Religion, Politics, and the Youth Factor in Nigeria’s Elections

Religion, Politics, and the Youth Factor in Nigeria’s Elections

Religion, Politics, and the Youth Factor in Nigeria’s Elections


4 min read

Emily Mellgard Africa Specialist

Posted on: 17th November 2014

The February 2015 national elections* in Nigeria are shaping up to be the most costly, divisive, and insecure since the civil war ended in 1970. They are the first since President Goodluck Jonathan ended the informal 'zoning' agreement in 2011 whereby the presidency alternated between a northern Muslim and southern Christian. As in 2011, the elections are likely to have a Christian and Muslim on opposing sides. Unlike 2011, there is also the possibility of a same religion president-vice president ticket. Broadly, there are three factors likely to have great influence over Nigeria's elections: the influence of religious leaders, the rhetoric of political candidates, and the actions of Nigeria's youth as influenced by the former two.

If the government loses the youth during this election cycle, they will have lost the nation

Sixty-two percent of Nigeria's 160 million population is under 25 years old. The national average unemployment rate is 8 percent. In the north and east that number is 25 percent and higher. While old guard politicians drive the narrative in Nigeria, young people are the muscle behind it. Boko Haram knows this; politicians and religious leaders need to remain cognoscente of the impact their words and actions have on polarising Nigeria's upcoming generation. Boko Haram has used perceptions of marginalisation and impotence as a recruiting tool for years. They also have a history of keeping their promises and threats. Violent as this often is, it builds a reputation of dependability while the government and military's claims that are continually proven hollow degrades their own respectability. If the federal government loses the youth during this election cycle, they will have lost the nation. Unlike in 2011, Nigerians are much less inoculated against religious polarisation now than when Boko Haram's campaign was still in its inception.

The fallout of Nigeria's 2011 elections showed of the importance of young people. Religious leaders in the north were perceived to have failed their young people by supporting Goodluck Jonathan (a Christian) as presidential candidate over Muhammadu Buhari (a Muslim) and they have yet to recover their trust. Young people also tend to distrust the secular political leadership.

In the aftermath of the 2011 elections, young people in the north took to the streets in protest, including burning down the palaces of the emirs of Kano and Zaria and attempting to burn down the sultan of Sokoto's palace. Four additional years of marginalisation and the death of thousands will only have increased the violent response of perceived disenfranchisement in these elections, more so if there's a run-off.

The recent failed ceasefire and release deal the government and military publically announced they had reached with Boko Haram for the return of the Chibok schoolgirls, has heightened a lack of confidence from Nigerian society. There was little to no change in violence levels after the announcement, and on 31 October, Boko Haram released a video stating again that they had not and would not negotiate with the government. Further undermining the government and military are the recent claims that Boko Haram is entrenching control over their territory and, has encouraged residents to return. They are also credibly threatening to disrupt or make elections impossible within their spheres of influence. At the moment, these are the three states (all majority Muslim) under the government's state of emergency. If elections cannot be held in those states, it will disenfranchise a large section of the northern electorate, rendering the elections illegitimate.

The most radical calls could receive the loudest cheers

Since the end of the civil war in 1970, there has been little change of Nigeria's political establishment. Elections in the past forty years, when they happen, reshuffle familiar faces. Young, vibrant, and visionary youth don't have the space to operate in elite political circles. This means they don't have motivation to keep the federal structures, nor do they necessarily identify with the state as having authority over them because it offers them nothing in return. Instead they are unfrozen from the nation-state structure and vulnerable to radicalisation from outside influences. The negative by-products of this youth disenfranchisement have been manifest in Nigeria for years.

The rhetoric around the elections is already falling into Christian/Muslim lines. Policy is not being discussed and doctrinal persuasion is high on the agenda. As rallies for candidates are organised, sermons are given, patronage networks are mobilised to rally around candidates, groups of un-and-underemployed youths will be recruited with promises of employment, responsibility, and power are organised into candidates' personal quasi-militias, rhetoric will draw deep divisions between opponents. The most radical calls could receive the loudest cheers.

These elections, with their rhetoric based firmly in religious language, will exacerbate already endemic disillusionment with the federal government and likely increase radicalisation along religious identification lines. Candidates so far are established members of the old political guard. This is a clear message to Nigerians that the status quo is not going to change; to the youth that they will still be used but not heard. When the dust finally settles at the end of the election cycle and the reshuffled crowd of the same old political faces take their seats of power, young people may have turned their back entirely on the federal state structure. If they dismiss the government's potential to govern, speak for, support, and protect the people this could have huge consequences for Nigeria's future.

*Note: The elections dates have now been postponed until 28 March and 11 April 2015.

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