Who would want to be president of Nigeria? Well, once upon a time, me. When I was 19, I set out my manifesto on the BBC Africa website. Some of my campaign promises included quality education, constant electricity and running water for all. I planned to use my honest smile as my most efficient tool to win votes and secure the presidency.
By 21 I’d set my sights a little lower. After some research, I discovered that local government was the most effective place to implement real change. So I decided that by 30 I was going to be a local government chair in Lagos, my home state. I would be in charge of primary education, waste management and primary healthcare for over a million people. Two years from my deadline, I am still ensconced in the suburbs of London with not a campaign flyer in sight.
What happened to my grand plans? Well, like a good African immigrant, I got a first degree, then a second and a third, and now teach at a university. I also wrote two novels. Writing, in fact, is my real job but my family still think I do it on the side.
It’s not that I forgot Nigeria. It’s just that the road to local government office seemed longer and more full of potholes every time I switched on the news.
“Only corrupt people go into politics. Are you willing to carry bags of money for a politician?” a family member asked. I most certainly was not. I don’t have the upper arm strength.
“Politics in Nigeria is not for women. It’s too rough and it’s bad for your skin,” an aunt cautioned me. I’d considered the roughness of politics in Nigeria. I’d already booked kickboxing classes after I watched videos of our legislators throwing punches at each other; but I’d completely failed to account for the effect political ambitions might have on my epidermis.
So I took up other less acne-inducing pursuits and let my dreams languish. That is until Nigeria’s February 2019 elections drew near and a new crop of candidates began to emerge.
The first unlikely candidate to catch my attention was a man called Fela Durotoye. He was a well-known motivational speaker who had never held a government position in his life. He spoke passionately, as one would expect of a man of his profession. He was in his 40s and didn’t look likely to disappear to Europe for months of medical treatment. When asked about his lack of experience, Durotoye made the point that a broken system can’t be fixed by the people within.
Others who emerged were Oby Ezekwesili, a former education minister, who champions the Bring Back Our Girls movement in Nigeria; and Kingsley Moghalu, an economist and former director of the Central Bank of Nigeria.
None of them had ever held elected office. They were not part of the brigade of recycled ex-dictators and career politicians who usually dominate the news when elections roll around in Nigeria. For the first time, the media was seriously engaging with candidates outside the two largest political parties, the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) and the All Progressives Congress (APC).
“Do you think any of them can win?” I asked an older friend.
“Never. You don’t win elections online.”
It was a good point. While Durotoye may have more Instagram followers than President Buhari, would people outside urban centres like Lagos, Abuja and Port Harcourt even know who he was? The people who never went on Instagram and who’d never seen his hashtag #NewNigeria.
Already, some of the new faces are dropping out of the race. Ezekwesili, who I believe will one day make a great president, has stepped down this time. There are rumours of a merger between Moghalu and Durotoye’s political parties, which means that one of them would also bow out.
And yet, even if none of these new candidates become president this year, they have given Nigerians a glimpse of what might be possible in our political future. It is possible to have a president who has not plotted a coup. It is possible to have a president who doesn’t have corruption allegations hovering around his administration, like flies around a corpse. It is possible to have a president who doesn’t make Nigerians duck with shame once he opens his mouth and reveals his lack of ideas.
A cousin of mine, the most politically apathetic person I know, sent me a video of Durotoye and asked, “Who is this guy? Can he win?” If he, and the other new candidates, can spark hope in someone who has long since washed their hands of the Nigerian political process, then who knows? Perhaps a new Nigeria is coming. There are many in the old guard who had better start packing.