Facing stressful waits, red tape and repeat visits, Nigerians are rushing to collect their ballot cards for next month’s presidential election, where three leading candidates are vying to replace President Muhammadu Buhari.
Nearly 10 million new voters have registered for the February 25 ballot, of whom 84 percent are people under the age of 34, a key block of ballots. But the Independent National Electoral Commission, known as INEC, also claimed that 1.12 million of those new registrations were invalid.
The elections in the most populous country in Africa are shaping up to be an exceptional event.
For the first time since the end of the 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 costs of living and rising poverty, many young voters say they are now more eager to have a say in their future leader.
Over the weekend, crowds gathered at Lagos schools where election officials shouted names, marked off lists and handed out a coveted ID, the biometric Permanent Voting Card, or PVC.
Some would-be voters were successful, but others were frustrated when told to turn back.
“They told me that my PVC is not ready. They have to go back to Abuja,” said Chuks David, a software developer in the Surulere area of Lagos.
“We need to get things right, and that is why I am taking the time and stress to get my PVC.”
Last week, the INEC extended the period for collecting PVC by eight days. In some states, 100,000 cards were collected in just five days, he said.
Picking up her card in the Alimosho district of Lagos state, first-time voter Gbemisola Akindola said she had not seen the need for change in 2019. But she is determined to speak up this year.
“Right now, one thing is crystal clear: It is time for us to transition to the younger generation ruling us. And so, if I don’t do it now, when will I do it?”
Nigerian elections in the past have been marred by logistical delays, violence, and allegations of fraud and vote buying.
In 2019, INEC was forced to postpone the election for a week, just a few hours before voting was due to start due to the difficulty in getting the material to the polling stations.
Election officials say the 2023 ballot will be more transparent after the introduction of electronic results transfer and a biometric voter identification technology known as BVAS at polling stations to stop fraud.
“This instilled confidence in our people,” Adenike Tadese, head of voter education at INEC in Lagos, told AFP.
“I want to believe that’s why our people are coming out in droves to make sure they come out to pick up this Permanent Voting Card.”
Whoever wins the presidency faces an array 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 waging a 13-year 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 attacked INEC’s local offices in the south-east, burning voting materials in attacks often attributed to the Indigenous Peoples of Biafra or the IPOB separatist movement.
INEC warned earlier this month that the elections risked being postponed or disrupted if security was not addressed. The government says that there are measures to guarantee the vote.
Buhari’s APC has sent Bola Tinubu, 70, a former governor known as the “Godfather of Lagos” for his political influence, who will benefit from the ruling party’s national network.
Atiku Abubakar, 76, of the PDP, is a former vice president and wealthy businessman who is on his sixth run for president.
Former Anambra State Governor Peter Obi, 61, a member of the Labor Party, appealed to younger voters with the message that he is different from his old-guard rivals and wants to bring real change to Nigeria.
Voter turnout is typically low in Nigeria (it was just 33% in 2019) and many young people often say they have little enthusiasm for the candidates.
But two years ago, mass protests over police brutality turned 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 look to the 2023 ballot box to make their demands.
“It is important that I do my part and collect 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.”