Skip to main content


Young and powerful

Youthful voters may be the ones to decide which of two old-timers wins Nigeria’s presidential election

Young and powerful

Supporters of the Nigeria's ruling party All progressive Congress (APC) cheer President Muhammadu Buhari. (STEFAN HEUNIS/AFP/Getty Images)

On a sunny Tuesday afternoon in the town of Karu, Nigeria, a roadside seller stood before his display of vegetables with an almost empty transparent bag of cereal: Hours earlier, independent campaigners for the incumbent President Muhammadu Buhari stopped to distribute the customized “Sai Baba Flakes,”—employing a common street name for the president.  

Such perks are one reason a campaign between 73 presidential candidates in its final stretch has become a horse race between two old-timers. Voters expect the tight race between the two northern and prominent Muslim leaders—President Buhari and onetime Vice President Atiku Abubakar—to yield an outright winner after polls close tomorrow. But Nigeria’s booming youth population is pushing for political changes, a campaign that will extend beyond Election Day. 

Voters elected President Buhari in 2015 after a campaign that plastered billboards with “Change” across the country. At the time, Nigeria continued to battle Boko Haram’s deadly insurgency in the northeast and a crippled economy that plummeted into recession a year after he assumed office. 

Buhari’s record against the insurgency isn’t likely to win him votes in 2019: In 2016, his administration said it rescued 104 of the kidnapped Chibok girls in three different operations, but dozens remain in captivity, and human rights advocates estimate that insurgents have killed more than 3,600 people, mostly Christians, in related violence since that time. In addition, the 75-year-old former military leader was absent from office for at least 172 days as he traveled to London for medical care. 

Those issues helped to launch the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) of presidential rival Atiku Abubakar. A Muslim from northeastern Adamawa state, Abubakar served as vice president from 1999 to 2007 under the PDP.  This marks his first successful presidential campaign since then. 

 LUIS TATO/AFP/Getty Images

Nigerian opposition Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) presidential candidate Atiku Abubakar ( LUIS TATO/AFP/Getty Images)

In launching his “Atiku plan,” the candidate emphasized more jobs and investments across the country. Abubakar is a prominent businessman who worked in agriculture and oil-and-gas sectors. Yet corruption allegations mar his campaign. In 2006, a senate investigation found him guilty of siphoning $145 million from the country’s Petroleum Technology Development Fund (PTDF) to his private businesses. A U.S. Senate investigation in 2010 said he brought in more than $40 million in suspect funds from offshore corporations to U.S. bank accounts. 

Yet he maintains a strong following of young voters—a contingent likely to loom large in election results, with more than 400 young contenders also on the ballot from 91 parties. A bill adopted last year called “Not Too Young to Run” reduced the age limit for the presidency and other offices, fueling political activism among the nation’s largest age group.

Abubakar supporter Julius Owan, a 23-year-old Nigerian graduate completing his mandatory service with the National Youth Service Corps, said he will be a first-time voter. Owan supervised voter education at schools and market places across Abuja as part of his year of service, and said he backs Abubakar’s economic plan for job creation. He also likes his proposed vice presidential candidate, Peter Obi, who served as a state governor in the southeast. 

Owan said Abubakar is a better candidate for handling the country’s insecurity: “I feel he’s more of a team player, so he can get more people to work with him.” Yet the organizer said he is tired of the “old” leaders. He expressed support for some of the first-time candidates, but admitted they are unlikely to win. This election, he said, is an opportunity for them to garner more support and experience. “It’s conflicting, but a lot of people want Buhari out. There are better candidates than both of them, but they don’t have a chance compared to Atiku.”

Among the younger first-time candidates to watch is Kingsley Moghalu, a Christian from southeastern Anambra state. The 55-year-old worked as a lawyer and journalist, and with the United Nations in 1992, before serving as the former deputy of the Central Bank of Nigeria. 


