Lookman Afolayan sits at a table in his Nigerian restaurant in Clinton Hill, smiling. A New Yorker for more than 22 years, he is considering an important question—Who is going to win the Nigerian presidential election?
“I support all of them,” he said. “I’m a patriotic Nigerian.” Afolayan runs a restaurant after all, and doesn’t want to offend anyone. But he’s betting on the incumbent president, Muhammadu Buhari. “I think he’s going to win. If the vote counts,” he adds, referencing the corruption allegations that regularly dog elections in the country.
Many of New York’s 30,000 Nigerians will be watching closely as their countrymen go to the polls on Saturday, February 16. Incumbent president Buhari is seeking a second term, running against his main competition, the former vice president, Atiku Abubakar.
There is much at stake. Nigeria has suffered a recession under Buhari’s tenure, widely blamed on the global drop in oil prices. Among young people in Africa’s most populous country, 36 per cent have no work. Boko Haram and separatist conflicts continue to fuel insecurity in the country. And both candidates have been smeared with allegations of corruption—Buhari for removing the Chief Justice just days before the upcoming election, and Atiku for revelations during a U.S. Senate investigation into his previous vice presidency, a decade ago.
For Nigerian New Yorkers, corruption allegations are nothing new, and are discussed in tones of both consternation and resignation. “The election is going to be rigged,” said Emmanuel Osime, an architect who has lived in New York for 20 years. But he thinks former Vice President Atiku, who promotes himself as a successful businessman and is known for his immense wealth, stands a fighting chance in spite of this. “Normally there will be no apology, its normal business,” he said, “But the advantage someone like Atiku has is that he has the resources” to fight back against Buhari’s campaign, “and they will think twice before they do any rigging.”
Allegations of corruption around the origin of Atiku’s wealth are a reason why others see him as unfit for the presidency. The U.S. Senate investigation in 2010 found that Atiku and his wife brought $40 million in suspect funds into the U.S. between 2000 and 2008, coinciding with his vice-presidential term. “I’m astounded at Nigerians tendency to forget history,” said Mojubaolu Okome, a professor of political science at Brooklyn College and a New York resident of 38 years. “Given what Atiku is charged with, I do not think anybody should have taken him seriously.”
Yet Nigeria’s faltering economy has run contrary to President Buhari’s inaugural promises of change and a move away from dependence on oil and its volatile price swings. For Okome, the appeal of Atiku to ordinary Nigerians is in part due to Buhari’s failure to answer his critics on these issues. “They’re feeling the pain, they’re blaming it on Buhari,” she said. “And the Buhari administration has been inept in terms of working, over the last four years, to capture the Nigerian imagination. To have a narrative, a convincing narrative, of what’s going on and why.”
For Afolayan, the future lies outside the promises of the two frontrunners. Another presidential hopeful, Omoyele Sowore, is running on a promise to be the “People’s Advocate,” and is the founder of a Manhattan-based Nigerian news site, Sahara Reporters. He’s sought support from the Nigerian diaspora in the U.S. and Afoyalan says he donated, though he is unwilling to disclose how much. “Whether he wins the election, or he doesn’t win, he’s going to be the winner in the sense that he’s awakened the idea of politics to Nigerian youth,” says Afoyalan.
Age is a reliable topic of discussion in elections in Nigeria, where half of the population is under 30 while its leaders are septuagenarians. A law introduced in 2018 reduced the age required to run for office, resulting in some younger candidates in state and presidential primaries, and Afolayan believes Sowore’s run will inspire more—he’s 47, young by Nigerian political standards. “When we were growing up, it didn’t cross your mind, ‘Can I be governor of this state?’” he said. “Most of us say, ‘I want to be a businessman, I want to be an importer, I want to be an exporter.’ But because of what this man did the youth are revolutionized, the youth are going focus on the election.”
Whatever their thoughts on the contest, New York’s Nigerians are largely limited to lively discussion: Nigerian nationals living abroad are still not able to vote from outside the country. This is in spite of the contribution Nigerians in the diaspora make to the economy—last year, they sent home $5 billion from the U.S., according to the Pew Research Center.
And much of the diaspora would like to vote. “We care about our country so we want to contribute,” said Osime, the architect. But he also expressed concerns over the fidelity of a long-distance process. “They’ve told us several times—‘it’s not possible for now’—and I believe in that, because the elections are rigged. And so a box of voters cards? Don’t you think they’ll fill it with one party’s vote?”