Students set to use their votes to speak to politicians

The extended strike of the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) during 2022 may have contributed to students’ renewed interest in politics ahead of the Nigerian elections.

As students migrated to social media awaiting the end of the strike, some started to participate in social media protests aimed at taking the country back from ‘old politicians’. In this election, they may, therefore, want to prove to those who see them as social media activists only that they are voters who take their civic responsibilities seriously.

This emerged from interviews University World News did with students ahead of the general election.

The National Association of Nigerian Students (NANS) has called on students to be fully involved in the electoral process and said it would unveil its preferred presidential candidate before the presidential election.

NANS spokesperson Giwa Temitope said the student body would select the right candidate with the capacity and the desire to fix the challenges facing Nigeria’s education sector.

He also said that the endorsement would be done after a proper consultation with all student union presidents, indigenous associations, joint campus committees of the students’ body and the diasporan student leaders.

About 93.4 million Nigerians will have a chance to elect their president for the next four years.

Students, according to the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), Nigeria’s electoral body responsible for conducting elections, make up the largest category of these voters in terms of occupational distribution.

INEC Chairman Mahmood Yakubu said that 27.8% of registered voters are students, a percentage that translates to over 26 million voters. And, in the latest registration cycle, an astounding 40% of newly registered voters are students.

As students battle to make up lost time following the ASUU strike that kept the students at home for eight months in 2022, universities have been shut again for three weeks.

Nigeria’s 170 universities are closing on the directive of the Nigerian government ahead of the country’s general elections that will take place on February 25 and March 11.

Before the election break was declared, Moses Omoyele, a final-year student of the University of Benin, a federal university in southern Nigeria, had gone to court to compel the federal government to declare a short vacation across all tertiary institutions for the election so that students can travel to their voting districts.

There were also pressures from Nigeria’s House of Representatives, social media and several youth groups to the effect that students should not sacrifice their civic duty on the altar of academic activities.

Mixed reactions

This notwithstanding, the government’s directive has been met with mixed reactions, with many Nigerians decrying yet another interruption to the academic calendar as institutions struggle to recover from the staff strike that crippled much of the country’s higher education system for 17 months in a three-year span.

Legal luminary and founder of Afe Babalola University, a private university in South-West Nigeria, Chief Afe Babalola, believes shutting down all Nigerian universities for elections is inappropriate, illegal and also needless.

He also said Mallam Adamu Adamu, the education minister, lacks the statutory power to direct the National Universities Commission to close down universities, especially without consultations with stakeholders.

Similarly, ASUU president, Professor Emmanuel Osodeke, said the directive is totally illegal, explaining that the decision to close or open universities rests solely on the senate of each university and not on any government representative.

But Fix Politics, a citizens-led research-based movement, argues that the INEC’s registration exercise in 2022 took place during the prolonged ASUU strike which means the majority of students must have registered at home.

Rekindled interest in politics

Investigations by University World News suggest that one of the major reasons for a surge in the student voting population is a rekindled interest in the country’s political affairs.

There are no records from INEC that students are contesting for electoral positions, but Nigerian students seem to be relishing the opportunity to participate as voters.

Cornelius Oluyemi, a student in his third year of study in the south-eastern region of the country, told University World News that voting in these elections would be his own way of effecting a positive change in the nation’s quality of leadership.

Meanwhile, several preliminary polls distributed on social media have attempted to predict the outcome of Nigeria’s 2023 presidential election.

Often engaged and circulated by students themselves, the polls predict record-setting voter turnout at the 2023 elections.

In one of such polls, 81% of persons aged 18-25 – the median range for higher education students in the country – expressed certainty that they would participate in the general elections. Other polls put the participation at over 90%.

Why Nigerian students are voting

When asked why they are voting, several students noted issues concerning police brutality, inflation, a failing education sector, and astronomical levels of insecurity.

