By Matthew Ayibakuro
Last week, Zambians elected a new President in a historic vote. Opposition leader Hakainde Hichilema won by a landslide against the incumbent, Edgar Lungu, who was seeking a second term. The margin was a massive 2.8 million to 1.8 million votes. Voter turnout at the polls was also at a historic high level at 70 percent; the highest since the country held its first multiparty elections in 1991.
Arguably the most important headline from the elections, however, was the participation of young people. This was an election where, as the BBC put it, “young voters held the cards”. With over half of the country’s seven million registered voters being under the age of 35, there are no extra points for guessing the significance of the role of young people in the outcome of the election.
I was, however, interested in understanding what informed the central role of the youth vote in Zambia, and what lessons could be drawn for Nigeria? It is, of course, not possible to attribute the outcome of an election to just one particular factor, but as I spoke with Chisala, my friend from Zambia, there were clear indications and parallels for Nigeria.
Firstly, the data showed that this election was held against the backdrop of enormous economic challenges. Zambia plunged into recession last year from the effect of the COVID-19 pandemic. Unemployment had risen to 12.17 percent in 2020, meaning that one in five youth in the country were without jobs. There is high inflation with a resultant rapid increase in the cost of living. The country’s rising debt burden – mainly used to finance infrastructure projects – also meant that it became the first African country to default on a loan during the pandemic.
Despite Zambia being a relatively small country in terms of population compared to Nigeria, one could easily substitute the name Zambia for Nigeria and change the figures for most of those indicators without noticing a difference in the economic trends highlighted above. In some cases, they are actually worse for Nigeria.
So young people came out en masse and voted for a President with a sound economic background who provided them the best chance of addressing the massive economic challenges that the country faces. It was, however, not just the problems, but rather the determination to take action to bring about a democratic solution to these problems that led to the historic youth-led vote in Zambia.
Some of these actions include the high number of young people that registered to vote at the polls, the massive turnout at the polls as highlighted above, the use of social media to mobilise, despite attempts by the government to restrict same, especially on election day and a simple determination to engender change that would have practical impact on their lives.
As youth across Nigeria struggle to keep alive the spirit and generational drive for change that underpinned the EndSARS movement of 2020, the question of the impact that youth action and participation would have on the 2023 general elections remain up in the air. One thing is clear though – every well-meaning and conscious Nigerian youth must be jealous of the feat of our Zambian counterparts. The question is if we are ready to go beyond the distant admiration and sense of hope we feel reading the news from Zambia and decide to take action.
What constitutes action in this context is obvious – (a) Participate in INEC’s ongoing Continous Voter Registration exercise by registering to vote; (b) Register as members of political parties and/or create/join movements that would mobilise around issues of interest to young people and campaign in the build up to the elections; (c) Avoid being caught up in the regional and ethinic divides and debates that have inhibited young people across the country from collectively mobilising for change – focus on issues; (d) Support and mobllise for a candidate that can address Nigeria’s socio-economic challenges; and finally, (e) Come out on the day of elections and vote.
Some persons believe that the EndSARS movement came along too soon and would have been more impactful if it took place closer to the 2023 polls. Others would point to myriad issues that would prevent young people in Nigeria from mobilising collectively across the country to bring about democratic change. These are all good points, but the EndSARS movement also demonstrated the ability of young people to mobilise above and beyond all these issues. And whilst it may seem like much of the movement has fizzled out, our counterparts in Zambia provide a timely and much-needed inspiration to go one step further and engender the change that young people in Nigeria need and deserve.
So, over to you.
Matthew Ayibakuro (Governance Expert)