Young Nigerians fight to create space in closed political system

  • Linus Unah
  • 16 May 2018

A youth movement determined to change Nigeria's electoral politics succeeded in drafting a legal amendment allowing young leaders to run for office. But President Buhari has been sitting on the bill for months.

The Not Too Young To Run seeks to reduce the qualification sfor the office of president from ages 40 to 30 years, the office of governor from 35 to 30 years, the Senate and governorship from 35 to 30 years, and the federal and state houses of assembly from 30 to 25 years. ( Courtesy of YIAGA / TRTWorld )

ABUJA —  Ndi Kato, a 28-year-old from northwestern Nigeria's Kaduna state, strongly believes that she can help her people by running for office to represent her constituency in the local assembly. 

“I’ve worked so hard over the past four years to build a very good political career because of what I want to achieve for my people,” she says.

There is a stumbling block ahead of her political journey, though. She says  it is “problematic”  to push for change without the democratic legitimacy or financial resources that come with holding a top position in government.

Until last year, young Nigerians like Kato who are not up to 30 years of age could not contest for key positions during elections because they didn't  meet the age requirements set by  the constitution, which was drafted just before the end of military rule in 1999.

Citizens must be up to 40 years old to run for president, 35 for senators and state governors, 30 for members of the House of Representatives (the lower chamber in the parliament) and state houses of assembly.  

This is exactly what a coalition of over 100 youth and civil society organisations led by the Abuja-based non-profit Youth Initiative For Advocacy, Growth and Advancement (YIAGA) are fighting to change.

“A democracy is about inclusion and participation, everyone should be allowed to participate fully whether you are old or young,” says Ibrahim Faruk, senior programme officer at YIAGA. 

Using the hashtag #NotTooYoungToRun, the campaigners want to reduce age limits from 40 to 30 for the president, 35 to 30 for state governor and the Senate, then from 30 to 25 for the House of Representatives and  state houses of assembly.

Mark Okoye, 30, is the youngest commissioner in Nigeria who was appointed in the government of Anambra state in 2016. Okoye's appointment gave a boost to the Not Too Young To Run movement.(TRTWorld)

Sola Tayo, associate fellow at the foreign affairs think tank Chatham House,  says the movement can close the “generational gulf” between the country’s political leaders and the growing youth population. 

“I think any attempt to open up the political space and increase political awareness among younger people is a positive thing,” Sola said.  “As Nigeria's demographics change, politics should evolve to reflect this ... and to ensure that the population is being represented fairly.”

Nigeria has a population of more than 180 million people, and youth (defined by the National Youth Policy as people between the ages of 15 to 35) constitute around 60 percent of this population . 

But much of this youthful population has been cut off from the political system which is largely dominated by older citizens. None of Nigeria’s serving senators is under 40. And since the transition to civilian administration in 1999, none of the four presidents that has led Nigeria was below 50 during the elections. Nigeria’s youngest governor, Yahaya Bello, came into office in 2015 at the age of 40. 

Idayat Hassan, the director of the Centre for Democracy and Development in Nigerian capital city Abuja, says young people’s participation in the political process have been encumbered by weak electoral institutions, poverty and unemployment, high cost of politics and lack of internal party democracy that has, for example, fueled the rise in "godfatherism" – a system where influential party members secure political position for another person.

“The effects of exclusion outweighs its advantages; several research finding has shown lack of inclusion in the governance process is responsible for youth involvement in violent extremism and other vices,” Hassan says .

Tayo, an expert on Nigerian issues, believes the military had a hand in the lack of youth representation in the political system.

“The surviving political leaders from post-independence [mostly old military rulers] served together; they know each other and with their associates have made high-level politics a space that largely excludes people from outside their cliques,” Tayo tells TRT World.

“The centralisation of power in Abuja and the influence of the very rich has also contributed to this. When elites mingle they leave little space for everybody else in the room.”

Idayat Hassan largely focuses on deepening democracy and development in West Africa.(TRTWorld)

The activists behind the Not Too Young To Run movement knew this – that old men dominate the political scene – so they devised ways to work with them to change the system. 

First, activists combined forces with Honourable Tony Nwulu in Nigeria’s House of Representatives to introduce a bill that would lower the age for participation.

Then, they organised “advocacy visits” to high-profile leaders in the parliament, including the Senate president, and the speaker of the House of Representatives, to get them to pledge their support to the bill. 

“We have learnt that it helps to work closely with some [crucial] stakeholders and influencers within the National Assembly and getting them to also speak with their colleague,” Faruk, who co-ordinates the movement, says. 

Faruk said when it was rumoured that lawmakers were going to throw out the bill in early July last year, the campaigners quickly organised a National Day of Action in which thousands of young people wielding placards marched to the entrance of the parliamentary complex in Abuja on July 25, 2017 and blockaded it.  

And it worked. The same week, the Senate and the House of Representatives immediately passed a constitutional amendment bill that lowered the minimum age for candidates running for political office in Nigeria.

“This bill is important because without it my career is pretty much stalled and I don’t have four more years to wait,” says Kato, founder Dinidari Empowerment Foundation which focuses on women and youth empowerment, as well as disaster relief.

The growing movement for youth inclusion in the political system in Nigeria triggered a global campaign launched in November 2016 by the UN Secretary-General’s Envoy on Youth, alongside other partners like the Inter-Parliamentary Union, the European Youth Forum and YIAGA.  

Globally, the number of young people in public office is anything but impressive. Though 51 percent of the world’s 7.6 billion population is under 30, this group makes up less than two percent of the world’s elected legislators, according to a 2016 study by the Inter-Parliamentary Union.  

In Nigeria, the Not Too Young to Run bill is part of a dozen bills seeking to amend several sections of the constitution. For this to happen, the parliament has to – in the immediate aftermath of passing the bills – move it to the state houses of assembly in Nigeria’s 36 states for further consideration.

