Nigeria to Vote: among corruption, violence and unemployment, the voice of the youth could be decisive


Francesca Mercurio

The 23rd of February, Nigeria has been called to polls to democratically elect its President and the representatives of the National Assembly. The election date was first scheduled to occur one week before, but some delays in delivering the election materials and the fires incidents in three Commission’s offices around the country in the previous days have forced the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) to postpone the vote, with a just five hours notice. So, on Saturday, Nigerians will wake up for the second time in just one month, with that feeling of contributing and attempt to change things in their own country, by defining which candidate is going to govern for the next four years (hopefully) and to dictate and define the path of the Africa’s giant in its regional, continental and international environment.

Like most of the voting moments in many African countries, this sixth Nigerian elections are extremely sensitive, mainly because although twenty years have already passed since the end of the military regime, it was only in the past elections, in 2015, that democratic rules really worked in the transition of power from the incumbent president Goodluck Jonathan to the winning candidate, General Muhammadu Buhari. This article aims to give a general overview of the current context in which the Presidential elections are taking place and to highlight the main challenges that Nigeria is facing, focusing also on those relevant issues that have remained mainly unaddressed during the electoral campaign of the main candidates. Therefore, what to expect from the future political leadership of this country? Given the recent episodes of delay and rescheduling, is Nigeria committed and ready for free, fair and credible elections and to the maintenance of the democratic order in the country?

Nigeria Today

Twenty years after the return to democracy, Nigeria is today considered the biggest and fastest growing economy in Africa, and with its abundance of natural resources, it is both the biggest oil exporter and owner of the largest natural gas reserve on the continent. Nigeria is expected to grow at a 2.8% rate in this years, an achievement arguably owed to structural reforms outlined and implemented by the government in 2017 (World Bank, 2018). In fact, other than exclusively focusing the national economics on the oil production, that still presents low levels of income and a strong dependency and asymmetric distribution of revenue, the country has attempted to re-launch and sustain its agriculture sector, expected to play a significant role in the economic growth of the country. Furthermore, the government has also (unsuccessfully) tried to improve availability of foreign exchange to support imports and boost investment and private sector activities (World Bank 2018). As an attempt to come out from the full year of recession lived in 2016, the government seems to have understood that exclusively relying on the oil-sector is not a solution for lasting sustainable growth rate and has promoted an Economic Recovery and Growth Plan 2017–2020, by focusing on the creation of infrastructures to serve the agriculture, energy and transport sector (Nigeria Economic Update- WB, 2017).

The estimated 200 million inhabitants make of Nigeria the most populated country in the continent, accounting for 47% of West Africa’s population alone. Due to the demographic growth experienced in last few years, the country’s eventual efforts to invest in education may also contribute for driving Nigeria’s economic growth in the long-term, “as it could help address issues of employability and shift the country’s working population from less productive to more productive economic sectors” (World bank 2017). This might be extremely significant if we consider that Nigeria has today “one of the largest population of youth in the world”, that on Saturday are going to vote.

Indeed, of the over 84 million Nigerian expected to vote, 51.11% are youth voters between 18 and 35 years old, followed by 30% of voters between 36 and 50 years old. It means that about 80% of the population is (or should be) fully active in economics and in the development of the country (INEC, 2019). A further statistic of the INEC about occupation distribution of registered voters for 2019 general elections, shows that 26.57% are students, followed by peoples located in lower classes (16.23% working in agriculture and fishing sector and slightly more than 14% occupied as housewives) and Business Persons (with a percentage of less than 13%) (INEC, 2019).

These figures indicate that roughly half of the voting population is young and still unemployed, with part of them being representatives of the “generation democracy”- those girls and boys born after the exit of the military, that have only lived in democracy and that, for the first time, are expressing their political vote. Therefore, with a huge youth presence and decisional role in these elections, issues related to employment and fair salaries, education and health, democracy and general welfare (here understood as access to water, electricity and roads, which are considered as necessary to human life), end of corruption and violence, should have been the core of the electoral competition around the country.

Nigeria’s Problems and the electoral campaign of the main candidates

The candidate that will be elected President on the 23rd of February must obtain the majority of nationwide votes and at least 25 percent of votes in two-thirds of the country’s states, to avoid a second run between the two top candidates. INEC is therefore tasked with checking the development of activities and vote counting of about 120,00 polling stations, located across large territories which are often plagued with infrastructural issues. The rescheduling of election day was in part due to the difficulties encountered in delivering the necessary election materials to the most remote areas, followed some worsening of weather conditions that forced the commission to abandon the idea of using air transport to reach those areas and to rely on a weak and slow road transportation. Furthermore, the INEC is also checking for voting irregularities and has been working to reduce vote rigging and buying, voter intimidation and violence, that are still very common in the country’s elections.

