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Will this election cycle be the last outing of old politicians?

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In a grainy black-and-white photograph, two young Nigerian Army officers play draughts, their faces a study in concentration. Behind them, another man looks on.

This election cycle will be the last outing of old politicians

The old image is said to have been taken before Olusegun Obasanjo, Ibrahim Babangida and Sani Abacha came to public prominence some 50 years ago.

Under one version shared online, a caption reads: “The game started a long time ago.” Decades later, the same men and their generation remain key political players.

But there are indications the game is nearing an end, as voters go to the polls in Africa’s most populous nation to elect a new president and parliament next month.

Nigeria is changing and with some 60 percent of its more than 180 million people aged under 30, pressure is building for political leaders to be more representative.

This year’s election, on February 16, will be the first involving voters who did not live under military rule. With a younger electorate, the “gerontocrats” are looking increasingly out of place.

A grassroots movement has already succeeded in lowering the minimum age for political office and most of the candidates running for the country’s top job are in their 40s and 50s.

“This election cycle will be the last outing of old politicians,” one political analyst told AFP. “2019 is the last time for this generation of leaders.”

– Power and patronage –

At 76 and 72, the two leading candidates in the election — President Muhammadu Buhari and Atiku Abubakar — are the oldest in the field.

Buhari, of the All Progressives Congress (APC) party, was military ruler from 1983 to 1985. Since Nigeria returned to civilian rule in 1999, he has run for president four times.

Abubakar, from the main opposition Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), is a wealthy businessman and former vice-president, and another perennial presidential candidate.

They have been part of the political game for decades, just like their contemporaries.

Uyo rally signposts Buhari’s fading magic- PDP

One of the players — Obasanjo — headed a military government from 1976 to 1979. Like Buhari, he went on to become a civilian president.

The other — Babangida — ousted Buhari in a coup in 1985 and ruled until 1993. Abacha, the man looking on, took over after aborted elections that year until his death in 1998.

In Nigeria, the old generals don’t fade away. They become powerful political godfathers, sought out by would-be leaders for their blessing and support, and to legitimise their candidacy.

In a hierarchical society, where elders are revered, there is no clearer sign of the patronage needed to succeed than the approval of the country’s “ogas (big men) at the top”.

– Yesterday’s men? –

As such, Obasanjo’s backing for Buhari in 2015 was seen as a contributory factor to his victory over the incumbent, Goodluck Jonathan.

This time round, he is engaged in a war of words with his former army colleague. Both he and Babangida have called on Buhari to step down.

Obasanjo has switched allegiance — albeit begrudgingly — to Abubakar, his former deputy, ending years of enmity after the latter’s refusal to endorse him for a third term.

But both Buhari and Abubakar’s standing took a knock last weekend when they failed to turn up for a live televised debate.

Those watching — and their opponents — said they weren’t surprised, and the veterans were only able to mount personal attacks rather than debate detailed plans of public policy.

“The future is here,” said Fela Durotoye, a 47-year-old entrepreneur and motivational speaker standing for the Alliance for New Nigeria party.

Kingsley Moghalu, 56, a former central bank deputy governor representing the Young Progressives Party, called them part of the “old school… with a sense of entitlement but not a record of performance.”

– ‘Promising future’ –

Uyo rally signposts Buhari’s fading magic- PDP

Abubakar Sadiq, a political scientist at Ahmadu Bello University in the northern city of Zaria, said the new breed of politicians had “brighter ideas” and online appeal.

There are indications the APC and PDP have acknowledged politics is now a game for younger, more energetic candidates.

Buhari’s deputy, Yemi Osinbajo, is 61 while Abubakar’s running mate, Peter Obi, is 57. They are also technocrats who are seen as having a firmer grasp on economics and policy.

Whoever wins, the vice-president will likely be more important and more visible than ever before.

The wily elders, with their wealth, experience and a lifetime of political and business connections, retain the upper hand — for now.

“They (the younger candidates) don’t have the resources and reach to win the presidential election,” said Sadiq.

Dapo Thomas, a history and politics lecturer at Lagos State University, agreed but expected the full impact of the generational shift to be seen from the next election in 2023.

The young pretenders can use the “momentum attained to build a promising future”, he added.

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