A medical student, Felicia Ogbo, who is currently schooling in the country’s south-west region, said that her political awakening began with the #EndSARS protests.

The movement had been in response to several reports of human rights abuses and extrajudicial killings wrought by the now-defunct Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS), which was a unit of the Nigerian Police Force.

The #EndSARS demonstration became a focal point for many young Nigerians, especially higher education students, who had banded together in a show of solidarity to protest against the corrupt police unit.

However, on 20 October 2020, security agents opened fire on protesters in Lagos, Nigeria’s commercial capital.

And, although several civilians had documented live footage of what is now known as the Lekki shooting, the state and federal governments in the country categorically denied the event. No less than 12 people died in the protest shooting, according to local journalists.

Ogbo recalls a particularly poignant image of seeing blood on the country’s flag following the Lekki shooting. According to her, the incident was her primary motivation for obtaining her Permanent Voters Card, the ID required for voting in the country’s general elections.

“This will be my first chance to have some control over my destiny in this country, and I fully intend to participate,” she explained.

Funmilola Ogunbiyi, a biochemistry undergraduate at a south-western university, said that, although she was heavily hit by the ASUU strike, she did not mind the ramifications of the break on her calendar.

“I have friends whom I went to secondary school with, who are now graduates, and I am still in school. It hurts. But I don’t mind the break [for the elections] at all. I would rather lose these three weeks than lose the next four years,” she said.

Schools release students

As it stands, several institutions across the country have released their students for the election break.

One of the latest of such institutions to do so is the University of Benin. The university told University World News that it would be going on a break from February 22 to March 14, 2023, in compliance with the Federal Government’s directive.

The country’s leading private institution, Covenant University, also allowed its students to return to their respective hometowns for the elections.

However, for a country that has suffered several setbacks to the school calendar in recent years, an election break borders on borrowed time. And no one is sure who is paying.

Some schools have, regardless, taken the initiative to mitigate the challenge. For example, students and faculty of Covenant University informed University World News that their lectures will continue via the university’s online Moodle platform.

Covenant, which had managed to deliver a rounded online-learning curriculum during the lockdown of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, already possesses a robust online learning platform which it intends to utilise for the duration of the election break.

Another university making such a move is the University of Abuja (UofA), located in the country’s capital.

In a statement seen by University World News, the school’s Vice-Chancellor, Professor Abdul-Rasheed Na’Allah, had divulged that UofA would be moving its teaching and learning activities “100% to virtual systems”.

“University of Abuja wants to make sure that, after the three weeks’ election break which must be enforced, the UofA is not going back on its calendar but moving forward to the logical conclusion of the academic calendar approved by Senate,” the statement read.

The presidential candidates are: Alhaji Atiku Abubakar of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), Asiwaju Bola Tinubu of the All Progressives Congress (APC), Peter Obi of the Labour Party (LP), Rabiu Musa Kwankwaso of the New Nigeria People’s Party (NNPP), Dumebi Kachikwu of the African Democratic Congress, Kola Abiola of the People’s Redemption Party, Omoyele Sowore of the African Action Congress, Prince Adewole Adebayo of the Social Democratic Party, Prince Malik Ado-Ibrahim of the Young Progressive Party, Professor Christopher Imumolen of the Accord Party, Professor Peter Umeadi of the All Progressives Grand Alliance, Yusuf Mamman Dantalle of the Allied Peoples Movement, Adenuga Sunday Oluwafemi of the Boot Party, Osakwe Felix Johnson of the National Rescue Movement, Nwanyanwu Daniel Daberechukwu of the Zenith Party, Al-Mustapha Hamza of the Action Alliance, Sani Yabagi Yusuf of the Action Democratic Party and Nnamdi Charles Osita of the Action Peoples Party.

Frontrunners include Alhaji Atiku Abubakar of PDP, Asiwaju Bola Tinubu of APC, Peter Obi of the LP, and Rabiu Musa Kwankwaso of NNPP.