By Amina Yahaya
The clamour for youth representation and participation in politics and governance is a global phenomenon. In Nigeria, Young people constitute the larger percentage of the voting block during elections, yet their representation in both elected and appointive positions has been abysmally low. August 2018 marked a milestone in the youth-led struggle for the democratization of the political process so as to allow for the greater participation of the youths in both the electoral and governance processes in the country. The signing of the Not-Too-Young-To-Run bill into law by President Muhammadu Buhari was commendable and celebrated by young people in Nigeria. The new act, which reduced the age requirement for running for some offices including President, Governor, National Assembly and State Houses of Assembly represents a new vista for the youths in terms of their involvement and participation in politics. This encouraged a lot of young people to declare interest to run for office in the 2019 elections. Organizations such as YIAGA Africa made giant strides towards supporting youth candidates via trainings and workshops, while other initiatives such as Raising New Voices went as far as crowd funding for a number of youth candidates who were running for office in the National Assembly.
The optimism and frenzy that heralded such efforts dropped once it was time for political parties to conduct their primaries. The ridiculously expensive cost of nomination forms forced many youth candidates to either forfeit their intentions or move to smaller parties that offered reasonable amounts or even free tickets. There were allegations to the effect that some youths won the party primaries within the bigger parties, but their names were replaced with those of older candidates and submitted to INEC, while some parties with significant youth membership had their party logos excluded on the ballot papers during the elections.
From the level of passion and resilience shown by the Nigerian youths in the struggle for the passage of the Not-Too-Young-To-Run bill, many Nigerians expected the same level of resilience to be demonstrated by the youths during the 2019 elections. The youths should have rallied round and supported fellow young people who were running for office in their localities and states. Unfortunately, the reverse was the case; the major frontiers of the two septuagenarians who ran for office under the platform of the leading parties were young people. From the twitter influencers, to the spoke persons, young people constituted a huge percentage of their campaign teams. Does this mean that the young people in Nigeria say one thing and mean the other? More surprising was seeing many of the same youth who spear headed the Not-Too-Young-To-Run movement in their states came out openly to support, campaign and pledge allegiance to the older candidates, at the expense of the young candidates from their areas.
The activities of young people as a lead up to the general elections was even more disappointing. Although Richard Joseph in his seminar work on ‘Democracy and prebendal politics in Nigeria’ describes Nigerian Politics as ‘dominated by an exchange of political support for personal and material gain’, it was displeasing to see young people play a major role in such transactional activities. Votes were bought and sold freely in majority of the states where elections took place. On social media, youths freely engaged each other with derogatory remarks and accusations against each other’s candidates and ‘god-fathers’.
The disruptions recorded across the states, particularly in Kano, Rivers, Akwa Ibom, Imo, Benue and Lagos were perpetrated by the youths, who offered themselves as canon-fodders for violence both physically and virtually. Even the young people who played the role of party agents on Election Day did very little to protect the integrity of the polls as many were reported to have interfered with the conduct of the elections. From the results released by INEC, there were some notable wins for the #NotTooYoungToRun act. However, the results also suggest that there has to be more strategic thinking in terms of approach for the future if a more laudable impact is to be made from this effort. Young people need to back their words with action, especially when it comes to uniting and supporting youth candidates regardless of party and other affiliations. Perhaps if the youth had come together and galvanized support massively for competent young candidates the way they did to ensure the passage of the bill into an act, more young people would have emerged as winners in the 2019 elections.
Going forward, the first task is for young people to massively infuse themselves into the big and active political parties and learn more about the system. When more youth occupy positions within the party leadership, then they can move for more youth friendly policies and decisions that would favour their fellow youths. Having only a youth leader position in the working committees will not change the situation especially when in some cases, the persons are not even youth to begin with; clearly seen in the cases of the ruling All Progressive Congress (APC) who appointed a 52 year old as a national youth leader in 2015, while the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) elected a 6o year old man in 2012. Yet the actual youth who are the major canvassers for support and campaigns watched and swallowed that brazen show of shame from their parties.
Furthermore, while we continue to push for political parties to be more open and operationalize the principle of internal party democracy, the youths must position themselves to serve as critical vehicles for the actualisation of this ideal. They have got both the number and the skills to make effect the desired changes within the political parties, against the backdrop of the fact that they can use their numbers to influence party decisions for the good of all. The level of youth visibility and activity within the parties constitute an important element that defines their influence when it comes to decision-making.
It is not bad to start small in the light of the fact that there are positions with lower stakes and not as difficult as others such as ward councilors, local government officials among others. Starting from there can greatly boost a person’s political career. Many will give you examples of Justin Trudeau of Canada and Juri Ratas of Estonia but will not mention that these young people had progressive growth trajectories overtime and did not just wake up and decide to run for office. If we must tell a different story in 2023, we must become a generation that is deliberately strategic towards it set goals, rather than those who engage in wishful thinking. Political parties have come to stay and so has the place of the Nigerian youth in politics and governance. The time to act is now. It is not just enough to join a political party, we must be active participants within these parties!
* The author is an Abuja based advocate for youth involvement in democracy, governance and peace building.