Youth engagement and participation were the game changers in the 2015 Nigerian elections.
Nigeria is a country of many contradictions and paradoxes: we import food while over half of our land is arable and we import petroleum products while exporting close to half a million barrels of crude oil per day.
In the build up to Nigeria’s most keenly contested election which, unfortunately, would also go down as one that had the most unethical campaign messages, one thing was clear; the then opposition’s mantra was Change.
Seventy-two-year-old Buhari promised a fresh start. The incumbent government ridiculed this to no end, wondering sardonically what fresh start a septuagenarian could possibly offer. To paraphrase the very acerbic wife of President Jonathan, Patience; Buhari (and his APC party) was “analogue in the era of digital”.
Nonetheless, by the time the votes were being collated and counted, it was becoming quite clear that for the first time in Nigeria’s democratic history; an opposition party was taking over from an incumbent leader.
A step towards the journey begins. pic.twitter.com/bO4E4MCI69— Muhammadu Buhari (@MBuhari) March 28, 2015
Where Buhari had lost in his previous attempts, he won rather convincingly. After the elections, postulations were made as to what factors were responsible for his win.
That said though, one of those factors was the increasing participation of young people in the 2015 elections, and also how this participation mirrored what was being said on social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook.
Prior to the 2015 elections, the percentage of young Nigerians interested in elections was worryingly minute and that has bothered some of us to no end. It was a terrifying prospect that the youth population (put at 60 million) had this apathy towards the political process, which in spite of their apathy, would determine the future of all of us.
I have previously said that young Nigerians would rather spend days on the queue to audition for Big Brother and Project Fame, than be bothered to line up to register for elections and vote.
However this time, more people below the age of 35 got involved.
While statistics are not unavailable yet, it is clear to see that more youths picked up the gauntlet and got into the thick of things. In particular, the President-Elect, General Buhari- who hitherto was perceived as being a harsh, ascetic dictator in previous elections- got a makeover and was given a less austere demeanour by his public relations team which . Buhari who had been called “religious extremist, and wicked dictator whose only ambition was to Islamise Nigeria”, was suddenly on billboards wearing a tuxedo and sporting a smile. What’s more, he was meeting with young people at town hall meetings and interactive sessions. As a result, young people who were at best infants during the 20 month severe rule of Buhari in 80’s, began to spread the gospel of Buhari amidst the dire straits in which the current administration had brought us to.
The PR firm that gave Buhari this humane face that undoubtedly won him the election is owned and run by a crop of young people that are barely in their thirties and perhaps he owes to them the acceptance of youths particularly in other regions other than his Northern base.
More importantly, the thousands of young people who gave their time and resources either as private citizens who donated N100–1000 to the campaign or as unpaid volunteers who went to town converting undecided voters to “Buharist's”; these were the swing voters in this election- in my opinion.
Where hitherto older people had claimed that elections were not won on social media, the online interaction galvanized the resolve of those young people to get involved the more. In the words of IT consultant/ youth activists,
“social media does not win elections. Yet, it moulded opinion, helped create viral campaigns, checkmated irregularities, locked down results”.
So much so that President Buhari in his inaugural speech said “I thank those who tirelessly carried the campaign on the social media.”
Needless to say, the higher percentage of social media users are young people.
Although the percentage is still very low compared to what can be otherwise obtained (for example Lagos had only a 30% turnout ratio), it is apparent now that while politicians paid little attention to the young population, those young people are now willing to get into the fray and get their hands dirty.
On the day of the elections, these young people along with their parents who by now are be tired of still catering for their grown up unemployed children, braved the elements, braved the threats of insurgency, endured the cumbersome electoral process and voted for the candidates of their choice.
As the results show, more Nigerians are dissatisfied with the 57 year old Jonathan and are willing to give a former military ruler in his seventies a chance to repair the country that has been extremely impoverished over the course of decades.
For me, that is the turning point: young people are starting to realize that their votes DO count and they have more stakes in how the country is run and that reality definitely cannot be lost on the incoming government.
Barely a few days after the elections, on Twitter, the youth were already declaring that even though Buhari has won Aso Rock because of their backing, if his own government is perceived as nonperforming, he would be voted out.
Sai Buhari... And if eventually Buhari doesn't deliver, we ll vote him out no time again..— LALA (@Sirjaibi) March 29, 2015
For me, it is a heartwarming realization that young people are very aware of the power they hold via their votes and are not shy of exercising that power.
When I expressed this sentiment on BlackBerry Messenger, a friend of mine who was aware of my choice of Buhari as Nigeria’s next President, snorted and claimed if indeed I wanted more young people participating in politics, I should have voted for the younger Goodluck Jonathan. I smiled at this particular irony: this my friend…is from Zimbabwe.
Cover Image: General Muhammadu Buhari, Presidential Candidate, All Progressives Congress, Nigeria | Chatham House