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What's at stake as Nigerians elect the president of Africa's largest democracy

Supporters of Nigeria's Labour Party attend a rally at Adamasingba Stadium in Ibadan, southwestern Nigeria, on Nov. 23, 2022. Nigerians go to the polls on Saturday to choose their next president.
Pius Utomi Ekpei
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AFP via Getty Images
Supporters of Nigeria's Labour Party attend a rally at Adamasingba Stadium in Ibadan, southwestern Nigeria, on Nov. 23, 2022. Nigerians go to the polls on Saturday to choose their next president.

LAGOS, Nigeria — Millions of Nigerians head to the polls on Saturday, in one of the most consequential elections there in decades.

It is also one of the most unpredictable polls in recent memory, coming at a pivotal moment for Nigeria.

Here are some of the key issues at play.

What's at stake?

The last eight years have been particularly bleak for many in Africa's most populous country, estimated at more than 200 million people. Nearly all of the country's challenges, including the economy and security, have evolved into deeper crises.

Two-thirds of the population now live in poverty and almost half of young people are unemployed, with millions of job losses since outgoing President Muhammadu Buhari's government took office in 2015. The value of Nigeria's currency, the naira, has tanked while inflation has soared and oil production dropped to a 40-year low.

Violent insecurity and terrorism, which existed in some parts of the country, have proliferated across swaths of it — reshaping everyday life in profound ways. There are continuous threats from terrorists and Islamist groups in the north and central regions of Nigeria, and from secessionist groups in the southeast. The number of kidnapping attacks around the country has soared, rising as the economy has worsened.

Frustrated Nigerians line up at an ATM in Lagos, trying to withdraw scarce new niara notes.
/ Emebirodo Ugochukwu for NPR
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Emebirodo Ugochukwu for NPR
Frustrated Nigerians line up at an ATM in Lagos, trying to withdraw scarce new niara notes.

Bleak prospects for a young population with a median age of under 19 have spurred a "japa" wave — rising numbers seeking to leave the country in search of a better life.

All of the major candidates, even for the ruling party, agree that some form of change is urgent.

The United Nations estimates that the population of Nigeria, currently the sixth-largest in the world, could grow to be tied with the United States as the third biggest by 2050. Whether the country moves forward or regresses, its future will be consequential around the world.

Who is running?

There are 18 candidates — with only one woman — but three of them matter most. The front-runners are two older figures who have dominated politics for a generation, and then a slightly younger candidate who has blown open the race, threatening to pull off a major upset.

President Buhari is wrapping up his second term and cannot run again.

The All Progressives Congress party's presidential candidate, Bola Ahmed Tinubu, attends a party event in Abuja on July 20, 2022.
/ Kola Sulaimon/AFP via Getty Images
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Kola Sulaimon/AFP via Getty Images
The All Progressives Congress party's presidential candidate, Bola Ahmed Tinubu, attends a party event in Abuja on July 20, 2022.

Seventy-year-old Bola Ahmed Tinubu, a former governor of Lagos state and one of the most powerful politicians in Nigeria is running for the All Progressives Congress (APC), Buhari's governing party. He's Muslim from the majority Yoruba southwest and is a hugely divisive figure.

To his supporters, he has been a shrewd politician since he was first elected governor in 1999, credited with helping turn Lagos into one of the biggest economies in Africa. And he's hailed as a power broker, instrumental in helping President Buhari come to power, and now believes it's his moment.

But to his detractors, he's a corrupting figure, wielding outsize control over politics in Lagos and the southwest, and dogged by questions over his age, health and the source of his vast wealth. In 1992, the U.S. government accused him in a lawsuit of laundering proceeds from heroin trafficking, and he eventually reached a settlement.

Presidential candidate Atiku Abubakar speaks during a primary election event in Lagos, Nigeria, on Dec. 11, 2014.
/ Pius Utomi Ekpei/AFP via Getty Images
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Pius Utomi Ekpei/AFP via Getty Images
Presidential candidate Atiku Abubakar speaks during a primary election event in Lagos, Nigeria, on Dec. 11, 2014.

Seventy-six-year-old Atiku Abubakar, a wealthy businessman and former vice president, is a serial presidential candidate. He has run and failed in four previous elections, and is now campaigning for a fifth and possibly final time for the People's Democratic Party (PDP). He is also Muslim but from the northeast, and has pitched a message of uniting Nigeria's divisions and making the economy productive and the country safer.

Yet he has also faced challenges. His candidacy has caused splits in his party, whose presidential candidates usually alternate between northern and southern Nigeria. This time it was expected to be a southerner. He's also faced multiple corruption allegations in the U.S. In 2010, Senate investigators alleged one of his four wives helped him transfer more than $40 million in "suspect funds" into the U.S. from offshore corporations. Some of the money was alleged to be bribes paid by German company Siemens AG, which pleaded guilty to bribery charges. Atiku has consistently denied any wrongdoing.

And Peter Obi, 61 years old, a wealthy businessman and former governor of the southeastern Anambra state, has attracted a stunning wave of support, largely among younger voters. This has destabilized Nigerian politics and riled the political class. He has been cast as an anti-establishment candidate, despite emerging from the political establishment, and his campaign has tapped into a wide sense of dismay with the ruling class. His image as a humane, approachable figure, with relatively few allegations of corruption, has set him apart.

A grassroots movement of Obi's followers, who call themselves "Obidients," has lit up the election campaign. Many young people, whose political awakening was the major "End SARS" protests in 2020 against police brutality, are backing him and voting for the first time. Most polls predict he will win, but he's still an underdog to defeat two larger and wealthier political parties, who are more established across the entire country.

Could the race go to a second round?

It's possible the election could go to a runoff vote — for the first time in Nigerian history. To win an election outright, a candidate has to win the most votes, with at least 25% in at least 24 of Nigeria's 36 states. All of the candidates have strong support in some regions but face an uphill task in others. The fact that the race will likely come down to three main candidates adds to the possibility of a runoff.

Could the elections be delayed?

It's possible, so don't rule out a late postponement. Both of the last two elections were postponed. In 2019, this was announced just hours before polls opened, with officials citing insecurity in parts of the country. Violence appears to be a bigger challenge now in some parts of the country, particularly in the southeast, where armed groups have stepped up attacks targeting police and election material.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Emmanuel Akinwotu
Emmanuel Akinwotu is an international correspondent for NPR. He joined NPR in 2022 from The Guardian, where he was West Africa correspondent.