Saturday, April 20, 2024

How Young Voters Can Shake Up Nigeria’s Next Election 

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Nigerians are gearing up to choose a successor to President Muhammadu Buhari, whose eight years in power have been blighted by economic decay, soaring unemployment, heightened insecurity and an exodus of the educated elite. The Feb. 25 vote in Africa’s most populous nation pits long-familiar politicians in their 70s against a challenger from a fringe opposition party who held a hefty lead in early polls. The election has sparked unprecedented interest among young Nigerians tired of being ruled by an old guard of leaders who’ve done little to improve their living standards or chances of getting a job. About 40% of the 93.5 million registered voters are younger than 35. In the US, that figure is about 25%. 

1. Why is this election so important?

While Nigeria’s fortunes have slipped in recent years, it is still Africa’s biggest economy and oil producer, and a major regional power broker. Its population of over 200 million is set to more than double by 2050, which would make it the world’s third-most populous nation. Previous presidential elections held in Nigeria since it returned to democracy in 1999 have been dominated by candidates from the ruling All Progressive Congress and the rival People’s Democratic Party. But the shift in voting demographics is shaking up the status quo, with Peter Obi, an ex-governor of Anambra state and candidate of the Labour Party, galvanizing support among youth.

2. What are the key campaign issues? 

The economy and insecurity. By every economic metric, Nigerians are worse off than they were when Buhari took power in 2015. About 90 million live on less than $2 a day, according to the World Bank, among the highest number in the world. Most members of the potential workforce are under-employed or jobless. A lack of economic opportunities has stoked criminality, including a thriving kidnapping-for-ransom industry. The country also continues to battle a jihadist insurgency in the northeast that has claimed thousands of lives, and a secessionist movement in the southeast. Besides addressing those challenges, the winner will have to bring runaway state debt under control and decide whether to scrap popular gasoline subsidies. 

3. Who are the leading candidates?

There are 18 contenders, but only three stand a realistic chance of winning: Bola Ahmed Tinubu, 70, the ex-governor of Lagos state, who is running on the ruling party ticket; PDP candidate Atiku Abubakar, 76, a wealthy businessman who served as vice president in the early 2000s and has made five previous unsuccessful runs at the presidency; and Obi, 61, a former banking executive. A September 2022 poll commissioned by Bloomberg News showed Obi with backing from almost three quarters of the 3,973 respondents; he has also held commanding leads in three other polls. Tinubu and Abubakar, who polled 16% and 9% respectively in the Bloomberg poll, have long been trailed by allegations of corruption, which they deny. The Pandora Papers linked Obi to businesses that were registered in off-shore tax havens. He denies having failed to disclose that information as required when he became governor of Anambra, or violating any other laws. 

4. What are they promising?

The three main candidates have made very similar campaign pledges that center around ramping up economic growth, creating jobs and tackling insecurity. To help achieve those goals, they intend to boost oil production, which has hit historic lows in recent months, and increase funding for the police and military. They’ve all also promised to remove fuel subsidies that cost the cash-strapped government billions of dollars a year — a move the Buhari administration has long resisted despite entreaties from the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. Obi has said he intends extending the repayment of the nation’s loans. Nigeria’s total debt stock has almost quadrupled under Buhari’s rule, reaching about 44 trillion naira ($95 billion) as of the end of 2022, and the government spend 80 cents out of every dollar it collects on servicing it. 

5. What are Obi’s electoral weaknesses?

His power base is concentrated in Nigeria’s predominantly Christian south, and there are doubts over his ability to muster support in the largely Muslim north, home to the majority of voters. His Labour Party, which currently has a single seat in the Senate, doesn’t have the national profile and organizational capacity of its larger rivals, which will hurt his chances. He may also lack the financial muscle needed to secure victory, given that most previous Nigerian elections have seen contenders dispense vast sums of cash to voters and officials to shore up their campaigns. The use of new voter authentication technology should make the upcoming vote more transparent and harder to manipulate than previous contests.

6. Why is the oil-fired economy struggling?

Nigeria derives limited benefit from the current high international crude prices because it has no refining capacity and has to import costly fuel from abroad. Oil production has also been falling since 2020, reaching its lowest levels in decades last year, a slump the government attributes to the theft of as much as a fifth of output from pipelines that crisscross the oil-rich Niger Delta. With limited capacity to raise additional revenue, Nigeria has emulated several other African countries in borrowing to the hilt to offset the fallout of the coronavirus pandemic and to shore up the economy, placing further strain on its already stretched finances. 

7. How will this election work? 

To win the presidency in the initial round of voting, a candidate must secure a majority of the ballots nationally and more than 25% in at least 24 of the 36 states and the federal capital territory. If no one meets those benchmarks, a run-off between the candidate who get the most votes and the one with the widest spread of support across the states must be held within three weeks. Winning that contest requires a simple majority.  

8. What are investors hoping for?

All three leading presidential candidates have signaled that they will adopt a much more business-friendly approach than Buhari, and the winner will be expected to do more to lure investment, cut red tape and improve the patchy power supply and decrepit transport links. The new administration will also face pressure to ward off a potential debt crisis, usher in a more orthodox monetary policy and unify the country’s multiple exchange rates. 

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