Nigeria Election 2023: First Time Voters Await the Outcome of the Election Tribunal

Of 93.4 million registered voters for the 2023 Nigeria General Elections, 48 million were aged 18-34. Many believed that since they held the largest voting power, they would be able to, by their vote, sway the outcome of the elections in favour of the Labour Party, the third party rising to challenge the two-party rule of the All Progressive Congress and the People’s Democratic Party. Polls predicted a landslide victory for the Labour Party if Nigerian youth voted en masse. As many youth-led organisations continued to conduct peer-to-peer campaigns and PVC drives to encourage voter turnout during the elections, the number of youth at the polls were expected to rise.

According to SBM Intelligence Nigeria, 43% of those who would vote during the elections were to be first-time voters. While no reports state how many of the 24,025,940 votes cast in February were made by youth voting for the first time, many voters excited to share their voting experiences via social media platforms like Twitter were notably young. Treasure, a student at the University of Lagos, described her voting experience thus: “I had never voted before then. Yet, I didn’t think things were going to go smoothly. But I also didn’t think it mattered because we were all motivated. It felt like something we were going to do as a community. I think that’s a sentiment a lot of people my age could relate to. Even if it could happen that the elections were going to be rigged, it did not deter me. There was hope, and it spurred us.”

Morning of Presidential Election, Lagos. February 25th, 2023.
Some youth playing football on empty road before the arrival of INEC officials on the morning of the Presidential Election, Lagos. February 25th, 2023.

For Dolapo (21), another first-time voter, her enthusiasm about her first voting experience had been fuelled by the Obi-dient Movement. The political movement, although nascent, was formidable, gaining more youth involvement as Mr Peter Obi promoted his consumption-to-production campaign. Its proponents, Dolapo said, focused on voter sensitisation and education, thus providing her an inlet into the details of a political process she had only known based on hearsay. As the Labour Party continued to galvanise youth interested in the possibility of ending the historic two-party rule of the APC and PDP, Dolapo says she felt hopeful for the first time that she could “be part of the process.” Around her, her friends mirrored the same enthusiasm by constantly keeping tabs on the political outings of all the candidates, their debates and their manifestos. Voting on the morning of the election for her would be growth—  a new responsibility passed to her by millennials for Gen-Alpha. She had been very optimistic about the elections. 

And so, silence reigned across Nigeria when at 4:10 a.m. on March 1, Bola Ahmed Tinubu of the All Progressive Congress was announced winner of 2023 Presidential Elections with a total of 8,794,726 votes to Atiku Abubakar’s 6,984,520 (PDP) and Peter Obi’s 6,101,533 (LP). Before this announcement, voters across many states in Nigeria had reported maiming, shortage of election materials, ballot-box snatching, voter intimidation, manipulation of votes and a failure of INEC staff in some polling units to upload presidential election results to the INEC Result Viewing Portal. The introduction of the Bimodal Voter Accreditation System (BIVAS) machines, INEC had promised, would ensure  a free and fair voting process by ensuring that voters were duly accredited and their votes at their polling units uploaded to a server where it would be collated in real time.

Ballot boxes on the morning of Presidential Election, Lagos. February 25th, 2023.
Voters queuing to get accredited on the morning of the Presidential Election, Lagos. February 25th, 2023.

INEC officials accrediting voters using the BVAS machine on the morning of the Presidential Election, Lagos. February 25th, 2023.

Sawyerr (20) considered voting for the first time a form of protestation akin to those of October 2020. Thus, INECs turnaround on the effectiveness of the BVAS and the announcement of Mr Bola Ahmed Tinubu as winner of the 2023 Presidential Election amidst reports of electoral malpractice marked the start of her “distrust, disillusionment and lack of faith in the electoral process, the electoral body and Nigeria’s future.” Her sentiments were shared by many voters who for weeks unending trended the #StolenMandate hashtag on social media. Essentially, the 2023 General Elections were to upend a political status quo and usher the “people’s choice” into government  in a free and fair election. Anything short of this was to be regarded as a subversion of the people’s choice”. In response, supporters of the APC who considered the party’s win to be a landslide victory began the #GotoCourt trend which coincided with the election petition of the People’s Democratic Party and the Labour Party.

