In any discussion about the 2019 elections, the “average Nigerian” is likely to make an appearance. Everyone is quick to make claims about what the average Nigerian know, believes, or cares about. And crucially, how they will vote.
How valid are such statements? Well, the word “average” is a misnomer as it stands for very different things—mean, mode, median, etc. Imagine trying to find the mean of a standard human feature: our nose. Most humans have one nose, but since as few as 100 people are born without one, then the average human technically has only a fraction of a nose. And other ways of calculating the average—median, mean—fall prey to their faults.
The Common Man
When we talk about the typical Nigerian, we usually mean someone who possesses the most commonly found characteristics in the country, whether in terms of demographics such as age or gender or reference to the mindset of most Nigerians. And in the context of elections, we are generally not talking about children under 18 who cannot vote, but who make up about 50% of the population.
Going by this definition, the average Nigerian is a young man, since about 51% of Nigerians are male and 18 to 35 year-olds make up the bulk of the country's adult population. Contrary to popular opinion, the average Nigerian is literate, with at least some secondary schooling. And although people often worry that most Nigerians are not politically engaged, this is not necessarily the case: the average Nigerian is registered to vote in the upcoming elections and discusses politics at least occasionally. However, political action beyond elections appears to be limited; most Nigerians say they would never attend a demonstration or protest and have never contacted government officials about issues they face.
So, given what we know about the average Nigerian, which party will dominate the elections. Well, party loyalty may not be decisive as many Nigerians do not feel close to any political party. Meanwhile, President Buhari’s approval ratings are at 40%, lower than Goodluck Jonathan’s in the lead-up to the 2015 elections.
The answer is unclear, but the indicators point to a close race.
Not Everyone is Like You
Even if understanding the average Nigerian cannot help us predict the results of the upcoming elections, it is useful in other areas. For one thing, it could help us overcome a false consensus bias, the tendency to believe that most people are like us, discouraging us from considering viewpoints and experiences outside ours.
For example, while the average Lagosian is employed in wholesale and retail trade, most Nigerians work in agriculture. And although most people in Lagos get news on social media, the average Nigerian does not use the internet at all. Therefore, we need to remember that the person we are talking to on social media is not the average Nigerian. Food price support and agricultural policy may be niche topics online, but they matter to a large portion of the population.
Leaders who look like us
Understanding the average Nigerian also helps us to gauge representation in government. For example, the Not too Young to Run movement argues that the country's current political landscape should reflect our demographic reality. Young people make up more than half the population but until recently, could not run for most executive and parliamentary positions.
Now that age limits have been lowered; we could start seeing younger officeholders. But change may not be as drastic as one would expect; even among young people, most Nigerians would prefer a middle-aged president.
Representation gaps are just as severe when it comes to gender. Although 49% of Nigerians are female, women are still severely underrepresented in politics and senior bureaucratic positions.
This could be due to a divergence in beliefs: Nigerian men are more likely to believe that political leaders should be male, while most women believe in equal opportunities for women in politics. Since the gatekeepers of Nigerian politics have historically been male, then the former’s belief appears to have held sway.
Beyond the Average
Nonetheless, any notion of the average Nigerian has severe limitations. Firstly, gaps in political representation highlight an essential reason for policymaking to go beyond the majority. A government that caters to the needs of the average citizen is only doing the bare minimum; good leaders should aim to make life better for all Nigerians.
Last month, the Discrimination against Persons with Disabilities (Prohibition) Act was finally signed into law after languishing in the National Assembly for 18 years. Perhaps the lack of urgency was because only about 2.32% of Nigerians live with disabilities. Yet, ignoring their concerns would be doing the country a disservice. If we only focus on issues that the average Nigerian cares about, we are never going to build an inclusive nation.
Moreover, the idea of the average Nigerian becomes problematic in the face of our diversity. With two major religions and so many ethnic groups, outright majorities tend to be very slim. And even when there is an overwhelming majority, in a country where over 20% of its citizens identify more strongly with their ethnic groups than their national identity, ignoring ethnic histories and power dynamics in favour of some “average” is unwise.
The failure of the “Wazobia” project to create a new language from Yoruba, Hausa and Igbo is a relatively benign example of how difficult it is to average ethnic preferences. In most cases, the consequences have been far more disastrous. From the Kaduna Shari'a riots in the early 2000s to the recurring violence in Jos, Nigerians often push back when another group threatens their religious and ethnic identities. And although most Nigerians alive today did not experience the Biafra war, its impact resonates to this day.
Age, occupation, economic concerns, and even beliefs about gender may change over time, but, in Nigeria, ethnic identities endure, and there is no easy way to average that.
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