The race is wide open in the presidential election in Nigeria, Africa’s most populous nation and a struggling economic powerhouse. Youth looking to evict the old guard are cheering on Peter Obi, a surprise third-party candidate.
As the convoy of S.U.V.s pulled up to the biggest electronics market in Lagos, Nigeria’s economic capital, word quickly spread that inside one vehicle with tinted windows was Peter Obi, one of the front-runners in the upcoming presidential election, on a surprise campaign stop. Within minutes, a large crowd of mostly young men had gathered.
“If I told them I was coming, they’d have shut down the market — it would have been ten times this,” Mr. Obi said, smiling, looking out at his roaring fans from under a cap that read: “Make Nigeria Great.” Then he stepped out in front of the sea of smartphones held aloft to record the occasion.
“A new Nigeria is possible,” he told the crowd in his distinctive high voice. “For the first time, government is going to care about you.”
For eight years, the citizens of Africa’s most populous nation — 70 percent of them under the age of 30 — have been governed by Muhammadu Buhari, who previously ruled the country as a military dictator, in the 1980s, long before most of them were even born.
In a country where vote-buying and violence often distort elections, the presidential vote scheduled for Feb. 25 presents a rare chance for millions of young Nigerians, many of them new voters, to make their elders listen.
According to polls, many of these new voters support Mr. Obi, a former state governor challenging the traditional two-party hegemony by running with the lesser-known Labour Party. He is seen as the candidate of the youth, though far from young at 61; his main rivals are in their 70s. Mr. Buhari, who is 80, served the maximum of two terms.
“A one-eyed man, in the land of the blind, is king,” said Mr. Obi’s running mate, Yusuf Datti Baba-Ahmed, in an interview.
Nigeria, and particularly its young people, have had an extremely tough few years. Large groups of schoolchildren have been kidnapped, by extremists or ransom seekers. Youth unemployment nearly tripled during the Buhari years. Demonstrators in peaceful protests against police brutality were themselves shot dead by security forces in 2020 as they sang and waved the flag by a tollgate in Lekki, an upmarket Lagos suburb.
Many young people are channeling their anger at the government’s repressive response to that movement — as well as the failure to bring those responsible to justice, a seven month Twitter ban, and persistent police brutality — into this election.
“What happened in Lekki is a clear indication that this government don’t care about the youth,” said Amanda Okafor, 28, who said she saw many fellow protesters shot dead in Lekki. Ms. Okafor was eligible to vote in the past two elections, but never did. Now she goes everywhere with her voter’s card, determined to cast her first-ever vote.
“We’re tired of these same old people coming in to tell us that they’re going to change stuff for us and they’re not doing anything,” she said.
For many young Nigerians, these “same old people” include the presidential candidate of the party in power, Bola Tinubu, a former Lagos governor with a strong southwestern base, and the slogan, “It’s my turn.” He sometimes slurs words and appears confused, alarming some voters.
The old guard also includes the candidate of the opposition People’s Democratic Party, Atiku Abubakar — a former vice president running for president for the sixth time. He will likely garner much support in Nigeria’s northern states.
In an interview, Mr. Obi said that young people invest so much hope in him because the leaders they had known never cared for them or Nigeria. He said it was an “existential election” for the country.
“We’re not going to solve the problem of Nigeria overnight, because it’s huge,” he said.
His rivals, Mr. Abubakar and Mr. Tinubu, did not respond to requests for interviews.
Minutes after he arrived in Alaba electronics market, Mr. Obi’s unexpected visit began to go viral. As the convoy left for yet another rally, social media-savvy Obi supporters — nicknamed Obidients — mobbed the vehicles, unsure which one their hero was in. Eventually, he popped out of a sunroof, blowing kisses to the crowd.
“No shishi!” yelled the supporters running alongside his car — a slogan that, roughly, means “My vote is not for sale.”
“No shishi” is exactly the kind of change that Onyx Ahmed, 21, would like to see. A recent anatomy graduate and protester against police violence, she retweets Peter Obi’s posts, blocks supporters of his rivals, and hectors her friends to register to vote.
But in June, when she went to collect her own voter’s card, upon seeing the long lines, she quickly gave up.
“I was like, I’ll go home, and come back. I never went back,” she said, wincing, but only slightly. “I don’t really like stress.”
Analysts warn Ms. Ahmed’s attitude may be common, and say that newly registered voters are least likely to show up at the polls. Mr. Obi’s political opponents wield this idea to mock his supporters, dismissing them as just a few irrelevant armchair warriors.
But the Obidients give as good as they get. When Adams Oshiomhole, a former governing party chairman, told a television channel that Mr. Obi’s online support was “just 10 young men and women in one room” churning out stories, the Obidients changed his words to the catchier “Four people tweeting in a room.” That became a catchphrase, posted alongside image after image of thronging crowds at Obi rallies.
But there are other reasons young Obi supporters may not turn out. Many tried for days to obtain voters’ cards, but never made it to the front of interminable queues. Others cannot afford to travel to the states where they are registered to vote.
And their numbers may be overwhelmed by the get-out-the-vote machines built over decades by the governing All Progressives Congress party, and its longtime rival, the P.D.P. Each has local branches, women’s and youth groups nationwide, and affiliations with workers’ groups like that of Lagos’s market women, to mobilize voters come election day.
The reach of this party machinery was on display at Adebayo market in Bariga, a Lagos suburb, where customers sashayed down lanes crammed with jollof rice seasoning, diapers, hair weaves and zippers.
The market’s financial secretary took me around, making introductions to women working there, including Olabisi Onisarotu, selling baby care products. She said she was supporting Mr. Tinubu, because as Lagos governor, he had provided free education and good health care.
She glanced over my shoulder at the financial secretary, who was making sure she stuck to the script.
“Social amenities,” he mouthed.
“And social amenities,” Ms. Onisarotu repeated.
Around the corner in a general goods store, the market coordinator, 72-year-old Gbemisola Lawal, complained that the policies of the A.P.C. had run the economy into the ground, driving her customers away. But that wouldn’t change her vote, she said — or that of her small army of market women.
“This market belongs to A.P.C.,” said Ms. Lawal. “We’ve always voted A.P.C. and we’ll always vote A.P.C.”
Even so, cracks are appearing in the traditional parties’ machinery. Near the market, the driver of a yellow danfo, or minibus, said that this year he would defy his A.P.C.-supporting transport union, follow his conscience, and vote for Mr. Obi.
But the driver would not give his name, saying it would cost him his job.
Back in Mr. Obi’s convoy, his Labour Party colleagues — traveling in the luxury van behind his car — strategized about when he should stay hidden (in the neighborhood of his opponent, Mr. Tinubu) and when he should pop out of the sunroof and wave (in areas dominated by people from the southeast, Mr. Obi’s home region). Calls from the rally they were headed toward reported members being attacked by thugs.
“They should fight back,” one of them ordered.
The convoy drew up at the rally, where the crowds sang along with the musical duo P-Square, who like many Nigerian musical stars, are proud Obidients. On the sidelines, dozens of young people insisted they would turn out to vote, violence or not.
The stakes were too high for them not to, they said.
Oladeinde Olawoyin contributed reporting.