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Nigerian comic candidate woos youth vote with Pidgin politics

A Nigerian comic is making an unlikely bid for election to parliament, combining a strong social media presence with a campaign almost entirely in Pidgin to win young followers.

Mr Jollof’s videos on Instagram, where he has 354,000 followers, mercilessly poke fun at the nation’s politicians and lash the authorities for incompetence.

In one, he criticises lawmakers in his home state of Delta, in the oil-rich south, for failing to develop regional tourism.

“You know how much dey go Mauritius? 800,000 naira for economy ehn?” he asks in Pidgin, lamenting that the cost of a ticket to the island nation could be used closer to home.

The money would be better spent improving local villages to “go do am like Mauritius” — bring them up to the same standard, he added.

If the 31-year-old stands out as a candidate in Saturday’s elections, it’s not just because his name is the same as the beloved spicy national dish.

His straight-talking persona, delivered in the language of the poor rather than the elite, has won him fans across the political divide as he campaigns in his native Warri.

“I chose Mr Jollof because everybody loves jollof rice,” the comedian — real name Freedom Atsepoyi — told AFP.

– Pidgin politics –

Pidgin, often referred to as “broken English”, is widely used in Africa’s most populous country as a lingua franca understood among speakers of some 500 local languages.

It is also widely spoken across West Africa and is gaining popularity, including in the media, where the BBC even launched a dedicated Pidgin language service last year.

The country’s electoral commission has appealed to voters in Pidgin to “no join election katakata” (not get involved in violence) or “ballot tiff-tiff” (ballot snatching).

It has also warned about “pikin who no reach age to vote” (under-age voting).

But adopting Pidgin as a campaign strategy has drawn criticism from Nigeria’s established political class, for whom standard English is the preferred way to communicate.

An official from the main opposition Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) dismissed Atsepoyi as unqualified and said government positions shouldn’t be given to “learners”.

Pidgin has long been associated with the poor and has been used only sparingly in Nigerian election campaigns — even though it is mainly the poor who vote.

In Warri, a commercial hub considered the home of Nigerian Pidgin, the patois has a distinct style instantly recognisable around the country for its vibrancy.

Atsepoyi has brushed off the criticism and said it was an effective means of connecting with Nigeria’s poorer masses, who are often overlooked by the major parties.

“I can come out and blow big grammar,” he explained at his small campaign office in a shopping complex.

“But if the people do not understand then I have not said a thing.

Mr. Jollof

“I believe the people I am going to represent in the House of Representatives understand and accept Pidgin English more.”

– A new approach –

Atsepoyi is running as a candidate of the African Action Congress party (AAC), a small, new political group challenging the incumbent PDP member of parliament.

The PDP has almost total control of parliamentary seats in the state, making it a formidable opponent with a well-established party machine — and money — behind it.

But by shunning a more formal way of political campaigning and using language and comedy, Mr Jollof has drawn large crowds of young supporters.

He said his approach is more fitting in a country of 190 million people where the average age is just 18.

“People are tired of the old-school politicians style,” said Toye Sokunbi, from Native Magazine, an online culture and music site which describes itself as “the reliable pulse of the African millennial”.

“This guy is so fun and smart. He is one of the few politicians in this country to tell the truth, that’s why young people like him,” he added.

Despite his popularity, the odds are stacked against Atsepoyi for electoral victory this weekend. But he said he will fight all the way.

“I am not going there for the fun of it as I already have a name for myself, I just want to go there and make a change for the people of Warri,” he said.

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