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What next for heartbroken young voters?

A young Labor Party supporter in Nigeria

A young Labor Party supporter in Nigeria

Heartbroken first-time voters in Nigeria are being urged not to give up after the candidate that many of them backed came third in the presidential race two weeks ago.

This is because crucial state elections are soon to be held – where governors and local assemblies will be chosen. It is the state governments that build schools, hospitals and inner city roads and are responsible for transport and other essential services.

Some of the young voters who backed the Labor Party’s Peter Obi have become disillusioned by election day antics in some areas: ballot-box snatching, violence and the late arrival of electoral officials that disenfranchised many – and may be one of the explanations for a low turnout

Angry voters in Lagos on election day, Nigeria - 25 February 2023

Some voters in Lagos were furious when electoral officials failed to show up on election day

But party campaigner Rinu Oduala says “Obidients”, as Mr Obi’s supporters are known, must not give up hope.

“Change does not occur overnight. It happens step by step. Day by day. And we have taken a thousand steps into the future,” the Labor Party supporter tweeted.

The electoral process was criticized by observer groups as falling short of required standards – and the opposition People Democratic Party (PDP) and Labor Party are challenging the result in court.

Yet Obidients like Ms Oduala point to how much the Labor Party has achieved in the nine months since Mr Obi became their flag bearer.

He gained six million votes – 25% of the vote, a major achievement given the usual dominance of the ruling All Peoples Congress (APC) and PDP.

The Labor Party also now has seven of 109 senatorial seats and 35 of 360 members of the House of Representatives.

Some victories have given card-carrying Labor Party members faith that the ultimate power in a democracy resides with the people.

Examples include a female Labor candidate in the capital, Abuja, beating a man who had served as an MP for 20 years; a Labor motorcycle-taxi rider in the northern state of Kaduna being elected and another Labor candidate preventing an outgoing governor in the south-east from winning a senate seat.

In the build-up to the polls, the Obedients were mocked as a social media sensation – “four people tweeting inside a room” – but now other powerful politicians are trying to woo them.

Take ruling party senator Ovie Omo-Agege, who is running to be governor in Delta state where Mr. Obi took 55% of the presidential vote. The APC politician has been pictured awkwardly posing with a banner asking Obedients to back him despite Labor having its own gubernatorial candidate in the southern oil-rich state.

“We have so much in common, we have to come together, we have to work together,” he pleaded.

Politicians like Mr. Omo-Agege may be hoping that as the Labor Party’s popularity has been driven by the charismatic Mr. Obi, whose name will not be on ballots later this month, they can win them over.

All to play for in the richest state

Lagos – Nigeria’s most powerful state, the country’s economic hub – could be where the Labor Party is really able to change the political landscape.

The city is the Obedient movement’s heartland – springing out of the ashes of the 2020 EndSars anti-police brutality protests when over two weeks tens of thousands of mainly young Nigerians took to the streets, leading to the disbandment of the police unit.

People holding a banner

A tollgate where protesters camped for weeks in the upmarket Lekki area of ‚Äč‚ÄčLagos in 2020 has become synonymous with the EndSars protests

Mr Obi beat the ruling party candidate in Lagos last month – despite widely reported cases of voter suppression and violence.

Sitting APC governor Babajide Sanwo-Olu, ahead of this month’s vote, is certainly feeling the heat, tweeting more frequently and regaling his followers with long threads of his achievements in office.

He is seeking a second-term but has refused to debate other candidates, like Labour’s Gbadebo Rhodes-Vivour, and has run a lackluster campaign, choosing instead to join president-elect Bola Tinubu as he traversed the country.

The governor has performed relatively well in the last four years, launching a metro line that has been under construction for decades and has been credited for expertly handling the pandemic.

But for many, the events of 20 October 2020, when soldiers opened fire on EndSars demonstrators – killing at least nine people, are too hard to forgive.

“They turned off the lights, removed the cameras and they killed us like antelopes,” Adeola Owosho, a tech products marketer who narrowly escaped death during the shooting, told the BBC.

Although Mr Sanwo-Olu was one of a few governors who met the protesters – some camped outside his office in Lagos – and also paid compensation to the victims of police abuse after setting up a panel, his involvement with the final deadly clampdown in Lekki is hard for many to look past.

“One hundred percent of my voting choice is dependent on the events of 20 October 2020, the massacre at Lekki and the whole incident left me scarred. Nothing Sanwo-Olu boasts of could ever atone for the terrible way he handled the peaceful protest, Mr Owosho said.

Victory in Lagos would be a salve for those Obidients bruised by the presidential defeat and Mr Obi has reminded his supporters that they can “still achieve massive victories in the forthcoming elections”.

Voters’ cards burned

Yet his words may not carry that much weight nationwide as there are few names of inspiring Labor Party candidates on the ballot, while some see the effort as pointless.

“I voted under the rain hoping my vote would count, clearly it didn’t,” said Naya Benson in Abuja, where many voters stood for hours under 34C heat before an evening rainstorm drenched them on the day of the presidential poll.

Others have taken to extremes, destroying their voters’ cards (PVCs) with a vow never to engage again with the democratic process.

“I burned my PVC because I realized it was just a waste of my time,” one voter told the BBC, angered by the effort it took and the money he spent on transportation to get the card and cast his ballot.

He cited the inability of the Independent National Electoral Commission (Inec) to upload results on to its portal in real time as promised as evidence that the result may not be genuine.

Inec apologized for the delays, saying that a surge in traffic on the day led to technical glitches.

However, it was not just the young voters who were left disheartened with such irregularities. Umealor Chibuike’s parents, who have been voting for 27 years, felt this was the last straw.

“They broke their PVCs because they believe Nigeria will never get better no matter how you try,” he told the BBC.

Yet the Labor Party’s Ms Oduala believes this is the wrong attitude to fix a country as complex as Nigeria. It is Africa’s most populous nation with a population of around 210 million, half of whom are under the age of 18.

“We will retire the evil politicians who stood in the way of progress and take back our country. Believe me, we are winning,” she tells her followers. “It’s a marathon, not a sprint; a war, not a battle; a journey, not a trip.”

The first cracks have undoubtedly emerged in the old order that young Nigerians are trying to pull down. The question is, how far are they willing to go?

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