Braving stressful waits, red tape and repeated visits, Nigerians are rushing to pick up their voting cards for next month’s presidential election, where three main candidates are vying to replace President Muhammadu Buhari.
Nearly 10 million new voters have been registered for the February 25 ballot, of whom 84 percent are people under age 34 – a key block of ballots. But the Independent National Electoral Commission, known as INEC, also claimed 1.12 million of those new registrations were invalid.
The election in Africa’s most populous country is shaping up to be an exceptional event.
For the first time since the end of military dictatorship in 1999, a third-party candidate is presenting a real challenge to the dominance of the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) and the main opposition People’s Democratic Party (PDP).
With Nigeria struggling with growing insecurity, high living costs and increasing poverty, many young voters say they are keener now to have a say about their future leader.
Over the weekend, crowds gathered at Lagos schools where election officials called out names, checked off lists and handed out a coveted ID, the biometric Permanent Voting Card or PVC.
ome would-be voters were successful, but others were frustrated to be told to come back.
“They told me my PVC is not ready. They have to go back to Abuja,” said Chuks David, a software developer in Lagos’s Surulere area.
“We need to get things right, and that is why I am taking the time and the stress to get my PVC.”
Last week, INEC extended the deadline for PVC collection by eight days. In some states, 100,000 cards were collected in just five days, it said.
Picking up her card in Lagos state’s Alimosho district, first-time voter Gbemisola Akindola said she hadn’t seen the need for change in 2019. But she is determined to have her say this year.
“Right now something is very very clear: that it’s time we transition to the younger generation ruling us. And that’s why, if I don’t do it now, when would I do it?”
Nigeria’s elections in the past have been marred by logistical delays, violence and claims of fraud and vote buying.
In 2019, INEC was forced to postpone the election by a week just hours before voting was scheduled to start because of difficulty getting material to polling stations.
Election officials say 2023’s ballot will be more transparent after the introduction of the electronic transfer of results and a biometric voter identification technology known as BVAS at the voting stations to stop fraud.
“This instilled confidence in our people,” Adenike Tadese, INEC head of voter education in Lagos, told AFP.
“I want to believe that is why our people are trooping out en masse to ensure that they come out to collect this Permanent Voting Card.”
Whoever wins the presidency faces a host of challenges from tackling insecurity across the country to reviving an economy hit hard by the financial fallout from Russia’s war in Ukraine.
Security forces are fighting a 13-year-old war against armed groups in the country’s northeast and bandit militias in the northwest while facing separatist tensions in the country’s southeast.
Gunmen have repeatedly targeted local INEC offices in the southeast, burning voting materials in attacks often blamed on the Indigenous People of Biafra or IPOB separatist movement.
INEC warned earlier this month that the election risked postponement or disruption if security was not tackled. The government says measures are in place to guarantee the vote.
Buhari’s APC has fielded Bola Tinubu, 70, a former governor known as the “Godfather of Lagos” for his political clout, who will benefit from the ruling party’s national network.
PDP’s Atiku Abubakar, 76, is a former vice president and wealthy businessman who is on his sixth bid for the presidency.
Former Anambra state Governor Peter Obi, 61 and a member of the Labour Party, has appealed to younger voters with a message that he is different from his old-guard rivals and wants to bring real change to Nigeria.
Voter turnout is often low in Nigeria – it was just 33 percent in 2019 – and many younger people often say they feel little enthusiasm for candidates.
But two years ago, mass protests over police brutality spiralled into rallies demanding better governance known as the #EndSARS movement, a reference to the SARS police unit that was later disbanded.
Those protests were violently dispersed by security forces, but some of those involved in #EndSARS said the younger generation would be looking to the 2023 ballot box to make their demands.
“It’s important that I play my part, and pick up my PVC,” said Opeoluwa Adekoya, 27, in Surulere district.
“If things don’t work out in Nigeria, yes, the government is to blame, but I have my responsibility.”