Nigeria’s Young Voters Are Backing an Outsider for President

Peter Obi belongs to the Igbo minority and lacks a major party platform, but he promises a break from the country’s corrupt gerontocracy.

By , a Nigerian writer and journalist.
Supporters of presidential candidate of the Labour Party Peter Obi and running mate Datti Baba-Ahmed march during a campaign rally in Lagos, on Oct. 1.
Supporters of presidential candidate of the Labour Party Peter Obi and running mate Datti Baba-Ahmed march during a campaign rally in Lagos, on Oct. 1.
Supporters of presidential candidate of the Labour Party Peter Obi and running mate Datti Baba-Ahmed march during a campaign rally in Lagos, on Oct. 1. PIUS UTOMI EKPEI/AFP via Getty Images

For eight months, the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU), the umbrella body for lecturers in Nigeria, were on strike over the federal government’s inability to abide by a 2009 agreement signed with the union. The lecturers wanted improved wages, better infrastructure on campuses, and adoption of a payment system developed by their group. The government’s refusal left more than 1 million students stranded at home.

University strikes have been a recurrent phenomenon in Nigeria for decades and students are usually the collateral damage, with their academic progress getting stalled and life plans disrupted. This is one of the major reasons why anyone who can afford to get their degrees in any country outside Nigeria do so.

With Nigeria’s general elections coming up in less than seven months, this is political suicide for the ruling party, the All Progressives Congress (APC), which formed in 2013 through a merger of four political parties, anchored on social democracy and the welfare and security of citizens. ASUU’s recurrent strike has whipped up public sentiment against the ruling party, and young people are turning to former governor Peter Obi, whose candidacy under the Labour Party is fast turning into a formidable third force.

For eight months, the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU), the umbrella body for lecturers in Nigeria, were on strike over the federal government’s inability to abide by a 2009 agreement signed with the union. The lecturers wanted improved wages, better infrastructure on campuses, and adoption of a payment system developed by their group. The government’s refusal left more than 1 million students stranded at home.

University strikes have been a recurrent phenomenon in Nigeria for decades and students are usually the collateral damage, with their academic progress getting stalled and life plans disrupted. This is one of the major reasons why anyone who can afford to get their degrees in any country outside Nigeria do so.

With Nigeria’s general elections coming up in less than seven months, this is political suicide for the ruling party, the All Progressives Congress (APC), which formed in 2013 through a merger of four political parties, anchored on social democracy and the welfare and security of citizens. ASUU’s recurrent strike has whipped up public sentiment against the ruling party, and young people are turning to former governor Peter Obi, whose candidacy under the Labour Party is fast turning into a formidable third force.

The use of social media is driving awareness of his strengths and capabilities, and it is also a mobilization ground for his teeming fans. Young people are saying Obi, nicknamed “Okwute,” or “the rock” in Igbo, is the only one who can repair the failing economy.


Since Nigeria returned to democracy in 1999, the academic union has gone on strike 16 times. The recent strike has is one of the longest in history, only second to the 10-month strike in 2020. Students are the victims in this unending standoff: Most are between 17 to 24 years of age. And Nigeria’s job market is notorious for setting an age ceiling that disqualifies applicants older than 24. With the strike, many students come out of school too old to access the slim opportunities and are destined to join the growing ranks of the unemployed.

President Muhammadu Buhari’s government did not make serious moves to reach a deal with the union until the country’s industrial court ordered the union to end the strike. Rather, the president asked parents and stakeholders to appeal to the lecturers as the country’s future was at stake. This is, rather, a show of inefficiency to ask parents to beg teachers rather than to look for a way to solve the problem. The young are simply giving up on the old guard. With 70 percent of the population under 30, the 2023 elections pose a challenge for presidential aspirants who have been criticized on the basis of their age or health.

There has been an increase in voter registration in recent months. According to the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), of the more than 10 million new voters, over 6 million are youths, a very formidable voting bloc that has historically largely been ignored as they are seen as apathetic when it comes to voting.

This reinvigoration of youth participation in politics has created a fright for the major parties.

