Nigeria is said to be one of the countries in the world with a significant population of youths, but for several decades that did not translate to meaningful participation in governance.
But the story is changing as young Nigerians are beginning to speak up and breaking out of their political apathy. So far, in the ongoing continuous voters registration, more than 14 million Nigerian youths have registered and the number is still rising and will likely exceed the 15 million target.
Available data from the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) show that in the 2019 election, youths accounted for only 28 percent in the presidential election and 29 percent in the governorship elections. But for the upcoming 2023 election, data show that 80 percent of newly registered voters are young people.
The Federal Capital Territory resident electoral commissioner, INEC, Yahaya Bello, had during a recent briefing in Abuja said that the commission was witnessing the highest turnout of citizens in the continuous voter registration. “We have been doing this continuous voter registration but have never seen people patronise it in such a manner,” he had said.
Samuela Isopi, European Union ambassador to Nigeria, said 2023 would be different.
This surging interest in governance began largely after the EndSARS protest, which birthed the phrase “Soro soke”, which means ‘speak up’ in Yoruba, the language of the largest ethnic groups in Lagos and South-West Nigeria.
The EndSARS is said to be Nigeria’s most significant protest movement since pro-democracy rallies in the 1990s, and constitutes a real political awakening for many young Nigerians. The protests brought recognition that young people could be a powerful political force, combined with the more brutal insight that the establishment will respond violently to perceived challenges.
“Nigerians are motivated; a lot has happened in Nigeria in the past eight years and Nigerians are waking up after that EndSARS protest; there is a spirit that Nigerians are moving with right now. We have seen that that change is possible and our voices can make that change. This is my first time and I will participate,” Adebayo Joshua said in an interview with BusinessDay. Joshua believed that young people have all it takes to make the dream Nigeria.
During the EndSARS protest, which started small but gained momentum, youths demanded an end to police brutality, which the Nigerian government eventually heeded to, and resolved to implement some reforms in the police.
But beyond police brutality, there are several other factors that have caused youths’ growing interest in governance. According to available records and polls conducted by BusinessDay, persisting economic hardship, failing governance, poor power supply, worsening security situation, and the sheer desire to be heard and recognised are factors that are causing a surge in youth participation.
For 21-year-old Jessica Bernard, the current state of affairs and economic hardship triggered her to participate in the election process for the first time and she is willing to fight to the finish. “This will be my first time of voting, and I am eager to vote because I am tired of everything. The suffering in this country is too much; we are tired. We just have to come out and vote; if we are all saying that our vote will not count, then it won’t count. But if we come out like this and vote, it will count and it will be very difficult for the election to be rigged,” she told BusinessDay in an interview.
One of the biggest challenges facing young sub-Saharan Africans is poor governance and access to power. Africa may be home to the youngest population on earth, but its leaders are among the oldest and often cling to power for decades, and Nigeria is no exception, according to available records.
In five out of seven African countries surveyed in 2017 (Egypt, Ghana, Morocco, Nigeria, South Africa), at least 75 per cent of young people said their governments did not care about their needs. This has led to disenfranchisement. According to Afrobarometer, the percentage of respondents who voted in their country’s last election is 14 percentage points lower for young Africans (aged 18–35) than for those over 35. And almost one in 10 young Africans say they deliberately decided not to vote.
The continuous voter registration is a testament of this rising interest of the ‘Sorosoke’ generation. Access to social media is also enabling young Nigerians to tell their own stories and engage on equal terms with those on the same platforms in the West.
Read also: Understanding the #Sorosoke Generation
According to experts, it has opened this generation to wider possibilities and viewpoints and is facilitating a growing recognition of what is no longer tolerable within their society, helping to create a generation that is both increasingly frustrated and willing to call out the injustices it faces.
But the journey to youths interested in governance started before the EndSARS protest. The Not Too Young to Run Bill was passed before the 2019 elections but despite some achievements, participation remained low. Some estimates suggest only 1 per cent of lawmakers are aged under 30. Financial constraints and the cultural mentality that youths aren’t ready are some of the challenges.
Chinemerem Onuorah, 25, said: “There is a problem, in that people by default believe that young people are not ready to rule. People think you are not qualified for something just because of your age and they forget the fact that the president we have today was very young when he first ruled Nigeria.
“So why do they think young people cannot carry on with democracy now? I feel like there are a lot of young people who have the competence and capacity to rule Nigeria and we should not disqualify.”
Sanusi Olaniyan, a programme assistant at YIAGA Africa, agrees that the biggest challenge for young candidates is financial inequality. “Nigerian politics is very monetised. If you don’t have a large pool of resources to draw from, it is very hard to contest an election, and almost impossible to contest in an established political party.”
According to a book, titled ‘Soro soke’, and published by Trish Lorenz, Princess Ugwu, who ran for a seat in the Enugu State House of Assembly at the 2019 general election, said: “I contested for a seat in the Enugu State House of Assembly under the United Progressive Party. There was no sponsorship from the party aside from giving free nomination forms to women and youth. Most of my support came from family, friends and colleagues who have seen my passion and believed in my ability to handle leadership positions and deliver change. I contested as a form of protest to the existing leadership, in which nothing seems to be working out. It wasn’t an easy feat, especially as a young female candidate. Some in society saw me as a deviant and called me a prostitute. Even some family members said I was overstepping my boundaries and should be stopped before I disgraced them. Men who were in the race tried to discourage me. I was sold out by a member of my party who felt a male candidate from another party, contesting the same position, was a better option. He asked me to step down and, when I declined, he started campaigning against me. One of the other major challenges I faced was finance. During the campaign period, we went out to speak to people, but they wouldn’t listen if we had nothing to put on the table. I am sharing my story because I believe it can reawaken sleeping giants in some of the female folk around Africa and the globe into realising their full potential, especially as it concerns leadership and politics.”
To ensure that the 2023 election is highly participatory, the European Union has pledged to support and stand by Nigerian youths. The EU ambassador to Nigeria pledged to back young Nigerians throughout the election process. “This is the start of a great change; the youth turnout in Nigeria is historically low. This time we know that it would be different, we can feel it, and we can feel the energy. Nigerian youths are mobilising; they are telling us that this time they will be ready to be the driver of change. The European Union will stand by you; we will continue to support you, and we will continue to work with you to make Nigeria’s democracy stronger. Remain engaged and let’s continue the journey until the day of the elections because your vote is your power,” Isopi told a crowd of youths in Abuja.