Young Nigerians helped president Buhari into office. His failings may cause us to skip the next election

Supporters of the presidential candidate Muhammadu Buhari and his All Progressive Congress (APC) party celebrate in Kano March 31, 2015
Supporters of the presidential candidate Muhammadu Buhari and his All Progressive Congress (APC) party celebrate in Kano March 31, 2015
Image: Reuters/Goran Tomasevic
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Lagos, Nigeria

In the days leading up to Nigeria’s presidential elections in March 2015, I realized I wouldn’t be able to vote. No thanks to the National Electoral Commission’s rules on the newly introduced permanent voters card (PVC), I’d have needed to go vote in the same local government where I had registered for the PVC four years earlier—a small town near the university I was attending at the time. So to vote, I needed to travel to a town in another state where I would be out of reach due to the poor mobile network coverage in that area. Given the risk of violence during Nigerian elections, I grudgingly accepted that the smart and safe thing to do was to stay home.

To make up for it, I campaigned strongly for my preferred candidate, Muhammadu Buhari. I hoped the former military dictator turned democrat would stamp out large-scale corruption and inefficiency which had characterized the administration of president Goodluck Jonathan. So I went about campaigning. In public transport buses. In bars. At church. At work. I did this much to the annoyance of family members and some friends. But I didn’t care.

Like me, many other young people embraced the opportunity to get involved, likely for the first time, in the process of electing a president. When Buhari won on March 29 last year it felt like an epochal event. It was the first time in Nigeria’s history a sitting government had been removed by the public’s vote. Young people truly felt empowered and believed they had played a major role in determining their future.

But it’s been a disappointing start. The first 15 months of Buhari’s four-year term are gradually dashing hopes he would be a much better president. His “archaic” economic policies, which have pushed us to the brink of a recession, and a spiraling naira currency (which he somehow didn’t want to “kill”) has seen the Nigerian economy lose growth momentum and lose its place as the continent’s largest. The inability to manage the fallout from the years of Boko Haram’s reign in the northeast even as new militants hold the country’s oil industry to ransom has been stark. The reemergence of militancy in Nigeria’s oil-rich south has caused oil production levels to fall to “near 30 year lows”.

Due to uncertainty and a general lack of faith in the government’s policies, investors have begun to  pull out of the economy leading to fears of an uptick in already high unemployment figures.

Then there’s the marginal ethnic disposition—a betrayal of a finely executed inclusive campaign. It’s got to the point that some high-profile Buhari campaigners have felt the need to apologize for being such strong advocates for his election. It may feel like it is too early to be downcast given that the president has more than two years to fix things. But the general feeling is that his stubborn adherence to policies and rhetoric which failed in 1984 during his tenure as military head of state will not prove any more useful 30 years later.

While I don’t see the point of apologizing for exercising a right to vote in good faith, I worry about something much more important. The next elections are less than three years away and, on current evidence, voter apathy, especially among young people, is a strong possibility.

The significance of young Nigerians being discouraged to take part in the democratic process should not be underestimated. As with many African nations, Nigeria is a very young country demographically. More than 60% of the population is under 25. The median age of the country is 18, president Buhari is 73. His detractors tried to argue he was too old to lead the country, but we rightly decided age didn’t matter if he was as competent, disciplined, and full of integrity as he claimed. So we still voted for him.

Personally, I put a lot of energy into the 2015 elections as did many young people and being let down by the current administration feels like being conned.

While many young people seemed eager to vote, older relatives, perhaps numb from years of disappointment and a lack of faith in the electoral system remained cynical. Looking back, even though I refuse to adopt the cynicism, I now understand it.

Already, it is hard to imagine young people as involved, as excited and as vocal in 2019 as we were just over a year ago. But if ever there was a time to double down and get involved, this is it. A crucial mistake in 2015 was not asking enough questions and focusing blindly on kicking out a weak leader. In 2019, better questions must be asked, plans and promises must be scrutinized and facts have to be checked.

Everyday I speak to young people like me and the overbearing emotion is weariness. The elections were draining and took a toll on friendships on and off of social media. Most people I know do not look forward to repeating the process. To make things worse, none of the current crop of politicians offer anything different. They simply represent the old brigade who, despite repeated failures, continue to hold on to power.

Even though he has recorded some success in restoring parts of the country previously ravaged by Islamist sect Boko Haram and fighting corruption in the military, much of the criticism of Buhari’s presidency has been focused on economic policies, which are anathema to a free market economy. But while the economy can be fixed with smarter policies, it will take much more to win back the confidence of a young generation of voters who, just when they began to think they could change things, have seen them remain the same.

I asked a friend who walked 50 miles on election day to cast his vote and strongly campaigned for people to vote regardless of their choice if he would repeat the process again in 2019. “Not a chance,” he said. “Not even if my father is contesting.”