Despite over 70 candidates running for the presidency, most newspapers and academic events discussing the electoral campaign have focused their attention on the two main parties: the APC (All Progressive Congress) party of the incumbent president Muhammadu Buhari, seeking a second term, and the PDP (People’s Democratic Party) of the former vice president Atiku Abubakar, that governed the country from 1999 until its first loss, in 2015, to Buhari and the APC. The presidential race of 2019 seems to be harder to define and predict as the reality of the election is distancing itself from what have been the commonly accepted norms in Nigerian politics. As John Campbell wrote, “there is a longstanding norm that the Nigerian presidency alternates between representatives of the predominantly Muslim North and Christian South every eight years. It is still the north’s turn”, a pattern unlikely to be broken given that both main candidates are northerners. This is difficulting any prediction of victory in some states as reflection of candidates’ regional, religious and ethnic origins, making their provenience not decisive at all in the pools.

So, the two main candidates have attempted to centre their campaigns on broad issues affecting the country at large so as to appeal to a wider base. In fact, Nigerians expect the next president to deal with economic and security problems, and to finally put an end to corruption in the country. At this purpose, a BBC report has highlighted the irony and contradiction of some of the oil-rich Southern states that despite obtaining high average income from the oil sector, experience also high rates of unemployment, suggesting that “the oil industry is not producing enough jobs for the population”. Nigerian oil sector, however, is still grappling with issues of low pricing. A reality which- as John Campbell argues- puts the country at risk of another recession and spreading poverty among the population. Furthermore, the consequences of climate change such as drought, desertification and flooding are affecting the agricultural sector, insecuring the lives of many farmers and herders that are now fighting for access to arable land and for increasing their sector, being able in this way to sell their products in national and international markets, rather than being restricted to subsistence production. However, despite the common understanding of the urgency to relaunch the economics and employ people, the approaches of the two leading candidates appear different. While Abubakar takes a more market-friendly and business-like approach that will also consist in the privatization and selling of refineries and government’s stake, as well as in the access to credit and the implementation of commercial agriculture to indirectly address the growing poverty; Buhari’s policies are more interventionist and oriented to fight poverty and reinforce the Naira- national currency- through state-led programmes that in some way discourage investors to look at the country. Related to the growing poverty rate in the country and the increasing gap between the few rich Nigerians and the many extreme poor, president Buhari proudly affirmed that, unlike his predecessor, his administration has considered poverty to be a political problem, addressing under government responsibility the solution to it.

Moreover, the incumbent president Buhari is running once again is campaign on another sensitive issue- corruption- which represent an easy way to attack his rival. Nigeria is the 37th most corrupt country in the world, based on the list divulged by Transparency International (2018). If the fight to corruption has been the central topic of Buhari’s 2015 election and allowed him to become president, this time the electorate may be interested in something more real and credible. Nigerians are complaining about how corruption has been normalized in daily life and a number of them feeling disillusioned with a proposed solutions to this problem, many Nigerians are still looking for engaged and vibrant politicians that are really able to fight graft without assuming two different attitudes when dealing with friends and enemies, as Buhari has been seen to do.

Finally, insecurity has represented the key issue of the political campaign of parties. First of all, the concern is related to the violence spread by Boko Haram in the North-East of the country, that has forced millions of people to leave their homes and seek for humanitarian assistance and more safety. Related to Boko Haram, the incumbent president affirmed that during his government, a big fight has been deployed against the terrorist group, and some significant results have been achieved, though the way to the final overthrow of the group is still far. One good result was the taking back of the 17 local governments previously held by Boko Haram; a victory that has contributed to weaken the group support and has been possible through the improving of Nigerian Armed Forces’ military capabilities and techniques, developed thanks to the military training cooperation with other countries, mainly EU countries and US. In addition to the insecurity caused by the terrorist group of Boko Haram, another challenge that the country is facing is dealing with the possible internal conflicts on religious and ethnic lines. The regional division of the country between the Islamic North and the Christian South has intensified since 2000 when many Northern states adopted the Sharia, Islamic law, forcing many Christians to flee certain areas. As both the running presidential candidates are from the Muslim North, it is hoped that the support in the South will be won by their running mates for the vice-presidency: Dr. Yemi Osinbajo (APC), a Christian pastor of Yoruba ethnicity from the South, on one side; and the businessman and politician Peter Obi (PDP) of Igbo ethnicity.