Voters queuing to cast their votes during the Presidential Election. Lagos. February 25th, 2023.
A first timer their voter thumb printing on a ballot paper during the Presidential Election. Lagos. February 25th, 2023.

Young voters casting their votes during the Presidential Election. Lagos. February 25th, 2023.

A voter casting his vote during the Presidential Election. Lagos. February 25th, 2023.

Voting in process during the Presidential Election. Lagos. February 25th, 2023.

Since May, the Presidential Election Petition Court (PEPC) has received petitions filed by the presidential candidates of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) and the Labour Party (LP), respectively where they have challenged the conduct and outcome of the February 25 presidential election on the grounds that INEC did not conduct the election in line with the Electoral Act (2022). They have also maintained that Mr Bola Ahmed Tinubu was not duly elected by the majority of lawful votes cast at the election. 

Although the tribunal dismissed the PDP and Labour Party’s request for live coverage of the tribunal proceedings, Nigerians have, in a show of resilience, continued to seek  information about the election petition through live text reportage on Twitter. First-time voters have also remained watchdogs reminding the INEC of their interest in the tribunal’s outcome via the hashtag, #AllEyesOnTheJudiciary.

Voters waiting to count their votes after the voting hours have passed during the Presidential Election. Lagos. February 25th, 2023.
INEC official counting the votes in one of the polling units during the Presidential Election. Lagos. February 25th, 2023.

Even now as the nation awaits with bated breath the outcome of the electoral tribunal, it is not lost on many how defining a time this is for Gen Z voters who have ignored the pessimism  associated with civic engagement in Nigeria and have fought for a better country marching through the streets during the #EndSARS protests and voting at the polls.

People jubilating at the announcement of presidential result at their polling unit during the Presidential Election. Lagos. February 25th, 2023.

Treasure is passionate about wanting the best for Nigeria, yet she is fast losing hope in the electoral process, she says. It will take a lot of believing to see the outcome she wants happen at the election tribunal. In all, she celebrates Nigerian youth for not giving up the fight and for embracing political representation that is in character with the honesty and engagement they have sought for for years. She considers a judiciary announcement that neglects overwhelming evidence of electoral malpractice to be a big dent in our democracy and proof of the rot that has eaten into the moral fabric of the nation.

Likewise, Sawyerr has become disillusioned by the elections and has no hope in the outcome of the tribunal. She is still reeling from what she describes as other Nigerians “sabotaging all effort at attaining common good because of their selfish interests.” Hence, her optimism has reduced drastically and she may commit to endeavours that guarantee her own well-being where other Nigerians have failed her and the vulnerable in Nigeria. Sawyerr considers her trust in the Nigerian electoral process to have been marred forever. Yet, a part of her, she affirms, pushes her to show resilience by performing the civic duty of voting during elections. Sawyerr is certain that any corrupt judgements at the tribunal will set a precedent for corrupt electoral practices that’ll influence Nigerian elections for years.

Portrait of Treasure, Treasure, student at the University of Lagos. Lagos, 2023.
Portrait of Dolapo (20), student at the University of Lagos. Lagos, 2023.

For Dolapo, however, whatever the tribunal’s outcome, she considers the 2023 General Elections in Nigeria” a lesson in electioneering.” She says the emergence of a third party began an era of meaningful voter engagement, intelligent political campaign, and engaging political debate in the Nigerian political scene. Whatever the outcome, she believes that political quiescence in Nigeria has given way to boiling-hot interest. 

Portrait of Funmi (20), student at the University of Lagos. Lagos, 2023.

It would seem to some that Gen Z in Nigeria have emerged from the bubble wrap their ineligibility to vote had them wound in. The 2023 General Election and the Presidential Election Tribunal may cement whatever impressions they now have of Nigeria’s political and electoral process.

Labour Party supporters at their election campaign rally at Tafawa Balewa Square (TBS), Lagos State. February 11th, 2023.

All photographs are copyrighted. Text: Ude, Ugo Anna

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