For Us By Us: Why The Forthcoming Elections Matter to Young Nigerians

For some, Japa isn't an option.

In October 2020, a minor demonstration that was initially thought to last a few days soon spurred a generational movement, as young Nigerians rose up in throes to push back against a defunct and corrupt special forces unit know as SARS. The protests ran across the country with urgency and dogged organisation, proving that Nigerian youth can think clearly and execute even more effectively. While the errant institution has  only to be repackaged by the government, for many of us, victory was served in the understanding that, when pushed to the wall, we wouldn’t be silent. We could act. We could change things. 

With only a week to go to the elections, a lot of Nigerians–not just young people—are surely feeling that way as the national elections draws closer. While there a number of candidates in the running, all attention is on its frontrunners from the Labour Party, All Progressives Congress and People’s Democratic Party. There has been unprecedented attention concerning which person gets to become the President-In-Waiting after the elections scheduled for February 25th. Collated data shows that newly registered voters have contributed significantly to the overall numbers, while conversations on social media and elsewhere have peeled into the characters of the major contestants, unmasking all that stands before them and the messages they propagate. 

Young Nigerians are however the most invested in the forthcoming elections. For myriad reasons, the Nigerian state has revealed the deep-seated tensions between their motivations and that of political leaders. In recent times, finances have been the most obvious; under the government of Godwin Emefiele, the Central Bank of Nigeria has sought to control legitimate means of earning, cryptocurrency most frequently. With a slew of backward policies, the CBN has criminalised the practice, even as more progressive governments are finding ways to leverage its utilitarian benefits. 

As many remember, during the End SARS protests, bank accounts of prominent participants were frozen for long periods of time. Afterwards, the extrajudicial months-long ban on Twitter demonstrated the Nigerian government’s sickening need to sanction the freedom of its predominantly young population. No surprise it has been then, the recent cash scarcity which has left many stranded has been sometimes interpreted through the lens of a controlling government trying to frustrate its citizenry into responding with protests which would then be sabotaged through the indiscriminate use of violence. When parts of Oyo and Abeokuta states witnessed such an outbreak, the immediate response to the looming consequences of chaos was telling. Just as we’ve witnessed before, youths across ethnic and social lines have taken up the matter in their hands and hearts, rightly considering themselves as influencers for positive change. 

“This election is important to me because I’m tired of having the same greedy politicians recycled every four years,” says Ezioma Kalu, a writer who lives in Enugu state, southeastern Nigeria. “It’s as if Nigeria is in a relay race, and every four years, the baton is passed onto the absolute worst of leaders to rule. And they’re perfectly excellent at what they do, destroying the economy while enriching their pockets. This has to stop. I’m tired of the increased poverty and hardship. I’m tired of being a graduate with no job. I’m tired of managing the bare minimum, so it’s time to take our country back.” 

Ezioma is not alone in this thinking. While many young Nigerians have thrown themselves onto the frontlines to either demand better or support their choice candidates, the fight to take back Nigeria from the old order has been amplified by an alternative route of leaving the country. Fewer generations before us have been so eager to immigrate, the imploding landscape and economy often the reason. To this phenomenon we have ascribed the term ‘Japa,’ which translates as ‘run swiftly’. On the same level of popularity as the finance-decrying ‘Sapa’, such words are indicative of the domineering concerns among young Nigerians, especially those residing in urban societies across the country. 

Statistical information is telling: in 2021, the United Kingdom’s Higher Education Statistics Agency revealed that the number of Nigerian students in the country increased by 69% from the previous year, going from 13,020 to 21,305 during that time. While many took advantage of the UK’s new policy on post-study work visas which allows students two years visas after graduation, the catalyst must have been the demoralising events of End SARS which led many young people to question their place in a country with little to no regard for human rights. Interestingly, the provided data covers just a single destination; under the big world, Nigerians can and will immigrate to anywhere they believe would offer them better opportunities. An estimate on young Nigerians who have left the country in the past five years will surely prove larger than that. Think about it: you or someone you know has probably left in the past year alone. 

