Chidi Odinkalu: The youth should seize this moment

by Chidi Anselm Odinkalu


But, let’s face it, those who have run and ruined our country since Independence are not about to saddle up and ride away into the sun-set just yet. The only way for young people to get a look in is to organize, make themselves an indispensable nuisance, and mount an insurrection against business as usual by the usual by the usual suspects.

Can I begin by thanking the organizers for convening this event and for the privilege of promoting me to a young person. Being under the age of 60, I guess I well qualify as young.

The idea of engaging young people in propagating the ground work of constitutional government deserves the support of everyone. I fully subscribe to it. The reasons are obvious.

We are quite young. As a country, we have just marked 53 years of Independence. Put differently, Nigerian citizenship is only 53 years old. In relative terms, this is young for a country. As a country, our median age is about 23 years. Life expectancy is just about 48. Some think it could even be a little lower. By these numbers, young people in their 20s deserve greater respect than they get because, in our country, most of them are in or well past mid-life in real terms. But will the country agree to give it?

The youth guarantee the future of every race; the Constitution contains the values that underwrite our civics and co-existence. So, you would think the involvement of young people in constitutional dialogue rather natural.

In our country, it is anything but, dominated by contracting, allocation, and capture, our political culture deliberately excludes young people. We have not invested in the youth because their involvement endangers this kind of selfish politics. Rather we have sacrificed their future by failing to invest in the three foundations that sustain constitutional government: education, leadership replacement, and a workable constitution. We have made our country a difficult place to be a young person.

Take education. Many will ask, what does it have to do with the constitution and participation in government? My answer? Everything. As citizens, we are all equal, young as well as old. We can all aspire to public service, to vote and to be voted for. In Nigeria though, everyone can vote, but increasingly, only a few people can be voted for. This is a danger to elected governance.

To be eligible to run for most offices under our constitution, you must have a minimum of the equivalent of secondary school education. The Universal Basic Education Act only guarantees education up to the first nine years of formal education, ending at the junior secondary level. But with this, you cannot be voted for into most offices. And, even at this, over ten million Nigerian children have no access to education at all, and most young girls in many states especially of northern Nigeria will not have access to education beyond primary education

In effect, we exclude most of our young people from being able to give their best for Nigeria; we create categories of citizenship when we deny many of our young people access to education. In reality, our country tells our young people: you can vote but most of you are not good enough to be voted for. This is unacceptable. To change it, we must guarantee education to secondary school level to every Nigerian child and take effective steps to bring this about in (y)our lifetime.

By failing to provide this guarantee, we frustrate leadership replacement. Mentoring is not a natural fact of Nigerian public life. For too long, the young have been the inheritors of a tomorrow that is perpetually postponed. Many of our leaders have tended to see the young as expendable or avoidable. Those who think this is a recent development are mistaken. In his prison notes, People Politics and Politicians of Nigeria (1940-1979), Bola Ige, a former Governor of Oyo State, who would later be assassinated in office as the Attorney-General of the Federation recounts from the years before Nigeria’s Independence, when he was a student of the then  University College Ibadan, as follows:

It is interesting to note that the emerging political class did not think very much of us as future leaders, which we rightly believed we were. They made no efforts to cultivate us, and it was not until late 1952 and early 1953 that we ourselves started, not as branches of political parties but as clubs. We thought we should free as clubs to criticize the political parties. And we never asked them for financial or any other support….That was just one manifestation of the way the leaders treated those future leaders. When we invited them to take part in debates or to deliver lectures, they were always so uptight about the views they held or wanted to deliver to us that they forgot the humanity of jokes and speaking in language which would excite and not awe.[2]

Yet, this country has had a long production line of young leaders: Obafemi Awolowo, Nnamdi Azikiwe, Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, Ahmadu Bello, RAB Dikko, Sa’ad Zungur, Aminu Kano, J.S. Tarka, Michael Enahoro, Yakubu Gowon, Murtala Mohammed, Kaduna Nzeogwu, Olusegun Obasanjo, Ibrahim Babangida, Bolaji Akinyemi, David Mark, Dangiwa Umar – just to mention some leading examples – all broke into national consciousness before they were 35. Today, it is hard to see under-35s in any positions of real power or authority around government. It is even harder to understand how it is possible to sustain a constitutional order without giving young people such opportunities.

By failing to invest properly in education and leadership replacement, we guarantee very shaky constitutional foundations. In Nigeria, we do not make constitutions; we merely write or decree them into being. And to do this, we have historically abandoned the business of writing constitutions to lawyers and judges; and of decreeing them to soldiers. This duopoly of Wig and Gown and Khaki has got Nigerians lost and confused in irrelevant documents mistaken for constitution. Few of our people know about the constitution or have much interest in it. The politicians spend all their energy making the constitution irrelevant to the business of running Nigeria; the courts often mangle it; and the people exist outside it.

Constitutions are complex documents. They embody multiple pacts: between the dead, living and unborn; between government and the governed; between different peoples in the same land; between generations and genders, young and old. Constitutions are legal documents; promissory notes; political settlements; inter-generational aspirations; affirmations of values, and declarations of principles.

Because of their complex nature, constitutions should be negotiated and should only reflect the outcomes of agreements reached after negotiations. Here, however, we have written constitutions without making or negotiating them; the language of their writing has never been accessible to most of our people; and the generation that writes them has always been fixated on the past with not much care to pay any homage to the future.

So, until now, the expression “We the people…” in our constitution has always – to put it delicately – embodied multiple inaccuracies: the only people involved were lawyers, judges and soldiers; and the only generations involved were old people. Young people now have an opportunity to change this and write a constitution that can honestly begin “We the Young People…” I’d like to see you seize it and there’re many other people willing to work with you to make this happen.

But, let’s face it, those who have run and ruined our country since Independence are not about to saddle up and ride away into the sun-set just yet. The only way for young people to get a look in is to organize, make themselves an indispensable nuisance, and mount an insurrection against business as usual by the usual by the usual suspects.

This is why, despite the understandable skepticism in some quarters, the idea of a National Dialogue is a new opportunity that young people must seize to re-make our country and guarantee a future for everyone;  every race; and every generation in Nigeria, especially the young and the unborn.

The dominoes are well aligned: the National dialogue offers a moment; new technologies offer unrivalled tools of mobilization and liberation that (y)our parents didn’t have and can’t use half as well; and with the current state of the country, the youth cannot really afford to abdicate control of the future.

The task of re-making Nigeria is too important to be abandoned to self-centered politicians, most  of whom do not seem to care much about this country or about its young people. We have to put these tools to use urgently to envision the kind of country that the young people of Nigeria can their own.

– Dr. Anslem Odinkalu, Chairman, Governing Council, National Human Rights Commission, read this keynote remarks to the launch of We the Young People…., Muson Centre, Lagos, 17 October 2013.


Op-ed pieces and contributions are the opinions of the writers only and do not represent the opinions of Y!/YNaija.

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