Editor’s Note: Rinu Oduala is the founder and director of Connect Hub Nigeria, an online platform for building social networks and organizing mass movements. The views expressed in this commentary are her own. Read more opinion on CNN.
As the sun began to rise over the bustling city of Lagos, Nigeria, a group of young people dressed in t-shirts and jeans were already gathered outside a polling station.
Joining the slow-moving queue, these young, educated voters had one common goal – to make a difference.
They had grown up in a country plagued by corruption, poverty and political instability, and were tired of waiting for change to come from the top. They remember the day, in October 2020, when the sound of gunshots and screams filled the air as the military opened fire on unarmed protesters in Lagos, the second-largest city in Africa – in what became known as the “Lekki toll gate shooting.”
At the time, young Nigerians, who had been peacefully protesting against alleged police brutality for weeks, faced violence at the hands of security operatives. Many were injured, some maimed, and others lost their lives.
Fast forward to Nigeria’s recent controversial presidential election, and the memory of those protests lingered for young voters like those lining up in the early morning sun. Young voters carry with them the scars of the violence that they faced in 2020. They remember the tear gas, gunshots and violence, and the friends and loved ones who were injured or killed. The protests were both a critical moment and the culmination of years of anger and disillusionment with the system, which has failed to address the needs and aspirations of Nigeria’s youth.
But despite the trauma and tragedy of those days, they remain determined to make their voices heard. These young Nigerians are driven by a sense of justice, a determination to hold those in power accountable for their actions and a belief in the power of collective action to bring about change.
One of the largest youth populations in the world
As a 24-year-old Nigerian, I am part of one of the largest youth populations in the world. We are energetic, ambitious and full of hope for our future. However, we face politicians who are older, are often disconnected from our reality, making decisions that affect our lives without our input. We are constantly told that we are the future of Nigeria, but when it comes to decision-making, our voices are silenced.
Living in Nigeria often feels like watching a poorly executed movie, except it’s not entertainment – it’s real life. I grew up in a system where the odds have always been stacked against me, and where young people like me are left with no other option but to survive by any means necessary.
As I grow older, I’ve grown tired of constantly fighting for survival. What I need urgently is a country that operates efficiently, with functional systems and institutions. I need a future where becoming a leader is an achievable dream, rather than an elusive one. To live in a country where I can finally breathe easy.
Despite being the most populous country in Africa and having vast natural resources, Nigeria has been struggling with a multitude of challenges that make life difficult for its young population.
According to the National Bureau of Statistics, the unemployment rate in Nigeria stood at 33.3%, as of the fourth quarter of 2020, with youth unemployment being even higher at 42.5%. The monthly minimum wage in Nigeria for government employees is currently set at ₦30,000 (equivalent to around $65).
Despite these challenges and more, young Nigerians are a powerful force for change. As shown in the recent election, they have placed themselves solidly at the center of the political landscape, demanding a government that understands their struggles and puts their interests first. They are not motivated by any particular political party or candidate; they are motivated by a desire to build a more equitable and democratic Nigeria.
Leveraging digital spaces
The role of online spaces in empowering young Nigerians cannot be underestimated, and is likely to continue to shape the country’s political landscape for years to come.
Social media has enabled young Nigerians to build networks, share information and coordinate political activities in ways that were not possible before. Gone are the days when only a few people have the power to control national conversations. Today, we are creating our own tables where we put issues on the front burner, through the democratization of social media.
Such an amount of democratization of public discourse in this generation was unexpected by politicians whose regular answer to the complaints of young Nigerians is “vote us out.” Well, young Nigerians decided to vote.
The ‘Peter Obi effect’
During the presidential campaigns, the Labour Party candidate Peter Obi became popular among young voters because of his focus on addressing issues like economic inequality, unemployment, education, healthcare and poverty and the need for transparency and accountability in government. His supporters even earned the nickname “Obidients.”
Although he is not a newcomer to the political system, Obi was seen as atypical contender with a decent shot at the top job, in a political arena dominated by older, more established rivals. The former Nigerian governor’s reputation for fiscal responsibility attracted voters fed up with corruption and a political system that is out of touch.
Within a span of nine months, his effective use of multiple communication channels and engaging presence on social media allowed him to attract millions of followers. This approach helped him to reach voters who are already active in these digital spaces, thereby establishing the legitimacy of young people’s concerns.
By rallying behind Obi, young Nigerians made it clear that their needs and concerns can no longer be ignored. These “keypad warriors” have taken on the established power structures in Nigerian politics, which have historically marginalized young people and prevented them from holding positions of influence. By claiming digital spaces, young Nigerians are now pushing to advance their political aspirations, shaping the future of Nigerian politics.
Back to the ballot box
However, the electoral process has cast a shadow over the election results – which are now being challenged in court by the opposition.
Nigeria’s independent national electoral commission (INEC) declared Bola Ahmed Tinubu, of the ruling All Progressives Congress party, the winner in an election tarnished by allegations of corruption, violence, technical failures and the lowest voter turnout in Nigerian history, at 29%.
Concerns about the lack of accountability in Nigerian politics could further undermine the already fragile state of Nigerian democracy, and send a negative signal to other countries in the region, where about ten other countries will soon be conducting presidential elections and some, parliamentary elections.
Nigeria’s status as the largest economy in Africa – along with its population of over 210 million and projected growth to nearly 400 million by 2050 – positions the country as a significant player in both regional and global politics. The country has the potential to drive economic growth and development throughout the continent.
While the flawed voting process may have left many young Nigerians feeling that their votes did not count, we cannot give up the spaces we have already claimed. It is important to maintain faith in the power of our collective voices to bring about the changes necessary to strengthen our democracy.
Beyond voting, we can participate in shaping government policies, by using social media to drive conversations, advocating for our aspirations for the future, and promoting a culture of democracy through peaceful and productive means.
The country’s politicians must understand that a new generation of active citizens has emerged.
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In just a few days, Nigerians will again head to the ballot box – this time, in state elections, to choose state governors and state house of assembly representatives, who have immense influence in the running of essential services.
The road ahead is a challenging one. And the fate of Nigeria and Africa’s democracy depends on the young people who will cast their ballot in the direction of justice, peace, stability, employment, equity, fair representation and above all, a promising future.