The Two Voting Blocs That Could Transform Nigerian Politics

The country’s stability and prosperity will hinge on whether they can translate their grievances into political power in the upcoming election.

Nigeria’s marquis political event—presidential, legislative, and gubernatorial elections—has long been more an inter-elite cage match than a festival of democracy. Slated for February 25, the quadrennial polls always have a major impact on the trajectory of Africa’s largest economy and its most populous country. This time around, they will also pit two generations against each other.

In presidential primaries skewed by rampant bribery, Nigeria’s two main parties nominated problematic septuagenarians, both of whom embody the country’s self-interested political class. Former Lagos governor Bola Tinubu, whose campaign slogan, “It’s My Turn,” conveys his powerful sense of entitlement, is the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) candidate. He has been endorsed by outgoing President Muhammadu Buhari and enjoys the support of roughly two-thirds of the country’s thirty-six powerful governors.

The opposition People’s Democratic Party (PDP) candidate is former vice president Atiku Abubakar (widely known simply as Atiku), a perennial presidential aspirant running for the sixth time.

Tinubu and Atiku are old friends turned rivals whose political careers closely intertwine. Both men leveraged mysterious wealth to gain high office, build successful businesses, and cultivate national political networks.

Also competitive is insurgent candidate and social media phenom Peter Obi—a former state governor supported by many younger and reform-minded Nigerians. He is somewhat of an X factor in the race to lead a country where 60 percent of the population is under 25. The son of a supermarket owner, Obi began his career as a banker and businessman before entering politics. After eight years running Anambra State—home to one of the largest marketplaces in Africa—he joined the PDP and expanded his national profile, becoming the party’s 2019 vice presidential nominee. After losing the 2023 primary to Atiku, Obi decamped to the second-tier Labour Party as its presidential candidate. And while Obi is keen cast himself as a reformer, his campaign promises—reduced insecurity, better leadership, more pro-business policies—sound similar to those made by Tinubu and Atiku.

With his conventionally unconventional campaign, Obi has energized “makers and millennials”: two overlapping segments of Nigeria’s long-suffering electorate. “Makers” refers to wealthier, better-educated Nigerians of all ages who are striving to innovate, invest, and push for genuine development, better governance, more accountability, and less impunity. In the Nigerian context, the “millennials” label applies to young people of all social standings who reached voting age around the time of the country’s 1999 return to civilian rule. Alienated by state predation and bad governance, many millennials sympathized with the 2020 #EndSARS protests against police brutality and were disillusioned by the brutal military crackdown that followed.

Looking longer term, Nigeria’s stability and prosperity will hinge on whether makers and millennials can harness their energy and grievances and translate it into political power in this and future elections. Until then, durable and destructive kleptocratic networks will remain in control of Africa’s most populous country. A win by Tinubu (the likeliest outcome) or Atiku would perpetuate the disconnect between the powerful and powerless. A strong showing (25 percent of the vote or more) or even a long-shot win by Obi would indicate that the political salience of makers and millennials is on the rise—which could lead Nigeria toward a much-needed inflection point in its democratic trajectory.

In addition to keeping a close eye on the voting processes and the possibility of election-related unrest, U.S., UK, and European policymakers should use this election as a juncture for rethinking their remarkably normal relationship with Abuja. In recent years, these relationships have been cordial—even cozy—despite top Nigerian officials’ acts of repressiongrand corruption, and fiscal mismanagement. Moreover, Western governments provide training and sell weapons to the Nigerian military without conditioning it on much-needed reform. They have also turned a blind eye to gross human rights violations and endemic corruption in the country’s security sector: both major drivers of conflict, crime, and extremism in Nigeria and the wider region.

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Tinubu and Atiku began their political apprenticeship together under Shehu Musa Yar’Adua, Nigeria’s de facto vice president during the military regime of the late 1970s. Yar’Adua later built a political party where the two candidates first cut their political teeth and became friends. In 1992, Tinubu won his first election to serve as a senator for Lagos State, and Atiku ran for governor in his home state of Adamawa. However, Atiku’s candidacy was controversially disqualified, so he shifted gears and ran in the presidential primaries, coming third in the first round. Shortly thereafter, General Sani Abacha launched a coup that ushered in six more years of military rule, dousing the political ambitions of both Tinubu and Atiku.

In 1998, Abacha’s sudden death offered them the opportunity to mount a political comeback. Atiku joined the PDP and won the governorship of Adamawa State. Before he could take office, however, PDP presidential candidate Olusegun Obasanjo tapped Atiku as his running mate. Together, they ran Nigeria for the next eight years.

Tinubu took a different path, joining a party that would remain in opposition for sixteen years. But the two men remained friendly, and with Tinubu’s help, Atiku ran for president, coming third in the terribly flawed 2007 elections. Undeterred, Atiku rejoined the PDP, mounting a losing primary challenge against President Goodluck Jonathan in 2011. In 2014, Atiku left the PDP once again to join a new opposition coalition, but he was unable to gain traction and went back to the PDP, serving as its presidential nominee in 2019 and 2023.

