By Ngwang Roger, School of Global Studies University of Sussex – United Kingdom
Youth Political Participation in Africa: Lessons from the 2023 Nigerian Presidential Elections (Download pdf)
African youths have long represented a significant constituency for electoral mobilization across the continent. The question of youth political participation in Africa has continued to gain traction over the years, following the increased rate of electoral violence experienced across the continent since the 1990s. It has been argued that youths have been at the center of these violent electoral encounters because of their demographic majority and hopeless and disadvantaged status (Ojok & Acol, 2017). Although the dominant political elite utilizes youths’ underprivileged and demographic dominance to safeguard their interests, some young men and women still utilize their creativity and agency to maneuver through the bottleneck systems created by states and political elites (Honwana, 2012; Mugisha et al., 2016). In contemporary times where Africa is experiencing a burgeoning youth population, youths’ political engagement is becoming increasingly more important than ever before. It has been argued that African youths tend to vote less and express less interest in partisanship than older citizens (Resnick & Casale, 2011). This correlates with the suggestion that young people are less involved in politics in young democratic systems than matured democracies (Freeman, 2013; Gaby, 2016). Youths’ poor manifestation of civic engagement across the African continent is linked to the democratization process plagued with several political, governance, and socio-economic challenges (UNECA, 2017).
Although the institutional environment of African politics (especially electoral codes and democratic practice) has not been conducive to youths’ active political participation, they have been vocal concerning political change and bad governance observed across the continent over the years. However, they have largely failed to take concrete actions that can influence the complexity of African politics dominated mainly by the old (Van Gyampo & Anyidoho, 2019). In addition to the fact that youths are impoverished, the ruling elite, who dominate the African political realm, have set the “rules of the game” to pose enormous barriers to the political participation of young people across the continent. Also, the electoral crisis across the continent over the years, characterized by massive rigging, has played a significant role in the mental conditioning of young people who have been made to believe their votes do not count (Assamah & Yuan, 2020).
The great news is that a wind of change has blown across the continent, where a few younger politicians now rely on the ‘youth bulge’ to overthrow gerontocratic systems. The use of social media platforms to massively galvanize and constantly call on youths to register for elections has awakened their drive to bring change. This has resulted in youths’ massive registration for presidential elections across the continent for the last couple of years, as observed in the just-ended 2023 Nigerian presidential elections. This paper draws on the outcome of the Nigerian presidential elections to question whether youths’ registration for elections is enough to bring change in Africa. By drawing on the reasoning that politics is bound by the “rules of the game and the “games within the rules,” this paper argues that the complexity of African politics has illustrated on several occasions that what is perceived as the games within the rules (which often violate the rules of the game) determines the victor in most elections. As such, this paper suggests that youths must not only limit their political participation at the voting level but must continue to push for reforms of the “rules of the game” to ensure inclusive and meaningful participation and devise strategies to paralyze gerontocratic rigging machines. In fact, youths must disrupt the “games” played by the ruling elite if they hope to bring change through the polls.
Election Rigging: A Stumbling Block to Youth Political Participation in Africa?
Elections constitute the heartbeat of liberal democracy and serve as the principal means to ensure the orderly transfer of political leadership and political legitimation. Many scholars have attributed the predominance of dictatorships across the African continent to the failure of elections or election malpractices (Adejumobi, 2000; Calingaert, 2006; Onapajo, 2014; Oxford Analytica, 2018; Schedler, 2002). In some countries, the dead cast votes from their graves, ballot boxes develop legs and wings and disappear into thin air, names of children appear on electoral rolls, and opposition candidates are threatened, harassed, or even annihilated (Calingaert, 2006). Election rigging, violence, election annulment, and other malpractices are common practices jeopardizing Africa’s democratization process (Adejumobi, 2000). Although the wind of democracy blew across the continent in the 1990s and prompted several authoritarian regimes to embrace multiparty politics, elections are everything else but free and fair because the incumbents play all the “games” necessary to win the elections and retain power – what has been referred to as electoral authoritarian regimes (Schedler, 2002). In countries like Nigeria, the incumbent has been more associated with violence to influence election outcomes than the opposition (Onapajo, 2014). Even in African states with fixed presidential mandates, it has still been tough to oust the ruling party at the end of the president’s mandate, just like the case with the just-ended 2023 presidential elections in Nigeria. It has been argued that incumbency’s advantages and misuse of the state apparatus in elections have contributed to a decline in opposition victories in African elections over the years – from 35% in the early 1990s to just above 10% by 2018 (Oxford Analytica, 2018).
Power tussle across the African continent has been characterized by military coups and flawed electoral processes, with some states like Algeria and Nigeria witnessing the situation where elections were annulled in 1992 and 1993 by the military while others like Gambia, Niger, and Ghana have experienced transitions from military to political regimes (Adejumobi, 2000). Also, even when some regimes came to power through popular elections, their rulers grew into leviathans by manipulating the constitution to extend their tenures of office and by organizing shadow elections to rig them and remain in power, as observed in Cameroon, Cote D’Ivoire, Gambia, Ghana, Kenya, Niger, Senegal, Togo, Uganda, Zambia, and Zimbabwe (ibid). Vote buying, violence, biasing the electoral roll in favor of ruling party supporters, and election result contestation have been the common strategies in these countries. Elections across the continent appear to be a fading shadow of democracy where despotic leaders organize election charades to consolidate power, thereby leaving one pondering whether youths’ votes during a presidential election are enough to make a difference with these gerontocratic systems of gross election malpractices.