Kingsley Moghalu (Handout)

He completed a master’s degree in international relations at Tufts University, and is still a fellow at the college’s Council of Emerging Market Enterprises.

During a broadcast political discussion called The Platform, Moghalu called on Nigerians to believe in the possibility of sending away the “recycled” politicians. “We have believed so many times and have been disappointed so many times. So we have learned to lower our expectations.”

Moghalu campaigned for gender parity in leadership and youth engagement in Nigerian politics: He picked 37-year-old Umma Getso, a northerner, as his vice presidential candidate. He pledged to recruit and train more police officials to specialize in the security threats facing the country.

Another younger candidate to watch is Obiageli Ezekwesili, a former minister of education. After the 2014 Chibok kidnapping, she pressured the government for the girls’ release. The 55-year-old participated in the Bring Back Our Girls campaign, which continues to organize protests and rallies on the remaining hostages’ behalf.

Last October she announced her decision to run for office under the Allied Congress Party of Nigeria. She kicked off her campaign at a service in Redeemed Christian Church of God, where her husband serves as pastor. Ezekwesili, who is one of the founders of Transparency International and a former vice president of World Bank’s Africa division, presented herself as standing against the system.

During a speech at an Oct. 29 event in Lagos state to mark the World Press Conference, she said the two lead contenders belong to a “political ruling class that has held us bound, manipulated, and diminished us for decades.”

On Jan. 24, Ezekwesili announced her decision to withdraw from the race and focus on building a coalition to stand against the two major parties. But the electoral commission said that option closed on Nov. 17.

Other first-time candidates include Omoyele Sowore, a 47-year-old from southwest Ondo state. Sowore founded U.S.-based Sahara Reporters. As part of his eight-point plan for the country, he promised to tackle insecurity by increased policing and ranching to respond to herdsmen unrest.

His manifesto also called for increased implementation of the country’s antiterrorist campaign and economic revitalization of northern Nigeria to tackle Boko Haram’s insurgency.

Fela Durotoye is also a 47-year-old southwesterner, hailing from Oyo state. The financial analyst and businessman established a foundation to provide work opportunities for the country’s youth. He also founded Eden, a Christian entertainment ministry across some colleges in the country.

Durotoye said his team, if elected, will “degrade and dismantle Boko Haram’s insurgency completely” and resettle internally displaced persons.

Many who support the younger candidates believe they deployed the wrong strategy, and instead should have pooled their resources to form a coalition with enough reach to defeat the top two parties. “Now they’re going to be splitting votes. It’s going to make it very difficult for them to win,” said campaign volunteer Ebere Ayoka, 23.

By running now, those newer candidates could stand a chance in the 2023 presidential election, especially if they avoid the Nigerian trend of assuming “juicy positions” within the ruling party post-election. “If they continue to act as a viable opposition, this could actually change the landscape of politics,” said Olayinka Ajala, an associate lecturer at the U.K.-based University of York.

Another looming challenge for younger contenders to Nigeria’s presidency is how to compete with Western lobbyists employed by leaders Buhari and Abubakar. In the 2015 elections, Buhari’s campaign employed the services of U.S.-based AKPD Message and Media, co-founded by David Axelrod, the campaign strategist and former White House adviser to President Barack Obama.

Abubakar’s PDP employed U.S. lobbyist Ballard Partners Inc. to lead the 2019 presidential campaign. The Florida-based lobbyist also represented the governments of Mali and Turkey, among others, and worked with President Donald Trump’s electoral campaign. The PDP signed a contract paying Ballard at $90,000 per month.

Ajala described it as a trend among emerging democracies, and one that can often get pushed beyond legal lines: “Outsourcing campaigns or hiring forecasters is not illegal, as long as they don’t resort to data manipulation.”

(Update: Nigerian officials postponed the election until Feb. 23 as some states reported not receiving materials they needed to conduct the vote.)

Onize Ohikere

Onize Ohikere

Onize is a reporter for WORLD Digital based in Abuja, Nigeria.