Old candidates for a young country: the #NotTooYoungToRun Campaign

Focusing their campaign once again on three principle topics (corruption, security and economics) in a very simplistic way, Nigerian candidates to the presidency are forgetting to address and consider some other main challenges that might be decisive for their final victory. First of all, their political programme should be more focused on the fact that the demographic growth is not being followed by a similar growth of the economics. As consequence, Nigerian youth- principally- have been trapped in disadvantageous conditions and in cycles of poverty that will increase insecurity in all its forms (economic, lack of basic needs, illiteracy, unhealthy conditions of life, social vulnerability and violence victim).

Based on the data of the National Bureau of Statistics of last year, 20.9 million people are unemployed in Nigeria. Furthermore, with the highest percentage of young people voting, an improvement in the Education system might be a big challenge for the future president. Due to the repeated strike action of teachers, students experience great delays to grad and to access to the job market, competing for fewer job opportunities and positions. In addition to this delay, the mandatory one year youth service is worsening an already difficult scenario and initiating a situation that will negatively propagate in the future years, affecting many sectors of society.

With no job opportunities and a general lack of hope in the power of politicians to change this situation, many young Nigerians are leaving the country. A significant number are flying overseas to study in European or US universities, meaning a great loss for the country, others are looking for a better life at any cost, by taking the dangerous and deadly Libyan route to reach the Italian coasts and then Europe. Like Boko Haram and the internal conflicts, illegal migration is also a problem of national and international security that should be considered by the future president and a discussion about it should be required by the population. Many Nigerians are today living in dangerous and unsafe conditions outside the country, experiencing threats, physical and psychological violence and in some cases deaths. It should be responsibility of the government to guarantee and assure the basic human conditions to its own citizens.

Although Foreign Policy is not an issue that directly affects people’s daily lives, the effects of the decisions made in the international arena impact on the domestic and individual environment. A bilateral agreement with EU for the concessions of Visa to Nigerians, or an international cooperation in security to fight transnational terrorism and illicit trafficking of humans and goods, are but a few possible solutions that may improve Nigeria and Nigerians’ lives. As Ugochukwu Iwuchukwu questioned, “an expertly run foreign policy machinery is an invaluable asset to the economy. It can secure better trade deals and foreign direct investment. It can also help to create better intelligence for our security operatives. Nigerians care about these and should care about who runs the country’s foreign policy. After all, who doesn’t want to be able to fly proudly with just the green passport?”. It is therefore necessary that Nigeria’s future president and the population itself start to care more about foreign policy and to ask and discuss about it in the electoral campaign.

But how to do that when the political elite is so old and far from the majority of the population, very young and poor? Are these candidates the best representatives for governing the youngest country in the world? The 77 years old incumbent president has been accused of, on many occasions, being too old and unhealthy to complete a second term given his recurring overseas trips for unknown medical treatments. On the other side, Abubakar (72) is also an old man, whose long time involvement in political life and a questionable fortune acquired in the 1980’s have led some to view him simply as a recycling of lived experiences, or the heating up of the same political soup, that has not really led to any change in Nigeria.

Meanwhile, a youth movement created in 2016 is expressing its discontent with the current situation and the lack of young people in politics and the many restriction and age discrimination posed to their entrance. Until when will young people be considered too young to run for high political positions? The movement has rapidly spread globally, symbolized by the hashtag #NotTooYoungToRun. It seems that Nigerian youth are aware of their weight both nationally and internationally and that increased political consciousness might be the key to achieving progress, peace and development. For sure, in the elections of 2019, youth are already the main protagonists, having attracted the attention of scholars and analysts and the affection of many peers around the world.


To conclude, many Nigerians are still looking for the change promised them 5 years ago. But do the candidates represent a fresh new wind coming to blow the country out from the economic and financial crisis, the security problems and the scandals of corruption? Whether Buhari or Abubakar is going to win, not too much, it seems, will change for Nigeria, its markets and the life of its people, as during their campaign both candidates have been centred on just few problems, mainly analysed separately from other questions that are also linked to and caused by them. Elections’ results may therefore be uncertain, the rescheduling of the date has already been followed by accusations of fraud and attempts of sabotage, while it has also discouraged many Nigerians about the capability of the country to really move forward and toward the change. The only hope is that this election may be the most democratic, transparent and legitimate that Nigeria have had to now, and that the right to vote will be exerted in a non violent and unthreatening context. This will reassure the international markets, increasing the chance of Nigeria to attract investments, it will give more faith and trust in political institutions to Nigerian people and will be a stable point of departing for the country for the next four years, to be able to stand up again and be seen as an example for many other African countries.

Francesca Mercurio is a PhD candidate at the Joint Degree Programme of the International Relations Institute of the University of São Paulo (IRI-USP) and the War Studies Department of the King’s College London (KCL). She is also a researcher at the International Relations Research Centre (NUPRI).