More young people should join politics – Rinsola Abiola

Rinsola Abiola is a media entrepreneur and youth advocate who works at the intersection of politics and civil society to promote enhanced inclusion for women and young people in politics and governance. A native of Abeokuta in Ogun State, she is active both within civil society circles and as a member of the ruling All Progressive Congress.

In this interview with YNaija, she speaks about her foray into politics and advises young people who wish to join the fray.

  • How would you describe your transition from a social activist to a politician? And would you say it’s a common theme for other young Nigerians like you?

I would say that it’s been a rewarding process. It’s been tough, but also rewarding. At the time when I made the decision to transition to mainstream politics, it was at the suggestion of someone whom I now consider a mentor; he was the South-West youth leader of the Action Congress of Nigeria (ACN) then, and I was working with a group of friends on organizing a national youth conference and getting one of us elected as President of the National Youth Council. Shortly after, the merger between the major opposition parties was announced, and I was invited to join the Youth Wing by Ismaeel Ahmed, the current youth leader of the APC, whom I had met in the course of organizing the conference I mentioned earlier. I accepted the invitation and emerged as the maiden PRO of the All Progressives Youth Forum, then proceeded to occupy other positions and participate more actively from there.

And yes, it’s a relatively common theme though I wish more of us would come on board. I think I should also mention here that a lot of young people are hostile towards those of us who join political parties, and I really wish that wasn’t the case. We’re all working to make Nigeria better; well, many of us are, and we just choose to work through the political system because the government remains the most effective vehicle for impacting lives.

  • While you were running as a candidate to represent Abeokuta North/Obafemi- Owode/Odeda federal constituency in Ogun State, a major news platform described your experience as a ‘baptism of fire’? How would you describe it in your words?

It was indeed a baptism of fire. I learnt really tough lessons which have proven to be extremely useful since that campaign ended. I came away from that entire process a completely different person; before going into the campaign, I knew I had a passion for development, I knew I wanted to change things, I knew my people deserved better in terms of representation, especially considering how much an efficient legislator is able to do within their constituency; this, I had seen first-hand working as an aide at the National Assembly. Running for office really just reinforced all of that, and I came away from that experience with a much clearer understanding of local politics and the needs of my people. It has also informed my activities back home, as I’m working now to address the challenges I can with what little resources I can muster.

  • What were your biggest challenges at the time? How did you prepare yourself for Nigerian politics?

We had certain issues at the party level that affected candidates and I also may have underestimated just how much spending the whole process would entail. On preparation, I really do believe that no amount of preparation is enough. Politics is one of those things that you learn and get better at by doing. It’s one thing to understand the theory of political participation and mobilization and yet another to be in the thick of it, learning to adapt and picking up skills you didn’t even know you needed. Preparation is a continuous process; no matter how many positions I hold or how much work I do, there’s always something new to learn and something else to prepare for. 

  • What are the key lessons you took from your experience in 2019?

The greatest lesson of all is that I need to invest more in my people through socially impactful initiatives, that I need to build on the gains and inroads made politically, and that I need to be more present at home, even if I don’t live there. It has not been easy balancing everything but I’m doing a lot more now than I was before, and I’m working on doing much better as we go along.

  • Let’s talk about party politics. You left the All Progressives Congress to run as a candidate under the African Democratic Congress. What informed your decision at the time?

The Action Democratic Party (ADP) actually, not the ADC, even though many think that’s where I went (laughs). Their constitution seemed progressive, and I also wanted a place where there were experienced politicians that I could learn from. The party’s board of trustees was chaired by Chief Alani Bankole, a seasoned politician who was a close associate of my father’s and of course, Rt. Hon. Dimeji Bankole, the former speaker, was to be the gubernatorial candidate.

A lot of people opined that I should have joined the PDP, as that’s also a mainstream political party with the kind of structure required to deliver at the polls. However, I was averse to this because I don’t quite like that party (laughs) so joining was just not an option for me. In fact, one of the key reasons I joined politics was to oppose and campaign against them so the idea of going there just seemed terribly unacceptable.

Of course, I understand that this may have been the pragmatic decision to make but conviction matters a great deal to me, and that idea just didn’t sit well with me.

