The 2019 Nigerian general election is less than a year away and preparations are predictably in top gear for the country’s fifth democratic transition since its return to civilian leadership in 1999. The atmosphere is politically charged and pre-electioneering buzz has taken over the print, broadcast and social media.
Among the issues on the front burner of conversations across the country is the role of the youth in Nigerian politics or, more specifically, the need to integrate the youth into the mainstream of Nigerian politics. The youth (persons between the ages of 18 and 35) make up about 30% of Nigeria’s population, but occupy a negligible fraction of its elected offices.
On the 26th of July, 2017, the Nigerian Senate passed the #NotTooYoungToRun bill, a historic move that will lower the ages of candidacy for the presidency from 40 to 35, the House of Representatives from 30 to 25 and the state houses of assembly from 30 to 25.
On February 15, 2018, it crossed the constitutional threshold of an endorsement by two-thirds of Nigeria’s 36 state assemblies and it is now expected to be signed into law by the President in time for the 2019 polls, thereby creating an avenue for more youth to vie for elected offices in a political space that has been dominated by the older generations in recent times.
The youth have not always been on the periphery of Nigeria’s political landscape. In fact, Nigeria’s independence from Britain was won by the likes of Nnamdi Azikiwe, Mbonu Ojike, Obafemi Awolowo and Anthony Enahoro who utilized their youthful exuberance to agitate for Nigeria’s emancipation from colonial exploitation in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s. Upon this independence, youths were immediately propelled into political leadership positions across the country. Remarkably, Mathew Mbu, Mbazulike Amechi, Maitama Sule and Shehu Shagari became cabinet ministers in their 20s and 30s.
Nigeria’s first democratic experience would be brutally cut short by a military coup d’état in 1966, but even that ushered in 6 (out of a total of 8) military juntas that were led by generals in their 30s and early 40s. However, the marginalization of the youth in Nigeria’s political space can be traced to this era of military rule.
Many of the officers who held sway in that era have refused to pass the baton and leave the scene. They have recycled themselves from soldiers to politicians and from kingmakers to the so-called elder statesmen whose approval and blessings must be sought before one can aspire to occupy any political leadership position in the country. The likes of Olusegun Obasanjo, Ibrahim Babangida, Abba Kyari and the incumbent president, Muhammadu Buhari, are still very relevant decades after their heydays in military fatigues.
This period of military rule also coincided with Nigeria’s social, economic and political derailment. Many of the soldiers who seized power were unprepared and ill-equipped for leadership. Secondly, the volatility of military rule made the juntas fixated on consolidating power instead of actually governing. Thirdly, the absence of checks and balances perpetuated corruption and brought the economy to its knees.
Unfortunately, these legacies of military rule were carried over to the prevailing democratic dispensation by the soldiers-turned-democrats. To put the country back on the track of development, Nigerians are in unison that the present ruling class of ex-soldiers and their acolytes must step aside for a leadership style that is more attuned to the 21st century.
It is for this reason that the youth are often called upon to assume the mantle of leadership. It is believed that they possess the innovation, radicalism and virility needed to transform Nigeria from its state of despondency to accelerated and sustainable development.
But, with the imminent amendment of the Constitution to accommodate the recommendations of the Not-Too-Young-To-Run bill – which will make all elected offices in Nigeria accessible to the youth – are they really ready for this responsibility? Do they possess the resources needed to wrestle power from the old guard?
I have no atom of doubt that there are capable, well-experienced and eminently qualified youth across Nigeria who can embrace this responsibility and provide the country with the digital leadership that it has so sorely lacked. What worries me is that there are so few of them.
For starters, a great deal of the youth in the country are not interested in politics. They are not politically conscious. They know next to nothing about Nigeria’s political terrain or its history or the recent developments therein and would rather talk about football, showbiz or fashion than engage in meaningful politics-themed conversations or make sense of economic indicators like the GDP, inflation rate and interest rate. I daresay that the number of youths who will watch the Nigeria vs. Argentina match at this year’s FIFA World Cup in Russia will be far greater that the number of those who will turn out to vote in the 2019 Presidential Election.
Out of the few Nigerian youth who are politically conscious, many of them are inexperienced, ill-equipped and unprepared for political leadership. On the one hand are those who see politics as a livelihood and a fast track to financial security. They are ready to toe the established line, kowtow to the kingmakers and propagate the status quo. When in power, they will be no different from the present ruling class. On the other hand are those who are genuinely interested in utilizing politics as a vehicle for creating positive change and rendering selfless service, but lack the requisite experience and skill sets to make meaningful impact in government.
Out of the very few Nigerian youth who are adequately experienced and prepared for leadership, many lack the wherewithal to muscle out the moneyed older politicians, who have looted the country’s treasury dry, and their cronies. While the Not Too Young To Run bill addresses the age barrier to running for elected offices in Nigeria, it does not address the financial barrier.
Electioneering all over the world is an expensive venture. In Nigeria, the nomination forms for the presidency, governorship, Senate and House of Representatives are sold for 10 million, 5 million, 2 million and 1 million naira respectively, while the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) estimates that political parties in the country spent about ₦11.65 billion on traceable media and other related expenses in the 2015 elections.
By contrast, the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS), in a December 22, 2017 report, revealed that the combined youth unemployment and underemployment rate in Nigeria stood at 52.65%. Due to the dire economic state of the country, most youth are still struggling to find their feet professionally and financially, make ends meet and take care of basic necessities like food, clothing and shelter. How then can they run for election without soliciting the sponsorship of wealthy individuals with vested interests or the same crooked older politicians that they are so eager to dislodge?
This captures the predicament of the youth in Nigerian politics. The Not Too Young To Run bill may be on its way to becoming a law, but it is not yet uhuru for the youth in Nigeria’s inhibiting political space. However, it is a huge step in the right direction that must be optimized.
Firstly effort should be made to conscientize the Nigerian youth so that they can become more interested in politics, gain a deeper understanding of the political and economic terrains of the country, demand good governance and accountability from their leaders at all times and participate actively and effectively in the democratic process. This will harness the power of the youth and make them a powerful, active bloc in Nigerian politics.
Secondly, the youth should avail themselves of opportunities that will build their capacity and enhance their leadership exposure. Among other things, they should explore leadership training, mentorship, internship at public sector and civil society organizations, volunteerism, community development and entrepreneurship.
Thirdly, pro-youth and pro-democracy civil society organizations (CSOs) should coalesce around and mobilize financial support for credible young aspirants in a bid to help them surmount the financial hurdle of running for office in Nigeria.
Finally, young aspirants must endeavor to embed themselves in their local communities. They must be visible at the grassroots level and not just on Facebook and Twitter. The power of the social media cannot be overemphasized, but it can only go so far if it doesn’t engage the grassroots. Less than half of Nigeria’s population use the internet and even far less are reasonably active on the social media. Consequently, young aspirants must make their campaigns visible on the ground as well as virtually.
Chinedu George Nnawetanma is an alumnus of the Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI) Regional Leadership Center West Africa, an initiative of the former US president Barack Obama that invests in the next generation of African leaders. Email: [email protected]; Twitter: @nnawetanma