Atiku and Tinubu now face each other in what must be the last dance for two men in their seventies, visibly tired and showing signs of worsening health. Both men appear determined to leverage their formidable political machines—well-lubricated by their extraordinary, though largely unexplained, wealth—in one last push for Nigeria’s top job.

In Atiku’s case, questions continue to surround how his career as a customs officer segued into a business empire that included a firm that for many years cornered lucrative government and petroleum industry logistics contracts. Reportedly the target of a U.S. visa ban, he has also faced several other corruption allegationsall of which he denies. Questions around Tinubu’s wealth mostly relate to a decades-old brush with U.S. law enforcement and Lagos State government’s decision to award an opaque yet generous tax-collection contract to a company he reportedly controls. Like Atiku, Tinubu denies any wrongdoing.

What is not deniable are their similar profiles and parallel accumulation of power and wealth. Both Atiku and Tinubu are scions of Nigeria’s discredited political class responsible for long-running governing failures that have disillusioned millions of hardworking Nigerians.


Already, the 2023 presidential campaign is shaping up to be one of the most cynical and substance-free since Nigeria’s 1999 return to civilian rule. Politicians’ platitudes have alienated the country’s most productive citizens and its largest demographic group: young people. By picking two gerontocrats, both the ruling APC and opposition PDP decided to ignore makers’ and millennials’ calls from for more dynamic and capable leadership. They also overlooked Nigerians’ growing disillusionment with their message and modus operandi. According to a 2022 Afrobarometer poll, just 39 percent of all Nigerians—and 35 percent of those age 18 to 25—feel close to a political party, a sharp decline since 2015.

The two main parties’ business-as-usual approach undoubtedly provided Obi with a political opening. His campaign has tapped into disillusionment and bottled-up frustration among Nigerian youth toward a political system that shows them little regard. His campaign has been energized (mostly organically) by so-called Obidients: legions of supporters operating both on social media and in the streets. Third-party candidates rarely win many votes, the exception being former anti-corruption czar Nuhu Ribadu, who won one state and about five percent of the vote in 2011. Obi looks almost certain to exceed Ribadu’s total, which could force an unprecedented second-round presidential election.

A strong performance from Obi would send a message to Nigeria’s ruling elites that makers and millennials matter. While there is no guarantee they will heed that message, the robustness of Obi’s support in varied parts of the country suggests that millions of frustrated Nigerians are preparing to send their tone-deaf leaders a wake-up call. If they do, it could also mark the reversal of a worrying trend: growing voter apathy and declining turnout, especially in Lagos, Nigeria’s commercial capital.


Like every Nigerian election, the 2023 polls are a chance for Nigeria’s deeply flawed democratic process to send a proof-of-life message to the world. However free, fair, and violence-free the vote ultimately is, its results have largely been predetermined by high-level interference (both visible and invisible); dodgy party primaries; and the apparently free flow of hundreds of millions of dollars of stolen public funds into national, state, and local patronage networks. Whomever triumphs will face a wide array of governance challenges that his predecessors failed to address or, in many respects, aggravated.

Nigeria’s next president will also need to reckon with a political system predicated on the sharing out of the “national cake.” Decades of high inflationcurrency devaluationwasteful spending, and irresponsible borrowing have made this an increasingly unsustainable governing strategy. And while the Nigerian government is used to weathering the highs and lows of oil price cycles, when—and if—the next boom will come is unclear. High production costs, oil theft, and dependency on fuel imports have trapped the country in a bust-bust cycle in which public finances suffer when oil prices are both too high and too low.

Looking ahead, this catch-22 will make it difficult for even the most dynamic, honest, and reform-minded president to address the needs of Nigeria’s population, which will rank third in size (behind India and China) by 2045. This said, some positive second-order political effects could materialize as kleptocrats’ cash flows dwindle: political power could shift toward more legitimate, mold-breaking political figures who enjoy support among makers and millennials. This shift might begin in parts of southwestern and southeastern Nigeria where voters’ exasperation with politics-as-usual runs highest.

But even if Nigeria’s ruling elites do not see the writing on the wall, U.S., UK, and European policymakers should. In light of growing threats to democracy worldwide, the 2023 election (and the peaceful transfer of power it hopefully brings) is a good time to rethink their engagement strategy in a few key ways.

First, they can begin treating Nigeria as a competitive authoritarian state in need of a democratic transition, not as “a bastion of democracy,” as one top U.S. official recently said.

Second, they should ask whether their pursuit of short-term gains—one-off trade dealstighter military cooperationcultivating ties to corrupt elites—has paid off or if it has undercut their broader strategic interests. These include Nigeria’s longer-term political stability, socioeconomic development, and capacity to address its many environmental, humanitarian, and security challenges.

Third, they should do more to prevent top Nigerian officials from using unexplained wealth to buy high-end property, get privileged medical treatment, and pay for expensive private schools. Constraining such damaging outflows would be an easy win.

Finally, they should look beyond the corridors of power and invest even more time, resources, and political capital in continuing to expand their promising engagement with—and support of—makers, millennials, and other constructive voices who need to be ready to step up when the country’s predatory political class falls off its perch.

Source: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

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