Over the past years, young people have been playing significant roles and thriving to bring change to their societies, although the playing ground has not been leveled. Some have participated in politics by forming political parties, vying for political offices, and registering and voting for people who contest for elective positions. However, with the socioeconomic and political climate across the continent, as described above, youths’ political engagement has significantly been affected (Onapajo, 2014).
What Role Did the Youth Play in the 2023 Presidential Elections in Nigeria?
The 2018 “Not–Too-Young-To-Rule” law, which reduced the age to contest for several political offices, can be considered the springboard for youth political participation in Nigeria. By 2019, this law already led to a slight increase in the percentage of youths between the ages of 25 and 35 who contested for various political offices such as councillorships, state houses of Assembly, and House of Representatives, which have 25 years as a minimum age requirement (Temitope, 2019). Undoubtedly, this is a positive move in encouraging youth political participation in Nigeria. However, several parameters are yet to be implemented to ensure a level playing ground for the youths. Nigerian youths have been active throughout the three phases of the 2023 presidential elections – pre-election, election, and post-election. They played a significant role in preparing for the elections, as many volunteered with the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC). Many youths assisted INEC in enhancing voters’ registration; some served as registration officers, while others were concerned with the distribution of Permanent Voter Cards (PVCs). INEC also recruited youths to serve as ad-hoc staff, occupying positions of presiding officers, assistant presiding officers, polling agents, collation officers, returning officers, registration area center managers, and technicians, while some participated as accredited observers, journalists, and security agents (Jide, 2023).
Out of the 93,469,008 who registered for the elections, Nigerian youths constituted the highest demography, with youths between 18 and 34 years constituting 37,060,399 (39.65%) of the numbers on the National Electoral register (Suleiman, 2023a). Also, 33,413,591 (35.75%) registered voters were those of the middle age group (35-49 years), resulting in 75.40% of both the youth and the middle- age who registered for the election. Youths also played a significant role through several youth organizations and civil society organizations to galvanize the masses, especially fellow youths, to register during the Continuous Voter Registration period and collect their Permanent Voter’s Cards (PVCs). Jide (2023) asserts that youths were engaged in the elections through the organization of massive campaigns on social media, seminars, town hall meetings, radio jingles, musical concerts, television, and newspaper adverts calling on the youths to register and collect their PVCs, constituting political awareness that youths of other African countries like Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea, Angola, Republic of Congo, Uganda and Eritrea must emulate if they desire for political change in their countries. This is not to debunk that some irresponsible Nigerian youths opted to serve as thugs to ruthless politicians and perpetuate violence on political opponents, INEC facilities, and polling stations to disrupt the proper functioning of the elections and facilitate rigging (Van Zeijl, 2023).
Election Outcome and Lessons Learned
The 2023 Nigerian presidential election – considered the nation’s most contested since the end of military rule in 1999, took place against the backdrop of economic hurdles and widespread insecurity (ACLED, 2023). Out of the 18 candidates that ran for the election, opinion polls revealed that only three candidates had a real chance of winning the elections – Bola Ahmed Tinubu of the All Progressives Congress (APC) party, Atiku Abubakar of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) and Peter Obi of the Labour Party. Bola Ahmed Tinubu – the Nigerian ruling party candidate (APC), won the election while Atiku Abubakar was second, and Peter Obi, who hoped to oust the two parties that have enjoyed power since the end of military rule, came third, despite massive social media support, especially among Nigerian youths (Kohnert, 2023). Bola Tinubu amassed 8,794,726 votes, followed by Atiku, who got 6,984,520 and 6,101,533 for Peter Obi, while Rabiu Kwankwaso of New Nigeria Peoples Party only got 1,496,687 votes.
The election outcome has raised a bone of contention concerning the conduct of the elections. Both opposition political party leaders and some international observers have raised concerns about the conduct of the elections, claiming that the elections were marred with gross malpractices, violence, and rigging (Akinwotu, 2023). In a democracy, the democratic process is more important than the results justifying why rules guiding elections in Nigeria are clearly enshrined in the Nigerian Electoral Act. The 2022 Nigerian Electoral Act is clear on voting rules at polling units where people are expected to be accredited with the Bimodal Voter Accreditation System (BVAS). Once accredited, people are expected to cast their votes, the votes counted, recorded, authenticated, announced publicly at the polling stations, and transferred electronically to the online portal (IRev) for publication. The electronic transmission of results is a significant amendment of the Nigerian Electoral Act aimed at enhancing transparency and securing people’s votes, unlike the previous manual collation centers, which were arguably the albatross for free and fair elections in Nigeria.
