Students have forced politicians to take note of their vote

Nigeria’s presidential election on 25 February in which a former two-term governor of Lagos State, Senator Bola Tinubu of the All-Progressives Congress, emerged as the president-elect, may have been one of the most competitive political battles in the country’s history – and one in which the youth, including students, made their voices heard.

While the youth favourite, Peter Obi of the Labour Party (LP), may not have won the election, observers have declared the true champions of the poll to have been Nigerian students.

Analysts such as Lasisi Olagunju, who is also an editor of the Nigerian Tribune, said: “It was enthralling seeing students at the Zik Hall of the University of Ibadan turning the positive result of their ‘structure-less’ struggle into a song.

“It was beautiful seeing medical students of the University of Lagos chanting their figures in rhymes of conviction. I saw young men and women on popular Lagos streets counting their votes of rebellion. I saw youths of Lafia in Nasarawa and in Kaduna standing firm to count the little-big blessings of their labour of faith.”

Several factors have been responsible for Obi’s popularity among the youth, including his age. At 61, he was the youngest contestant of all the candidates, but they also found the former governor’s reputation for thrift and good administration attractive.

Whether they supported Obi or not, students were actively mobilising colleagues, friends and family to register for the elections, and insisted that the Federal Government allows students – the largest occupational demographic among registered voters – to participate in the elections. The enthusiasm of Nigeria’s youth force was evidently on display.

“I think there was progress in terms of [the number of] people who registered to vote. For the first time in forever, Nigerian youths are getting involved in politics and realising that we can’t let a few people choose who will rule us – not in a country of over 200 million people,” Jessica Fortunes, a Nigerian student who participated actively by voting, and an Obi supporter, told University World News.

Another student, Blessing Wachukwu, said that, despite questions about the election process, the youth involvement in the election was a noteworthy step in the right direction.

“In this election … the youth were involved and people actually came out to protest and fight for their votes. Their eyes are opened. They are now awakened. Obviously, progress will not just start all of a sudden, but at least people’s eyes are still open,” she explained.

Before the election, the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) Chairman Mahmood Yakubu said that 27.8% of registered voters were students, a percentage that translates to over 26 million voters. And, in the latest registration cycle, 40% of newly registered voters were students.

A reason why the student population of the country was invested in the 2023 polls was because of the pool of candidates available. A total of 18 presidential candidates threw their hats in the ring to contest for Nigeria’s central seat of power.

Obi’s move as a candidate was tagged by political experts as a regressive one, with many past government officials and even fellow presidential candidates pointing out that the LP’s limited footprint on national politics meant that the former governor did not stand a chance.

However, the youth-propelled ‘Obidient’ movement grew rapidly with social media campaigns and several self-organised rallies. And the eventual announcement of the final results on 1 March by INEC, confirmed that Obi’s greenhorn movement was, indeed, a reckonable force.

Hearing the youth ‘loud and clear’

But, the forceful role of the youth in the election has not gone unnoticed, as the president-elect has attempted to assure students that there will be no more strikes in the higher education sector and that lecturers will be provided with everything they need to make life comfortable. He has also promised to offer student loans.

Speaking shortly after being declared the winner, Tinubu said he would pay attention to the demands of tertiary education. He also promised to give the university system the autonomy it needs to upgrade its syllabus on its own.

A major upset in the general election was the defeat of Tinubu in Lagos, a state where he had not only governed for eight years (1999-2007), but maintained a stronghold, reportedly handpicking his successors since he vacated office 16 years ago.

Amazingly, the ‘godfather’ of Lagos State politics was defeated by Obi, described as an outsider and ‘structureless’ candidate but overwhelmingly supported by young people and the student population.

To win a presidential election in Nigeria, a candidate must get at least 25% of votes in 24 out of 36 states of the federation. Because Tinubu has been in control of Lagos State politics for years, the expectation was that it would be hard for Obi to get the 25% in Nigeria’s commercial city.

But the LP candidate won in Lagos, indicating that he is more popular than the president-elect, who is fondly referred to as the ‘City Boy’, in recognition of his influence and popularity in Lagos.

