Despite growing evidence of youth activism and mobilisation, Nigerian youths have yet to achieve the level of inclusion required to gain representation in politics. Leadership deficits, money politics, poor internal democracy among the older parties and an absence of a strategic political agenda pose ongoing barriers to young people playing a role in national development.
Africa’s political history is not complete without appreciating the roles that youths played in achieving their countries’ independence. In the years leading to independence, youths were the driving force behind the nationalist activities that led to the dismantling and eventual overthrow of colonialism and the colonial masters. Despite this, the role of youths in African politics has received less than commensurate attention in studies on democratisation.
In Nigeria, the activities of Herbert Macaulay, Nnamdi Azikiwe, Obafemi Awolowo, H.O. Davies, Tafawa Balewa, Ahmadu Bello and Samuel Akintola among many others in their 20s and 30s are legendary. Some of these youths are reputed for the formation of political parties such as the Nigerian Youth Movement (NYM), which was the first political party in Nigeria, the Nigeria National Democratic Party (NNDP), and the National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroons (NCNC). These young Nigerians each used the media to speak against the evils of colonialism and demanded independence. Nnamdi Azikiwe, for instance, was reputed for the use of his newspaper, the West African Pilot.
Through these avenues, they created awareness of the evils that foreign domination posed to the country and, despite various constitutional reforms, these young people demanded independence. Their tenacity and determination eventually saw the country gaining independence from British colonial rule on 1 October 1960.
In the years after independence, particularly during the military era, young people opposed and fought gallantly against the profligacy and high-handedness of the military regimes of Yakubu Gowon and Olusegun Obasanjo, and during the brutal and inglorious regimes of Ibrahim Babangida and Sani Abacha in the 1980s and 1990s an entire generation of youth and student organisaions formed under umbrella organisations such as the National Association of Nigerian Students, the Campaign for Democracy, the Civil Liberties Organisation and the Committee for the Defence of Human Rights. These took the struggle to the streets of major cities across the country.
Despite the track record of older generation youths, Nigerian politics is fast becoming the exclusive preserve of the older politicians, as seen from the constant recycling of government officials, especially those in their 60s. For many years, particularly after the country’s return to democratic governance in 1999, youths were at best seen as supporters, mobilisers or political foot soldiers hired to instigate violence, manipulate elections and intimidate opposing parties. While this image is not completely the fault of the older generation, these groups enjoyed the idea of youths as political mercenaries rather than competitors.
With the signing into law of the Not Too Young To Run Bill in 2019, led by President Muhammadu Buhari, this trend seems to be changing as youths are beginning to see the importance of their role in governance. The Bill was part of the advocacy role of YIAGA AFRICA – the Youth Initiative for Advocacy, Growth and Advancement – and the Not Too Young to Run Movement which opened up the space to increased youth participation. Among other changes to the electoral law, it reduced the age for presidential candidates from 40 to 35 and for House of Representatives candidates from 30 to 25 years.
As a result of the Bill, there is a positive trend in youth participation, with youth candidacy increasing from 21% in 2015 to 34.2% in the 2019 elections. Despite these changes, the number of youths aged 18–29 (based on the youth definition given by the National Youth Policy organisation), voted into elective positions in Nigeria is less than 1%. Further, there are no youth in the new cabinet formed by President Buhari, and neither is there a youth in the National Assembly. This is despite youths making up over 67% of registered voters, on average, which means that whoever they decide to vote for is sure of winning the election.
Poor funding and high costs of nomination forms for various offices remain a major obstacle to youth representation in politics. In the run up to the 2019 general election, the cost of nomination forms was as high as 45 million naira (US$125,000) for Presidential aspirants, 22.5 million (US$60,000) for governorship aspirants, 7 million (US$19,000) for the Senate and 3.8 million (US$10,500) for the House of Representatives. Few Nigerian youths are financially buoyant to pay these sums and, since donors and godfathers usually prefer older men whom they believe have the chances of winning, young people are naturally disenfranchised. Thus while in theory they are Not Too Young To Run, in practice, the youth find themselves Too-Poor-To-Run and in a dilemma of how to mobilise sufficient funds to be ‘eligible’ for representation.
With a rapidly expanding population, the future of Africa in general, and Nigeria, in particular belongs to the youth who have a vital role to play in national development. The onus therefore rests on African leaders to ensure that young people are given the pride of place in African politics.
Image by Adeboro Odunlami from Pixabay.