Supporters of Nigerian presidential candidate Atiku Abubakar, of the People’s Democratic Party, attend an election campaign rally at the Tafawa Balewa Square, in Lagos, Nigeria, Tuesday, Feb. 12, 2019. Nigeria goes to the polls on Saturday to elect a new president. (Sunday Alamba/Associated Press)

ABUJA, Nigeria — Halima Usman is part of a booming new generation in Nigeria, voting for the first time in a presidential election Saturday after being raised during the country’s two decades of civilian rule.

A majority of eligible voters in Africa’s most populous nation are now 35 or younger, a demographic that will help double the continent’s population by 2050.

Yet the 23-year-old Usman is visibly frustrated. She and other young voters across Africa chafe under leadership that is two, three, even four times their age. President Muhammadu Buhari, 76, has spent months of his term overseas for medical treatment. His top challenger, Atiku Abubakar, is 72. Between them, they have run for president nine times.

“Buhari and Atiku are older than Nigeria itself,” Usman told The Associated Press, with zero irony: The candidates were born more than a decade before Nigeria’s independence in 1960. “These old people, they don’t want to leave these possibilities for us.”

Now a movement is making room for youthful voters like Usman in Nigeria’s rough-fisted electoral process, where so-called godfathers in major parties often dictate who runs with maximum payoffs in mind. Meanwhile, Africa’s largest economy limps along on crumbling infrastructure as money is drained away by graft.

“Old, recycled politicians,” sniffed presidential candidate Kingsley Moghalu, a former Central Bank of Nigeria official who, at 56, is young enough to pitch himself to the rising generation. He has been endorsed by Nobel laureate and playwright Wole Soyinka, who dismisses Buhari and Abubakar as “worthy of absolute rejection.”

At a nationally televised town hall, Moghalu laid out the grim landscape for young Nigerians. Youth unemployment at 54 percent, nearly double the overall rate. Three million people entering the job market each year. A three-month strike, now suspended, by university academics that he called “a national tragedy.”

This political shift toward wooing Nigeria’s youth began in May when Buhari signed a bill lowering the ages of candidates for president, governorships and lawmakers. Now a 35-year-old can run for president instead of waiting another half-decade. It has opened the doors to several presidential candidates under 40, though a few have withdrawn. More than 70 candidates are chasing the presidency in all.

The bill followed a nearly 10-year push by a movement calling itself Not Too Young to Run, which has inspired a global campaign by the United Nations.

“This is the youngest continent in the world,” executive director Samson Itodo told the AP. “When you look at democracy, it’s about the majority. You cannot continue to exclude your largest bloc in decision-making. Young people are angry. We are fed up with this ruling elite who do not care about the people.”

Some National Assembly lawmakers, trying to protect the status quo, made a last-minute effort to persuade colleagues to vote against the bill, he said. The youth movement, fueled by social media, quickly turned old school, printing fliers overnight explaining its benefits. By the time the bill passed, lawmakers were jostling to take selfies with the fliers to show young constituents back home, Itodo said.

The victory followed what researchers have called a breakdown in the social contract between generations. Youth in Nigeria once avoided criticizing their elders, who guided them in life, but that older generation increasingly is seen as not fulfilling its role.

“In the next couple of years, if Nigeria is not able to deal with this, we are going to be in a long-lasting conflict which of course will be built on existing fault lines,” warned Idayat Hassan, director of the Center for Democracy and Development in Abuja. Youth gangs, once associated with universities as violent campus mafias, have moved into the streets, she said.

“There cannot be peace in the country unless we’re able to ... actively engage with youth,” Hassan said.

Itodo, of Not Too Young to Run, pointed to signs of progress, including at least 14 million young voters registered since 2017. “Nigerian youths! There is no polling unit on social media,” wrote the movement this week, reminding young voters that they cannot vote online but must go to actual polling stations.

And on Sunday, Nigerians watched an extraordinary televised debate featuring five of the youngest presidential candidates, all 40 or under. They pitched a Nigeria with 24-hour working electricity, good education and elected officials with a “true, selfless plan” for the people.

Those are soaring ideals in a country where children herd cattle along the capital’s highways, hawk in roadside markets and beg, and where government buildings in the capital, Abuja, a city built in the 1980s, are already rotting away.

The young candidates, though polished and enthusiastic, remain the longest of shots in Nigeria, where millions of dollars are needed for a serious presidential run.

“I put in almost $1 million of my own resources,” 38-year-old candidate Emmanuel Etim said Wednesday after joining Buhari and other contenders in signing a pledge to pursue a peaceful election.

Etim was skeptical of Buhari’s seeming embrace of Not Too Young to Run, saying the president had made no effort to engage with young challengers on a “neutral platform,” offering access only to those who step aside and endorse him.

Then again, Wednesday’s event went far better than a similar one in December, Etim said.

At that time, Buhari “was shocked that a young person was even in the race,” he said. “He literally giggled at me.”

Now, Etim added, “I think he’s taking us more seriously.”

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