Nigeria’s 2023 elections were meant to herald the arrival of a new generation of nation-first young citizens. With each poll predicting an increased youth vote, commentators waxed lyrically about the potential impact that this new collective voice would have on the election. It seemed that Peter Obi, the Labour Party presidential nominee, had effectively cultivated the youth vote and his insurgent candidacy appeared anchored on this youth turnout that was expected to change the landscape of Nigerian politics.
As we know now, this monolithic “youth voice” was much less resonant than expected. During the post-mortem of the elections, and Obi’s ultimately unrealized ambition, many looked at reasons why we did not see a powerful youth movement upturn the usual electoral calculus. Incidents of violence, logistical challenges, and underreported apathy have been largely mentioned, and did indeed play a part in this outcome. In a recent event hosted by Africa Is A Country in Abuja, panelists discussed this but failed to properly address the biggest misconception: the idea of a youth monolith. Attendees rightly picked up on this fallacy and correcting this might be helpful for future campaigns and movements in the country.
Identity has been at the heart of Nigeria’s politics since its existence. The eastern, northern and western regions disagreed on issues as salient as the capital and when to get independence. The first political parties were largely divided along ethnic lines, which led to their politicians actively weaponizing this to gain votes in their strongholds. The coups of 1966 have often been seen through the lens of heightened suspicion between ethnic groups, with both identified through the ethnicities of their principal plotters and largely resulted in the civil war of 1967-1970. Despite plans for reconciliation, Nigeria’s leadership has never been able to shake the toga of a country whose citizens identify first with their region, ethnicity, and even religion, before being truly citizens of the state.
What this history tells us is how difficult it is to shake these ties. But there is more to these divisions than simply rhetoric. Economic and cultural constraints have also played a role. Colonial-era policies, such as indirect rule that favored northern rulers and the restriction of Christian missionaries to the south, meant that the different regions had divergent experiences concerning leadership and education. Northerners engaged more in the trans-Saharan trade and prioritized Islamic education, while southerners handled port-based commerce and were better steeped in Western education. This served to create a different lived experience for citizens in these parts of the country, which has no doubt had an impact on its youth. Long-running debates around how capitalist or welfarist the country should be, especially around issues concerning subsidies and foreign exchange, have sometimes crosscut but at other moments intensified these identitarian divisions.
The EndSARS movement against police brutality, by some accounts, seemed to represent the possibility of surmounting these differences. It was seen as a national youth-led cause that attracted worldwide attention and invited promise of how the next generation would actively engage with governance in the country. The presence of the Nigerian middle class added a class dimension to the protests, with the likely presence of protesters related to government functionaries giving the impression of a unified stance. Many trace the surge in youth civic participation during the 2023 election campaign to the fallout of the October 2020 EndSARS protests.
But this movement also showed how politically divided the “Nigerian youth” truly is. Although there was significant momentum against the special police unit in the south, youth in the north (barring those in Kaduna and Plateau states) were more supportive of the force and marched in its favor, while most northern governors refused to set up panels of inquiry as recommended by the government after the protests. Within the south, youth were also divided along partisan lines, with supporters of the ruling party accusing opposition members of using the protests to disrupt the country.
The idea of a youth monolith implies groupthink, which has been most notable in its absence in Nigeria’s case. For instance, the Feminist Coalition, a group of professional women, assumed a key role in helping with fundraising, logistics, disbursing funds and even helping with resolving arrests. Yet that did not spare them the vitriol of citizens owing to misconceptions about feminism, especially from more conservative youth who suddenly turned on the group. In a sense, the nature of the protests should have given a hint about how different experiences are across the country.
To highlight the connection between the protests and the 2023 elections, there was no concerted effort to cultivate a sustainable political solution. This led to the eventual adoption of Peter Obi as the candidate of the movement, despite his initial decision to name a controversial general associated with killings to his campaign team and reports of incidents during his term as governor. The different identitarian divisions of the protests meant that it was always going to be difficult for one candidate to gain the support of the movement.
An argument could be made that many Nigerians, young and old, were frustrated by the status quo and were likely to be attracted to a different party or type of candidate. Even at that, there were signs that these approaches could be seen through a regional lens: Obi was more prominent in the south, with only just over a third of his votes coming from the north, while Rabiu Kwankwaso, a seasoned northern politician won the populous Kano state. Yet both candidates also showed the fervent divisions between both groups in the country, when they failed to agree on a joint ticket.
Despite showing that identity differences will not vanish with the next generation, there are still shared experiences that transcend these divisions. Harsh economic realities and prevailing security concerns do not discriminate along any of the aforementioned lines. Politicians have been able to weaponize the distraction of identity for their ulterior motives, but there is only so much that can be done in the face of significant challenges.
There is a space for a well-planned and disciplined political movement that addresses the issues that Nigerians face. In doing so, there could be a better appreciation for the required nuance in addressing what it means to be a youth in Nigeria. Perhaps an alternative might be to see these groups through the different generations that they belong to—independence, civil-war, military-led, and now largely democracy-based sets of Nigerians molded by these experiences. Understanding and tailoring the unique traits of these different groups could be helpful for future campaigns and movements in the country and avoid the trap of the singular monolith in discourse and planning.