At 76 and 72, the two main candidates running for the February presidential elections in Nigeria do not really reflect their electorate: 60% of the population is under 30 years of age and the median age of the giant of 180 million inhabitants is 18 years.
This election campaign, which still brings together the same figures who have dominated Nigeria’s politics since independence, could, however, be the last for President Muhammadu Buhari and his main rival, Atiku Abubakar, and mark the end of the game for the old guard of Nigeria’s politics.
On a black and white photo, found about ten years ago and widely shared since then on social networks, two young army officers play checkers.
Two of their comrades, in retreat, look at the pawns and seem to think about a strategy to win the game.
They are former military leaders of the country, Olusengun Obasanjo, Ibrahim Babangida, Ty Danjuma and Sani Abacha. The same, or almost the same, are always at the forefront of the political scene or behind the scenes.
An Internet user added this legend: “The (power) game started a long time ago.”
Some 85 million voters are due to vote on 16 February and although there are more than 70 candidates, the real battle is between the current president, Muhammadu Buhari, who was also in power in 1983 during the military dictatorships, and Atiku Abubakar, Obasanjo’s vice president between 1999 and 2007.
Both are former Nigerian politicians, but above all, they have the support of the “godparents”, their “ogas”, as they are called in Nigeria.
Obasanjo, at the age of 81, has chosen his former vice-president despite past resentments, and regularly speaks out against Buhari, denouncing his “incompetence” and his “dictatorial” abuses.
Ranked among the richest in Nigeria, in power during a military regime from 1976 to 1979 and the first president of the democratic era, he continues to have a very heavy influence on the political scene.
Similarly, Ibrahim Babangida, 77, who overthrew Muhammadu Buhari in the 1980s and whose military dictatorship (1985-1993) left few good memories for Nigerians, is still pulling the strings of the country thanks to his immense wealth.
He was suspected of laundering $12 billion during the Gulf War, but like “all the incredibly rich and influential Nigerians, he travels as a free man today,” says Forbes magazine.
“IBB” even appeared alongside one of the presidential candidates, Oby Ezekwesili, at her first meeting. Ezekwesili has since withdrawn from the race.
Sani Abacha, the bloody dictator who ruled the country from 1993 to 1998, died, but Obasanjo, Babangida or Danjuma, 79, a former general and Minister of Defence, have become political godparents, who soften or dismiss candidates, choose political ascents, falls or appointments.
“When are these elders going to leave,” asks Saadatu Falila Hamu, a 28-year-old anti-corruption lawyer based in Abuja. “We need young leaders who understand the world of the 21st century.”
This is the first time that Nigerians who have not experienced military dictatorships and were born after the democratic transition (1999) will vote.
“This is where our future is being prepared,” said Fela Durotoye, 47, one of the campaign’s outsider candidates (Alliance for a New Nigeria), during a presidential debate in mid-January.
Neither Buhari nor Atiku Abubakar participated, leaving the field open for the smaller candidates. Rarely since the beginning of the campaign, the discussion has focused more on ideas and programs than on patronage networks.
“Younger candidates do not have the resources to win an election,” says Abubakar Sadiq, a Nigerian political scientist at Ahmadu Bello University in Zaria (north).
In Nigeria, plagued by extreme poverty, corruption and the negligence of its leaders, politics is largely determined by the support and millions of dollars that candidates can invest in a campaign.
Yet the next generation has “better ideas” to lead the country, Sadiq says.
The two main candidates have chosen younger, technocratic, popular vice-presidents.
Peter Obi, 57, (for the Abubakar People’s Democratic Party) and Yemi Osinbajo, 61, (for the Congress of Progressives, in power) should play an important role during the next mandate, given the great age of the next head of state, whoever he may be.
The election will surely be a turning point in Nigeria’s political life, the last step in their ascent to power in 2023.