One is a former UN official and deputy a governor of Nigeria’s central bank. The other is an ex-World Bank vice president who now campaigns for the release of Boko Haram kidnap victims.
Kingsley Moghalu and Oby Ezekwesili are both standing to become Nigeria’s president next year, adding a high-profile layer of interest to what is normally a two-horse race.
Ordinarily, their parties – the Young Progressives Party (YPP) and the Allied Congress Party of Nigeria (ACPN) – would not be viewed as a major threat to the political establishment.
Between now and February, most of the focus will be on President Muhammadu Buhari, who is seeking a second term, and his main challenger, former vice-president Atiku Abubakar.
But Moghalu and Ezekwesili are hoping to win support by appealing to what they say is a marginalised and increasingly frustrated constituency – the burgeoning young population.
An optimistic Moghalu even points to recent history for an “upset victory” for a non-mainstream candidate in Africa’s most populous nation and leading oil producer.
“It happened with Trump. It happened with Macron,” he told AFP in an interview, referring to victories of the US and French presidents in 2016 and 2017.
“All the pundits predicted (Hillary) Clinton to win and Trump would lose, even up to the election night,” he added. “So, beware of the underestimated and conventional wisdom.”
‘Politics of the people’
Ezekwesili has in recent years become the public face of the #BringBackOurGirls movement set up after Boko Haram’s kidnapping of more than 200 schoolgirls from Chibok in 2014.
Neither she nor Moghalu, both aged 55, belongs to the nearly 60 percent of more than 180 million Nigerians who are under 30.
But in Nigerian political terms that still makes them young pretenders in the election contest.
Buhari, of the All Progressives Congress (APC) is 75, while Atiku, from the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), is 71.
Both have been features on Nigeria’s political landscape for decades, even before Nigeria returned to civilian rule in 1999.
The president is a former army general who headed a military government in the 1980s while Atiku was a long-time head of the customs service before becoming vice-president.
Tapping a younger demographic can be seen as a canny move, with Nigeria expected to become the world’s third most populous nation by 2050, and with high levels of youth unemployment.
With economic growth slow, security worsening and poverty increasing, Moghalu and Ezekwesili said the two mainstream parties had failed in terms of leadership in the last 19 years.
Ezekwesili said in her acceptance speech last weekend the main parties and the lawmakers who repeatedly switch sides were “an evil ruling class”, and it was now time to put citizens first.
Moghalu equally talks of “politics of the people leading the way rather than political fatcats directing outcomes in smoke-filled rooms” purely out of self-interest.
“I don’t believe the PDP winning solves Nigeria’s problems. It just recycles Nigeria’s problems for another four years with another set of actors,” he said.
Innovation and education
Nigerian politics is characterised by personalities and patronage, with little to separate the main parties beyond generalities of policy.
Moghalu and Ezekwesili are pushing their backgrounds and decades of international and domestic experience as technocrats in both the private and public sectors.
Both have pledged a more representative government in terms of gender, age and region, to break the stranglehold of narrow, identity politics and crony capitalism.
Notably, the pair have earmarked innovation as a way to boost Nigeria’s stuttering economy, which is slowly emerging from recession caused by the slump in global oil prices.
Moghalu pledged to set up a one-trillion-naira ($2.75 billion) venture capital fund to help young entrepreneurs and SMEs develop and market their products.
In doing so, he hopes to widen the country’s manufacturing base from the bottom up rather than having to rely on foreign investment.
Ezekwesili, a former education minister under Olusegun Obasanjo and a co-founder of Transparency International, said she will push “the miracle of new, smart and disruptive technologies… to accelerate our productivity and global competitiveness”.
“Under my watch, education will be the economy: education will be the new oil,” she added.
Whether there is an “upset victory” or not, greater engagement of young Nigerians in politics will likely be seen as another step forward in the country’s democratic development.
Buhari’s 2015 victory was a first for an opposition candidate in the country’s history. “Nigerians are beginning to realise their democratic power,” said Moghalu.
Next year could see a “generational shift”, he added.