Opposition parties claim that INEC bypassed the electronic transfer of election results for several polling stations to manipulate the elections in favor of Bola Tinubu (The Africa Report, 2023). Although INEC admits that there were some glitches with the BVAS, Kenneth Okonkwo – Spokesperson for the Labour Party Presidential Campaign, claimed that the BVAS only malfunctioned during the presidential elections but did not fail for the National Assembly elections, which took place the same day, signifying indications of election rigging (Arise Africa, 2023). The Electoral Act holds that votes must be counted and transmitted electronically at the polling stations, prohibits the collation and announcement of false results, and sanctions any returning or collation officer who defaults such procedures with a fine of 500,000 Naira or imprisonment of at least three years or both (see sections 60 to 66 of the Electoral Act). The Act even stipulates further in section 64 that in case a dispute regarding the collated result or the election result of any polling station arises, the returning or collation officer shall determine the correctness of the disputed result (by following a set of clearly enshrined procedures) before uploading them on the online system. Notwithstanding, it has been claimed that election results were collated and announced without being transmitted online, thereby violating the Electoral Act and constituting acts that can be interpreted as rigging.
Also, it was reported that several thugs were hired to disrupt elections in polling stations where Peter Obi – the youths’ favorite candidate, was likely to win, although he still won in a few ruling party strongholds (Nwonwu, 2023). Some polling stations were attacked, especially in the south, with armed men creating panic and stealing ballot boxes, while in other areas, people were threatened not to step out to vote (Nwonwu, 2023). Furthermore, complaints about suspicious voter registration were raised with claims that digital sleuths uncovered voter cards on the digital electoral register that appeared to have pictures of children under the voting age (18) on them and that many Permanent Voter’s Cards (PVCs) shared the same names. Thousands of PVCs were also found missing, and some news channels reported that a hunter reportedly found some of them in the Anambra Forest a few days before the elections (Chukindi, 2023; Elegbede, 2023). This made people question why the PVCs were discarded and by whom, thereby pushing public opinion towards claiming that election rigging machinery was underway. There have also been reports about politicians paying poor voters to vote for them, even at polling units. For instance, on the eve of the election, a House of Representatives member was arrested with about $500,000 in cash and a list of people he intended to bribe (Macaulay, 2023a).
This is not to completely underscore INEC’s job in managing the electoral process. Before the elections, INEC identified and removed 53,264 ineligible voters as part of the mechanisms to ensure free, fair, and transparent elections (Macaulay, 2023b). INEC also warned that individuals caught with multiple registrations cannot vote. Whether these were enough to sieve out irregular voters is a question that has remained highly contested, especially as some opposition parties still claim that several underaged children voted in some polling units. Also, INEC distributed about 87.2 million PVCs out of the over 93 million people registered for the elections, leaving about 6 million people who failed to get their PVCs (Peoples Gazette, 2023). The INEC chairman – Prof Mahmood Yakubu, acknowledged challenges experienced during the elections, amongst which he mentioned the issues of logistics, election technology, the behavior of some election personnel at different levels, attitudes of some party agents and supporters amidst the extremely challenging environment in which elections are usually held in Nigeria (Suleiman, 2023b). He acknowledged that INEC had learned its lessons and is working to resolve the issues ahead of other upcoming elections.
Amidst INEC’s attempt to convince public opinion that the 2023 Nigerian presidential elections went on well despite the challenges faced, the results have remained contested, and some opposition party leaders have undertaken to challenge the election results in court. However, it is interesting to note that courts have never nullified a presidential election result in Nigeria. It remains double standards for Nigerian youths in the elections as some were employed as thugs to disrupt and orchestrate violence at different polling units, especially in opposition strongholds. In contrast, some were out to ensure a smooth functioning of the electoral process with the hope of driving change. Because the government has often failed to provide adequate security at certain polling units, youths who desire to drive change must be brave to vote and protect their votes. They must go beyond voting and play the required political “games” if they genuinely desire to make their votes count. In the context of African politics, where elections are shrouded with severe challenges and malpractices, it can be argued that bad officials are not just elected by good citizens who do not vote but also by good citizens who vote and do not take concrete measures to protect their votes. Whether concrete evidence shall prove in court that the 2023 Nigerian presidential elections were rigged or not, what remains relevant is that African electoral processes still face enormous challenges. Even though the 2023 presidential electoral process in Nigeria was marred with challenges, numbers of the electorate reveal that the youths’ percentage, which did increase significantly from previous years, was still not enough to overturn the results in their favor, thereby suggesting that although youths are gaining more interest in political life, much still has to be done.
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 The Bimodal Voter Accreditation System (BVAS) is a technological devise used to identify and accredit voter’s fingerprints and facial recognition before voting.
 See sections 47 to 74 of the 2022 Nigerian Electoral Act
 Ibid. It is important to note that to vote in Nigeria, a valid Permanent Voter’s Card (PVC) is required. It reveals an individual registered to vote and proves the voter’s identity. The PVC contains the biometrical data of the voter, which is used as further verification on election day.