How Nigeria's presidential election is galvanizing young voters

  • Third-party candidate excites new voters
  • Younger Nigerians energised by 2020 police protests
  • Many frustrated by inflation, power cuts, graft

LAGOS, Feb 20 (Reuters) - First-time voter Amanda Iheme has made up her mind on her choice for Nigeria's next president - and it won't be a candidate from the two main political parties.

Like many younger Nigerians, the 30-year-old clinical psychologist sat out previous elections because she thought the candidates were out of touch and assumed the vote would be rigged.

She was tired of facing the same choice year after year, between two rich men who had been in politics for longer than she has been alive.

On Saturday, that choice is on the table again. But this time round there is a third contender who has been doing well in opinion polls and has made a point of trying to reach voters like Iheme looking for an alternative.

The two main candidates from established movements vying to succeed President Muhammadu Buhari are 70-year-old Bola Tinubu, of the governing All Progressives Congress, and 76-year-old Atiku Abubakar, for the main opposition People's Democratic Party.

"I don't wanna vote for either of them, but we have Peter Obi who ... is a sign of hope for many of us," Ihema said.

Voter turnout among the under-35s was just 46% in the last election in 2019, a jolting figure in a country where people that age make up more than two-thirds of the population.

That could be about to change. A poll last week commissioned by Nigerian civil society group the Anap Foundation found that 82% of under 35-year-olds said they would definitely vote this year.

The electoral commission has added more than 9.5 million new names to the voter register - three-quarters of them below the age of 35.

For Iheme, it was not just the choice of a third candidate that made all the difference. She says the political weather started to shift with mass protests in 2020 against endemic police brutality.

That burst of activism forced the government to shut down one of the police force's most notorious units, a concrete change.

"We are starting to realise that we do have some control over our voices and our vote," she said during an interview at her one-bedroom apartment in Ebute Metta, a low-income Lagos neighbourhood dotted with rusting rooftops on the oceanfront.


At 61, Obi of the self-styled insurgent Labour Party is hardly a spring chicken. And as a former governor of southeastern Anambra state and running mate to Abubakar in 2019, he's not exactly an outsider.

But his active social media campaign and promises to break with Nigeria's gerontocratic past have endeared him to many younger voters.

At least four polls have put Obi ahead of his rivals.

Iheme runs a private practice and would be considered fortunate by many. But she complains about erratic power supplies, high inflation, bad roads, police harassment, official red tape, corruption and widespread insecurity.

Obi has been quick to tap into such frustrations, speaking to voters directly on Twitter and Instagram - channels that his older rivals have so far not used.

The young and tech-savvy, first-time voters rallying around Obi call themselves the "Obi-dients" - a somewhat incongruous choice for an anti-establishment movement.

The former banker has promised jobs, skills training and funding to young Nigerians, but so too have Tinubu and Atiku.

It is a question of who is more "honest and reliable", said Obi supporter Emmanuel Ndukwe, a 25-year-old University of Lagos linguistics student.

"If we get it wrong this time, we might have to wait another eight years," Ndukwe said, as the thudding rhythm of Afrobeats pop played in the background at a rally for Obi in Lagos.

If Obi loses, Ndukwe said he would join the wave of skilled Nigerians leaving the country in its perpetual brain drain.

Some of Obi's backers were prominent in the 2020 protests that ended with security forces opening fire on unarmed demonstrators.

Others are just tired of the old ways of doing things.

Nineteen-year-old Kiruba Akilewa was among the crowd at a Tinubu rally in Abuja - but told Reuters he was only there because someone had given him a free bus ride and cash to attend. A spokesperson for Tinubu's campaign said it was common for parties to provide "logistics" for supporters.

"Forget that I'm here," Akilewa said, as he stood in front of a huge Tinubu banner. "With the present situation in this country, I will honestly vote for Peter Obi."

Additional Reporting by Seun Sanni in Lagos and Abraham Achirga in Abuja; Writing by MacDonald Dzirutwe; Editing by Tim Cocks, Alexandra Zavis and Andrew Heavens

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.