This reinvigoration of youth participation in politics has created a fright for the major parties, especially the APC, which has failed to deliver on its campaign promises to fight corruption, bolster national security, stabilize the economy, and stop university strikes in more than seven years of governance. The #EndSARS protest in October 2020, which resulted in the death of at least 12 protesters and left many others injured, revealed what the anger and determination of the people could achieve.

Bola Tinubu, former Lagos governor and current APC presidential flagbearer, is on the record blaming the victims of the Lekki massacre. His People’s Democratic Party (PDP) counterpart, Abubakar Atiku, a former vice president who has been running for president for the past two decades, is famous for paying lip service to situations of public concern. Recently, he deleted a tweet condemning the killing of a female student who was attacked and burned by a mob in Sokoto.

Some young people will not support Tinubu because they feel his choice of a Muslim running mate undermines Nigeria’s religious diversity. Historically, candidates from major parties have chosen a running mate from another region and religion to foster a sense of unity. Young Nigerians are eyeing the forthcoming elections as their chance to make a bold statement to show the old power brokers that the real power belongs to the people.

To curry the support of the youths, both leading candidates have spoken about their plans to end to the incessant ASUU strikes if elected. Tinubu met on July 14 with the executives of the National Association of Nigerian Students to discuss the ongoing strike. Young people recognized that it was just a medium to “show face” or appear empathetic to issues affecting common people. Atiku said he would work with varsity authorities to end the strike and decried the inability of the incumbent government to find a solution. But neither achieved any lasting solutions and made no further efforts.

But it is Obi, the former governor of Anambra state running under the banner of the Labour Party—a movement that enjoys the support of trade unions and the working class—who seems to be capturing the attention of young people this campaign season. Many see him as a beacon of hope who could turn the country’s fortune around with his background in banking. His relative youthfulness and trove of achievements during his time as governor, especially in educational reforms, make him look like someone who understands the youth and can implement projects that help them.

This is very unusual because the voting public historically gravitates toward the more popular candidates from the governing APC and the largest opposition party, the PDP, who are most likely to emerge as winners. Older people, although bothered by the effect of the strikes, do not necessarily see recognize Obi as a savior. The strikes may not change their voting culture given ethnic sentiments and rampant vote-buying.

Obi’s increasing popularity has forced political strategists to reconsider typical voting patterns and how the 2023 elections could radically transform electoral outcomes. His selling points are his relative youth (he is 61) and his enchanting speech—usually delivered in a calm, soft voice urging young Nigerians to join him to take back the country for the youth—and his ethnic identity.

Obi is Igbo, one of Nigeria’s major tribes, and no one from his ethnic group has held presidential power since 1966. But that, too, could become an obstacle as some people do not want to vote for an Igbo. (The Igbos, with the smallest population of the three major ethnic groups, have long suffered hostility from other tribes.) Yet, a Bloomberg News survey found that Obi is now the top choice among likely voters going into the elections.

Obi has become a surprisingly strong third force, propelled by young people since leaving the PDP. Obi has not laid out any concrete strategy through which he plans to put a total stop to the recurrent academic strikes. Instead, he advised the government to sit and talk with the lecturers.

Among young people, there is a growing recognition that the flagbearers of the two major parties belong to the same generation that has failed Nigeria and its people. Both are from Nigeria’s “fourth republic” class—the ones who have led the country since transition to democratic rule in 1999—who have lost their ability to handle the rigorous demands of the office they are seeking.

Many youths believe that Obi is the one capable of fixing the country’s security and socioeconomic concerns due to his background in banking and his reputation for frugal spending. More than 65 percent named Obi as the candidate best able to improve the economy, tackle corruption, and reduce insecurity in the Bloomberg News survey.

Even though he did not announce a comprehensive strategy on how he plans to end the strike, he has a long legacy of prioritizing academics through scholarships and investments in secondary schools. On Nigerian social media, testimonies of former beneficiaries of scholarships and financial bailouts to schools and students is popular. They thank him for the scholarships and provisions that gave a clear path to them and urge people to support him so he could do more.

One Twitter user said he was able to learn computer basics in secondary school due to Obi’s focus on education. His campaign posts and fliers, pushed by “Obidients,” the catchy nickname for his energized supporters, are difficult to miss with slogans like “Obidience is better than a sack of rice.” (Nigerian politicians usually donate sacks of rice to people when election is near.)


