.
It was early June, and hundreds of young people had crammed into the city’s historic Tafawa Balewa Square for a free concert organised by musician and actor Falz, alongside other prominent Nigerian artists including Afrobeats stars Teni and Mayorkun, rapper M.I, and Joeboy. The only requirement to get in was that you had to prove you were registered to vote in the country’s upcoming election, but registration booths were on site to get more signed up.
“I was prompted to do the concert because I believe that this is one of the most important moments in [Nigeria’s] story,” Falz told VICE World News. “We have a really big election year coming up, now more than ever it is very important for as many people as possible, especially young people to participate in the electoral process.”
In February 2023, Nigeria will elect a new president as Muhammadu Buhari prepares to step down. The country’s two main political parties – the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) and the All Progressives Congress (APC) – have selected their two candidates.
The 200-million-strong population will most likely have to choose between the PDP’s Atiku Abubakar – who was once banned from the US for his alleged links to multiple corruption scandals – and the ruling APC’s Bola Tinubu, who has been repeatedly accused of using official state funds to buy political power.
This choice has left young Nigerians searching for a third option. Some, including many who led 2020’s #EndSARS mass nationwide movement against police brutality and government corruption, think they’ve found that candidate: Peter Obi, the 61-year-old former governor of the large eastern state of Anambra. Obi is a wealthy businessman who has built a political brand promoting himself as an affable, frugal, incorruptible technocrat. After falling out with the PDP, he is standing for the comparatively small, new Labour Party, with support for his candidacy mobilised largely through social media. On TikTok, the hashtag #PeterObiForPresident, which mostly accompanies Fancams of the candidate, currently has over 25 million views. With 70 percent of Nigeria’s population under 30, a seismic youth turnout could upend the vote.
“Over the past couple of years, there has been a high rate of apathy that we are trying not to see this time around,” Falz, who was a key voice during the #EndSARS protests, said. “The turnout [at the concert] was amazing and very encouraging. So many people came out and from our end, so many artists came out to lend their voices. I think it was a great success, but the work is continuous, it doesn't stop there. Every single day, whether it is via social media, whether it’s via word of mouth, we are trying to get as many people as possible to get registered and to get ready next year to exercise their fundamental rights.”
The push for a third-party candidate to disrupt the status quo has been fuelled by anger at a worsening cost-of-living crisis and a spiralling crisis with regular kidnappings and attacks by armed insurgents in the north of the country Few people think that the two main parties – who have overseen the degradation – will be able to fix these significant problems. Now, after years of apathy, there’s been a sharp rise in the number of young people registering to vote.
According to the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), young Nigerians aged between 18-35 make up the highest number of completed registrations, with over 6 million registrations recorded so far. “Nigeria is currently in the worst state it has ever been in… the economy is terrible, petroleum, security and electricity are just a complete shame,” 24-year-old student Kenneth Chukwuemeka said.
“I have never seen this sort of reaction from young people to any political candidate,” Oluwatosin Bolade, a 23-year-old fashion stylist, added.
Kiki Mordi – a journalist and activist, who as member of the Feminist Coalition was a prominent voice at the forefront of the deadly, weeks-long #EndSARS protests against police brutality in October 2020 – told VICE World News that many young Nigerians feel empowered by the global reach of the demonstrations, and the solidarity shown across the country for the movement. “We realised that as Nigerians, so many things are intertwined and the long connecting rope is corruption,” Mordi, who is a vocal supporter of Obi, said. “And so we started to see how deep the rot was and more people wanted much more than to end SARS but end bad governance.”
“EndSARS was a rude awakening that we actually deserve better and we'll go out of our way to get it,” Jacqueline Alabi, a 20-year-old university student, told VICE World News. As a result, Alabi wasn’t surprised by the size of the crowd at her local voter registration centre in Yaba, a hectic neighbourhood in Lagos. By the time she arrived at 8:30AM, nearly 80 locals, mainly young people, were already in line to register to vote. In previous elections, this centre would have been empty. When Alabi – whose lecturers are among the hundreds of university staff who have been on strike for over five months over an ongoing pay and working conditions dispute with the government – left two hours later, the crowd had grown.
The way the #EndSARS protests ended, with unarmed demonstrators being shot at by authorities, has only heightened the importance of the upcoming vote. “For the first time, the youth of Nigeria were brought face to face with how brutal a government can be,” Aisha Yesufu, a prominent political activist and pundit, told VICE World News. “That moment shifted the paradigm.”
“I’ve been a journalist for about 10 years and this is the first time I am openly throwing my weight behind a candidate because I feel like this is a fight for my life,” Mordi added. “I am a human being and a Nigerian first and I could decide to quit journalism tomorrow, but I can’t quit being a Nigerian. I just knew that the stakes are really high, especially seeing how we were treated for being recognised figures during the #EndSARS protests. I love being a Nigerian and I would fight for my right to continue being a Nigerian and that’s why I threw my support behind Peter Obi.”
What Obi actually represents, however, depends on who you ask.
“I see him as the one who is ready to listen to the people,” Yesufu said. “The most important thing will be for Nigerians to hold him accountable.”
For Mordi, Obi’s claim to transparency makes him a better choice than Atiku and Tinubu. “[His] ideals are really just… ‘we are one of you, we respect the dignity in labour’ and that just sits right with me, especially for the movement that we are trying to remind the people in government that the power of the people is bigger than the people in power,” Mordi said.
Obi has his fair share of critics, too, who say his economic frugality as governor bordered on excessive, blocking much-needed investment in the state. He was also accused of investing state funds in a company he had an interest in, a decision he argues benefited the state. Then there’s Obi’s choice of running mate, Senator Yusuf Datti Baba-Ahmed, who in 2014 strongly supported Nigeria’s anti-same-sex marriage law. When questioned about his decision, Obi claims he personally “tolerates [other] people’s views and lifestyles,” and that Datti’s past homophobic views are not a reflection of who he is now.
“Is [Obi] a messiah? Absolutely not,” Yesufu said. “Does he have all the answers? Oh, no. But he's… ready to learn; he's humble. And he has empathy, which is something that has been lacking with the people who have served us over time… I'm ready to work with anyone that is ready to do everything for Nigeria to make the life of the average Nigerian person better, and for me that is it.”
One thing his supporters and detractors can agree on is that he certainly faces an uphill battle to dislodge power away from the two main political parties by turning his overwhelming social media support into actual votes. Nigeria’s recent political history shows it’s not impossible.
“The APC and PDP have only been the two main parties in two election cycles - 2015 and 2019,” Tunde Ajileye, an author and political historian told VICE World News. “Prior to this… parties coalesced around personalities.”
Buhari, who ran unsuccessfully three times for president under three different parties – the Action Congress of Nigeria (ACN), the Congress for Progressive Change (CPC) and the All Nigeria Peoples Party (ANPP) – was only able to clinch the presidency when those parties formed a merger that created the APC in 2013.
Ultimately, experts believe that there is a bigger significance to this election, particularly for young Nigerians, whether or not a third-party candidate is successful in disrupting the status quo.
“The Labour party offers many young people the opportunity to participate in the process of building a political party from the bottom up for the first time,” Ajileye, the political historian, explains. “For most, the political parties they have had to participate in were built before they became politically active. This is significant, and the audacity to do this will increase in future.”