Truthfully, Nigeria leaves much to be desired. In a globalised world where we’re inundated with news of life-changing reforms happening elsewhere, it’s sometimes difficult to stand tall as a Nigerian. Our cultural currency—which has often been the product of youthful grit and ingenuity—has featured as the balancing act, propelling Nigeria’s potential into the spaces that matter. And yet, for every young person that leaves the country or desires to do so, there are many others who aren’t given to such wandering notions. For some, it’s an expensive and time-consuming process that they simply can’t afford. Some others are quite mindful of the differences in social lifestyle and how that influences one’s philosophy, and would rather live in Nigeria. 

Migration is barely a new idea though. Since countries have shared in the disaster of greed and wars, ordinary citizens have fled whatever homes they know in search of better odds. Others have pursued adventurous ideals, as they seek to experience more of the world. In the sphere of art and literature, music, movies and books have situated the feelings of longing and displacement as principal psychological consequences. While Japa might seem a romantic idea, such productions continue to reveal the undersides of ambition. Contemporary films created by young Nigerians such as ‘Eyimofe’ and A Japa Tale’ are poignant films which capture the social struggles that arise from such an endeavour, the latter particularly contemporary in its relationship-focused direction. 

‘Americannah’ by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is arguably the most popular Nigerian immigrant novel, and for readers its cathartic closing scene couldn’t have happened anywhere else but in Nigeria. Ifemelu and Obinze, after years with several lovers in America and UK respectively, finally return to their home country and even Obinze’s marriage can’t stop their happily-ever-after. Similarly, Chigozie Obioma’s ‘An Orchestra of Minorities’ also had a Nigerian protagonist who travels overseas, to Cyprus for a college degree, but upon landing finds out he’s been duped and the series of events afterwards is nothing short of ugly, leading him to return home. 

In essence, art teaches us that there’s no perfect ending. It’s easier to leave the country than for the country to leave you. Therefore, for those who choose to stay even when the option is possible, there are precedents which backs up their reasons. “I am an odd one, not entirely interested in migrating out of the country,” says Ope Adetayo, an internationally published freelance journalist. “So, I want an election that will produce a candidate who can make this country liveable. There is no gain saying that Nigeria is on the precipicies and the election is a way to halt that headlong rush towards societal collapse. If the right person can be elected in power, at least it can give the government a chance to change things around and maybe improve the situation. The election is particularly important for me as a young person because I am willing to see a country that works and one I can thrive easily in”. 

Another sphere of living that young people would be looking to influence would be the force behind its creative industries. From finding technological solutions through startups like Paystack to having some of the most penetrative music labels and collaborating with film giants Netflix and Amazon Prime, it’s a bubbling new age for Nigerian creatives. A Jobberman study in 2021 revealed that five fields across the creative industry—Media, Entertainment, Beauty and Lifestyle, Visual Arts, Tourism and Hospitality—employ 4.2 million people. The report also claimed that after agriculture, the creative sector is the second largest employer of labour in the country. 

In the two years since that report, many young people continue to break ground in their respective fields. They have done this through leveraging community and their peculiar skills, while holistic structural support from the government remains lacking. At best, the Nigerian leadership is one-dimensional in their understanding of cultural power, which has led to the renovation of the Iganmu-based National Theatre but not the legislative flexibility that allows for investors in the music business and elsewhere. 

Young Nigerians desire a government which recognises these changes in the world’s set-up. As traditional economic patterns lose more of their relevance, creativity steps up to carry the song of a country’s glory into the future. For all the colour and dominance Nigeria brings to the global cultural scene, from football jerseys to Tobi Amusan etching her name onto athletic immortality, a recurring factor has been the helping hand of the Western world. Meanwhile the country has proven it has more than enough talent to harness creativity and share with the world, but first the government has to align with the values of the youth who, it must be said, are positively changing the world. 

“I can’t imagine enduring this amount of suffering for another four or even eight years. I can’t keep asking the government to provide the basic amenities,” Ezioma says. “I am taking the election personally because I want to have a better life. Suffer dun tire me.”



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