  • Did you feel there were remarkable differences while running under a different party?

I would say that when it boils down to it, the Nigerian electorate is generally not wired to choose multiple candidates from a wide range of options. This, especially at a time when we had over 90 registered parties and voters had a tough time telling parties apart. It’s common to hear people say “oh, this time around, we are voting for candidates, not parties” but at the polls, an overwhelming majority of those who actually show up to cast their votes are very unlikely to do that.

In states like Ondo, we saw winners emerge from multiple parties, but the electorate in most other states isn’t there yet. When such things happen, those candidates are also able to take advantage of divisions within the mainstream parties and we were able to do that to an extent, but clearly, not to the point where my bid proved successful.

Generally, I would say that more established platforms provide a better opportunity for candidates to occupy elective offices; the numbers speak for themselves. It also helps a great deal to have a popular presidential candidate because, as I said earlier, most people are more likely to vote for one party across the board.

You can win on a smaller platform, but it will cost a lot more both in terms of money and effort.

  • When did you decide to return to the party and what informed your choice?  

I got my membership card in June 2019, during my first visit home after the polls. The decision had been reached before then; I’d stayed in touch with our leaders, many of whom supported me, and they asked that I return to the party once the polls were over. My choice was informed by the fact that leaving in the first place was a reluctant decision. It felt very much like walking away from a relationship, and we all know how difficult that can be (laughs). So yeah, once I was done and they asked that I return home, I complied. I had gained a lot of experience in the six months that I spent campaigning, and I knew better how to navigate both the local politics and intra-party engagements. I left as a young political activist and came back as a young, grassroots-oriented politician.

  • What are the possible changes you’re looking forward to in the party while it gears for the 2023 elections?     

Great question. I just read through the proposed amendments to the party constitution, and I must say that the new draft seems rather progressive as it allows more room for women and youth participation. Another thing I would like is a reduction in the cost of nomination forms for aspirants below 40, and a set percentage of tickets for women.

  • What exactly are you doing right now? Have you given a thought to contesting again?

At the moment, I’m running my public relations firm and helping aspiring candidates with their journey. I’m also running my foundation, which is domiciled in my hometown, and my gender-focused non-profit. On the political front, I am working with other young people within the party to advocate for greater youth mainstreaming.

Yes, I have thought about contesting again but it’s not something I will do unless I am convinced that I stand a good chance of clinching the ticket. Until then, I am very happy to invest in community development and social empowerment initiatives back home. I’m also working to build a base at the grassroots level, not necessarily because I want to run, but because I believe grassroots participation is key and I want to be able to support our candidates in addition to being an active party member, by having a platform through which additional numbers can be mobilized.  

  • What advise can you give other young Nigerians interested in contesting and holding a political office in the country?

Young aspirants need to engage strategically; choose a party with a strong structure, put in the work within the party, support the system and contribute to its growth, and invest in your community when and where able. Communication is also of utmost importance; you must be able to communicate your vision to your people because that’s how you build genuine followership.

Finance is key. Not many young people are able to fund their campaigns independently, so fundraising is one skill that those who fall into this category must hone. Campaigning is expensive all over the world, and even more so in these parts, maybe not in terms of total amounts spent but definitely in terms of where the money actually goes. They must understand that actual official expenses will, in fact, not account for the bulk of campaign expenditure as engagements and mobilization, both before and after the primaries, cost a lot more.

I would also advise that young people take the time to properly understand the dynamics of where they are from or intend to contest in, and invest in proper analysis so they are better able to determine whether the time is right for them to run, where they need to concentrate their efforts, where they are most likely to have smooth sailing, and areas where they probably shouldn’t invest too much because little to no gains will be made. Above all, all politicians, and not just young people, would do better to be honest with themselves; we’re a bunch of optimists but a bit of realism makes a huge difference.

I must add, very importantly, that no one should take a loan to fund a political ambition. It’s a move that goes south more often than not. In the event that you do not win the election, coping is a lot easier if you’re not also battling crippling debt.

Furthermore, have a good lawyer on your team who understands electoral laws and will ensure you’re ready for litigation in the event that you win and someone contests it, or you lose under questionable circumstances and wish to seek redress in court.

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