In the final results of the tightly contested polls, Tinubu’s vote total of 8,794,726 was just enough to defeat his closest rivals, the People’s Democratic Party’s Atiku Abubakar and Obi, who scored 6,984,520 and 6,101,533 respectively.

Nigeria’s outgoing President Muhammadu Buhari acknowledged the uniqueness of the 2023 election: “Never has the electoral map shifted so drastically in one cycle. In the presidential elections, states in all regions across the nation changed colour. Some among you may have noticed my home state among them,” he said.

“The winning candidate did not carry his own home state, either. That happens during a competitive election. Votes and those that cast them cannot be taken for granted. Each must be earned.”

Election results questioned

The results of the elections have not been without controversy. Several observers, both at home and abroad, have faulted the process that gave the ruling party their victory.

A joint observer mission of the International Republican Institute and the National Democratic Institute, led by Dr Joyce Banda, a former president of Malawi, noted that the election “fell well short of Nigerian citizens’ reasonable expectations”.

Several students told University World News they were dissatisfied with the process and its outcome.

Fortunes said she was still having trouble accepting the outcome of the polls because the “election was not free and fair”.

“It’s been days since his [INEC] announcement and everywhere is still quiet. It feels like there is mourning,” she said.

Another student, Allwell Omojo, who cast his vote for the first time, said: “This is the worst election of all time. They manipulated everything without conscience or fear. It was very annoying,” he said.

“What sparked my interest in this election was hope for change. My preferred candidate was Peter Obi. I know there is no such thing as a clean politician but, of the three leading candidates, he was the best choice,” he explained.

Wachukwu, a mass communication major, explained that she was inspired to vote because of the “terrible” state of the country and her experiences in the past eight years under outgoing Buhari.

“Things were really difficult for me, and his [Buhari’s] term really affected a lot of things: the inflation rate – fuel, foodstuffs. It was just a movie. Obviously, he went for two terms and that was eight years of my life of things being terrible. I just didn’t want that to happen again,” she said.

Also preferring Obi, Wachukwu said she went to great lengths to get registered to vote and secure her voter’s card, which was used to authenticate registered voters. Just like many students in the country, Wachukwu believes the results of the election do not tell the true story.

“Peter Obi won this election. I voted. I was out there. I saw it,” she said.

Wachukwu’s staunch belief in Obi’s victory is shared by many youths in the country. Some of them stormed the National Collation Centre of INEC on Monday to protest the election results.

Voter suppression in the form of violence, ballot snatching and threats were avidly recorded on election day. Nigerians have also identified the low voters’ turnout as a curious travesty. Leading up to the polls, all indications foretold that the 2023 elections were poised to have the largest voter turnout in Nigeria’s history.

However, ironically, despite having the highest number of registered voters ever, the poll on 25 February had the lowest votes counted in the country’s history.

Addressing the low voter turnout, Samson Itodo, the head of YIAGA Africa, a non-profit civic organisation, suggested that major issues such as violence and technical problems had hampered public trust in the election process and, in turn, affected the vote count.

Political observers have also faulted INEC’s Bimodal Voter Accreditation System (BVAS). BVAS is a recent innovation to the country’s voting process which was supposed to reduce manipulation of results at the polling units, and allow for the electronic transmission of results in real-time – another promise from Nigeria’s independent electoral body that it failed to deliver.

But, in response, INEC, said results emanating from the states point to a free, fair and credible process. The commission suggested that aggrieved parties take their concerns to court.

A step in the right direction

The many challenges associated with the 2023 presidential election notwithstanding, Nigerian students believe some progress has been achieved because they registered as voters and participated in the election.

The president-elect, a major antagonist to several pockets of the Nigerian youth population, also recognised the revolutionary spirit of Nigeria’s young population. In his first statement following his declaration as winner, Tinubu said that he heard the grievances of youth “loud and clear”, and called on them to partner with his government.

However, the students who did not support him rejected the extended olive branch.

“I don’t think he heard us. If he heard us like he said he did, he would know that we did not want him to rule us,” Fortunes said. Omojo was also not swayed: “I don’t know what he heard. But let’s just wait and see.”