At least 24 state houses of assembly must approve any amendment to the constitution before it would be considered.

The movement is not just confined to Nigeria. It also aims to spread awareness around the world, as 73 percent of countries restrict young people from running for houses of parliament, even when they can vote.(TRTWorld)

YIAGA and other activists knew crossing this stage required extra work. So, in early December 2017, they organised a town hall meeting in which speakers of six houses of assembly discussed the bill and whether they would pass it in Abuja. The goal, Faruk explains, was “essentially to get a public commitment from them."

 YIAGA designed a map which had all Nigerian states resting on an orange-coloured background to track activities in states and keep the public abreast of the process. States that approved the amendment were changed to green – known as hall of fame to local activists – and states which initially declined to endorse the amendment were coloured in red – known as hall of shame to campaigners.

In one instance, local legislators in northeastern Nigeria’s Taraba state declined to approve the amendment and the Not Too Young Movement inducted the state into the hall of shame.

“The red mark on Taraba in the map was conspicuous because of its large land mass,” says 31-year-old Faruk. 

“Young people in Taraba picked it up and began to call out their members. ‘We don’t want to be that one state that didn’t support youth inclusion into the system and the house had to do a u-turn and finally voted yes and it passed.”

Finally in February, the constitutional threshold of 24 states was met and, in March, 35 out 36 states approved it. 

In early April, the parliament transmitted the Not Too Young To Run bill alongside 11 other constitutional amendment bills to the president whose assent is required for the bills to become law.

Faeren Agaigbe, a political science lecturer at Benue State University in central Nigeria, feels allowing young people to enter the system would reshape the political space in Africa’s most populous country.

“Youth participation breaks and changes the belief that only people within a certain age bracket can and should participate in politics,”  Agaigbe says.

“It also creates an avenue for young minds and [fresh] ideas to be explored and exploited. They are vibrant, energetic and full of innovative ideas.”

However, regardless of the progress made by the Not Too Young To Run movement, analysts say getting young people into the political space is largely dependent on wealth, legacy and connections. 

For one, widespread stereotypes about young Nigerians also create a culture of discrimination against youths who are often seen as inexperienced, lazy and entitled.

If anything, President Buhari confirmed this perception when he said at a Commonwealth Business Forum in Westminster on April 18 that “a lot of” young Nigerians “sit and do nothing” and expect everything for free, including housing, healthcare, and education.

For the youth who are finding ways to thrive in spite of massive youth unemployment, the president’s statement provoked a backlash on social media.

With the hashtag #LazyNigerianYouth, many young people criticised the president while sharing inspiring stories of their businesses and products.

“There is a need to change the cultural stereotypes that young people are not experienced to lead,” says Hassan of the Centre for Democracy and Development . 

“You may change the law but you need to change the mindset of people to make the law effective. The campaign should not only capacitate the young aspirants but must also embark on sensitisation [programmes] on the positives of youth participation in politics.”

Chinedu George Nnawetanma, a political and socioeconomic commentator, feels reducing the age requirements would motivate youth in Nigeria to run for office, but urges caution that it does not tackle the “cost of running for office in Nigeria” which is a major barrier to the political aspiration of young people.

In 2015, Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari, then the candidate for ruling All Progressives Congress,  said he took a loan to buy the nomination form which was sold for $90,164 (27.5 million naira). Even the opposition People’s Democracy Party had sold presidential forms for $72, 131 (22 million naira). 

“In a country where youth unemployment and underemployment is 52.65 percent,” says Nnawetanma, “how do you expect young people who are still struggling to afford these exorbitant nomination forms for candidature in Nigeria's most visible political platforms?”

Nigeria's President Muhammadu Buhari faced a backlash on social media in April following remarks he made about the nation's youth at a Commonwealth event in London.(TRTWorld)

These challenges apart, Faruk of YIAGA, believes young Nigerians are prepared for the future, adding that YIAGA is planning a programme it calls Ready To Run where young people vying for political office can sign up to receive training and expand their capacity.

“There’s a growing acceptance that young people can perform if they are allowed to; we have seen a lot of people appointed by older leaders to serve in some positions,” Faruk told TRT World. 

Tayo of Chatham House argues that it is an “evolving process.”   “Political experience isn't attained overnight,” she said.  “Greater diversity doesn't mean totally shutting the dominant group out of politics;  it's about offering the electorate more choice.”

Across Africa, young people are also fighting to carve out their stake in a continent riddled with ageing leaders holding onto power for decades. In June 2015, Francisca Oteng-Mensah, then a 22-year-old law student of Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology, became Ghana’s youngest MP and last year, 23-year-old university student John Paul Mwirigi defeated veteran politicians to become Kenya’s youngest MP. 

To prepare themselves for the responsibility ahead, Chinenye Atueyi, an expert on Nigerian security and diplomacy, urges young people to reach out to people in the grassroots and to create a “strong presence” in their communities by deeply understanding what people “lack and want.”

“Bring people together to solve social problems and educate them about their democratic rights, empower the oppressed, engage in community project, and public services,” Atueyi advises young Nigerians hoping to get into political office. 

As the Not Too Young to Run bill awaits the presidential assent, Ndi Kato, who wants to crowdfund her campaign, is worried. 

“The delay is indirectly affecting us because it is not easy to campaign with the knowledge that they have not signed this bill and we might have to get out at some point,” she said.

The president could either sign or withhold assent to the proposed amendments to the constitution. And lawmakers could also override the presidential veto, but Nigeria’s next elections begin in February next year, so there’s barely enough time for young and aspiring candidates to wait.

“If they don’t sign this bill I will miss out on this opportunity,” Kato said. “It may just be this career hanging in limbo.”