Lagos, Nigeria – Late on February 28, three days after Nigeria’s presidential election, Favour Anyim and a friend were streaming the live results from the Independent National Electoral Commission. They had high hopes for a victory for Peter Obi, the outsider candidate they had voted for.
As the results trickled in and Obi won and lost in different areas – by huge margins – the friends were elated, then angry, then exhausted and went to bed.
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About 4am the next day, electoral commission chief Mahmood Yakubu declared Bola Tinubu, the ruling All Progressives Congress candidate, as the winner. In second place was Atiku Abubakar of the main opposition People’s Democratic Party, ahead of the Labour Party’s Obi.
“I just felt numb. It was the feeling of hopelessness,” said Anyim, a 22-year-old law undergraduate at Nnamdi Azikwe University.
The election took place as Africa’s largest economy is struggling, having gone through two recessions in five years. Unemployment is high, inflation is rising and insecurity is mounting.
Obi’s emergence as one of three frontrunners disrupted Nigeria’s traditional two-man presidential contest and gave his supporters, mostly young people, hope of creating a political turnaround in the country.
Many of his followers have refused to recognise the president-elect’s legitimacy, and a new wave of resentment for the political establishment has emerged.
“The election was a sham. I do not accept Tinubu as my president,” Anyim said. “I am in a sort of limbo waiting for what will happen after Obi’s petition.”
Waiting for the courts
Obi and Abubakar have petitioned the court to overturn the results, citing widespread electoral malpractice, voter intimidation and violence.
Indeed observers condemned the conduct of the election, including the European Union mission and a joint mission of the International Republican Institute and National Democratic Institute.
“The Situation Room’s observation and analysis of the 2023 Presidential and National Assembly elections indicates that it fell short of the credibility threshold it set out as the basis for evaluating the elections,” read a statement from a local activist coalition, the Nigeria Civil Society Situation Room.
Tinubu has called on his political opponents to let go of their grievances and start a “process of healing”. His appeal has been dismissed by the opposition.
While they wait for the cases to be heard in court, young voters say they have little faith in the judiciary’s neutrality in the matter.
Nigeria has a long history of disputed polls. Seven governorship elections have been overturned since 1999; the first began with a 2003 petition by Obi.
Elsewhere on the continent, the top courts in Kenya and Malawi nullified presidential elections in 2017 and 2020. But Nigeria’s Supreme Court has never overturned a presidential result.
Exodus and lamentations
Obi’s supporters coalesced into the “Obidient” movement, which launched several volunteer initiatives to rally many people, mostly first-time voters, to turn out on election day.
Even though the Labour Party lost at the presidential level, it won a governorship race and 40 seats in the 469-seat parliament. Political observers called those results a success.
“I think the movement succeeded because this is the first time [in Nigeria] when you have this kind of movement drawing on the energy of young people rallying around a single candidate, and you have that candidate disrupting the two-party system as we have always known it,” Ebenezer Obadare, a senior fellow of Africa studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, told Al Jazeera, “To that extent, it was a success.”
Anyim, who campaigned for Obi on her social media accounts and mobilised fellow supporters at rallies, agreed.
“Now that he [Obi] did not become the president, [the purpose of] the movement has now become much wider for me,” she said. “It now represents to me the possibility that ordinary Nigerians can rise up to uphold good in our political space, and that is how I intend to keep engaging with the movement.”
Still, question marks abound about the future of the movement. Young people already frustrated by high unemployment, rising inflation and escalating insecurity nationwide seem resigned to emigrating abroad in droves.
Among Nigeria’s youth, immigration is increasingly seen as the only option in the search for better economic opportunities. In the past decade, Nigeria has been battling with mass emigration of its skilled workers. According to a 2021 survey by the Africa Polling Institute, seven in 10 Nigerians favour leaving the country.
Since the election, more have been considering the idea of relocating – including Anyim.
“I had not concretely entertained the idea of moving abroad, but in the wake of the election and that the rigging was so bold, it made me hopeless,” she said. “It was the first time I really entertained the idea of leaving.”
Wale Ayinla, a 25-year-old content marketer in Lagos who also voted for Obi, said he has turned down opportunities to leave for the United States twice in the past two years because he hoped for a change in the governance and living standards of Nigeria.
But that hope is petering out. “Some of us are trying to build a life for ourselves here, but now I am plotting [to leave],” he said.
The trend is expected to continue, analysts said.
“Since this [Buhari’s] administration has taken over, we have seen a lot of people japa-ing [the Yoruba word for escape]. … Young Nigerians are willing to vote with their feet,” said Olajumoke Ayandele, a postdoctoral research fellow at New York University’s Centre for the Study of Africa and the African Diaspora.
The court battle and initial policies of the incoming government would be key to halting – or accelerating – emigration levels, she said.
‘Many have given up on this country’
While the court cases are expected to go on for months, attention has turned to the future of the movement.
This year’s presidential election saw the lowest voter turnout in Nigeria’s history. Only 23 percent of the 93 million registered voters showed up to cast ballots. Those who did blame voter suppression and violence across the country for the low figures.
Like many other young Obi supporters who had staked their hopes on his candidacy, Ayinla says he is now disillusioned about the country’s future and fears the movement might not sustain its momentum until the next election cycle.
“I don’t think we can sustain it that long because many of us have already given up on this country,” he said. “I just feel like you have stolen something from us.”
To sustain the passion of the movement until the 2027 presidential vote, it has to adapt, Obadare said.
“The strengths of the Obidient movement are also its weaknesses,” he told Al Jazeera. “What the Obidients fail to recognize are the limitations of social media as a platform and the limitations of the movement because of its profile – young, educated people but demographically limited.”
Anyim’s pre-election optimism is gone, but she still maintains a little hope that the election tribunal hearings, which are expected to go on for the next few months, deliver her wished-for outcome.