Obi’s campaign budget pales in comparison to the spending power of the two other leading candidates. But what he lacks in a fat advertisement budget, Obidients make up for him by functioning as his foot soldiers and megaphone. They make it a point of daily commitment to showcase their support for him and gain new people to their side of the political divide. Obi is seen as a potential Hakainde Hichilema, who came to power in Zambia thanks to the youth vote in 2021.

On social media, the other candidates have tried to connect with younger voters, but these efforts appear botched.

On social media, the other candidates have tried to connect with younger voters. Tinubu has uploaded a video of himself cycling indoors and Atiku was filmed dancing to show that they are healthy and fit, but these efforts appear botched as young people on social media have mocked them and made them memes and “banter materials.”

Opposition supporters, in an attempt to ridicule the movement, have rightly posited that social media support does not translate to actual voting, but the Obidients are pushing the gospel of their candidate beyond the narrow social media walls, even though he has yet to release his manifesto. They are mobilizing on the streets, selling reasons why Obi is the best candidate to the 80 million Nigerians who are of voting age. His success in the Bloomberg News survey shows that the effort of his supporters is helping him gain ground.

So far, Obidients have held rallies in Lagos, Abuja, Ogun, Kogi, and other major cities that attract thousands of attendees. Abroad, similar rallies are being held in Los Angeles, London, and elsewhere. These rallies are not even organized by his party but by people who believe in his candidacy: the people Obi said were the structure of his “structureless” party. It is clear political opponents are getting uneasy about the progress as alleged political thugs are attacking his party members.

Obi has dined, shaken hands, and socialized with some of the politicians that the young voters are trying to oust, but he has effectively rebranded himself by peddling a hustler versus dynasty tale similar to that of Kenya’s new president, William Ruto. Obi is telling Nigerians to “take Nigeria back and give it to the youths.” The victory of Ruto, an erstwhile chicken hawker, in Kenya signals that it is not impossible for the underdog to emerge on top.

What Obi truly represents to young people in Nigeria is an idea that the country can be shaken free of the stronghold of the ageing politicians. And if it so happens that he fails in this bid, this first attempt would serve as a template for a more robust movement ahead of the 2027 elections.

Pelumi Salako is a Nigerian writer and journalist. Twitter: @Salakobabaa

Join the Conversation

Commenting on this and other recent articles is just one benefit of a Foreign Policy subscription.

Already a subscriber? .

Join the Conversation

Join the conversation on this and other recent Foreign Policy articles when you subscribe now.

Not your account?

Join the Conversation

Please follow our comment guidelines, stay on topic, and be civil, courteous, and respectful of others’ beliefs.

You are commenting as .

More from Foreign Policy

Russian President Vladimir Putin chairs a commission on military-technical cooperation with foreign states in 2017.
Russian President Vladimir Putin chairs a commission on military-technical cooperation with foreign states in 2017.

What’s the Harm in Talking to Russia? A Lot, Actually.

Diplomacy is neither intrinsically moral nor always strategically wise.

Officers with the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) wait outside an apartment in Kharkiv oblast, Ukraine.
Officers with the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) wait outside an apartment in Kharkiv oblast, Ukraine.

Ukraine Has a Secret Resistance Operating Behind Russian Lines

Modern-day Ukrainian partisans are quietly working to undermine the occupation.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and French President Emmanuel Macron wave as they visit the landmark Brandenburg Gate illuminated in the colors of the Ukrainian flag in Berlin on May 9, 2022.
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and French President Emmanuel Macron wave as they visit the landmark Brandenburg Gate illuminated in the colors of the Ukrainian flag in Berlin on May 9, 2022.

The Franco-German Motor Is on Fire

The war in Ukraine has turned Europe’s most powerful countries against each other like hardly ever before.

U.S. President Joe Biden holds a semiconductor during his remarks before signing an executive order on the economy in the State Dining Room of the White House in Washington, D.C.
U.S. President Joe Biden holds a semiconductor during his remarks before signing an executive order on the economy in the State Dining Room of the White House in Washington, D.C.

How the U.S.-Chinese Technology War Is Changing the World

Washington’s crackdown on technology access is creating a new kind of global conflict.