The victory of Emmanuel Macron in the May 7, 2017 French presidential poll spurred a new wave of political awakening as well as optimism among young Nigerians that with the right political mobilisation and action, they could take charge of affairs in their country and offer the much-needed leadership that older generations of politicians have failed to offer. Macron was only 39 at the time.
But amid that sweeping optimism, Richard Ali, a lawyer and writer, in a Facebook post drew attention to the structural defects and “institutional and constitutional bars” in the Nigerian system that would possibly prevent a replication of the Macron magic back home. Many of those who commented on his post agreed.
“That extant system that allowed Macron to emerge at such a youthful age and at the highest level of political governance does not exist here. A certain Macron at 39 would have waited here for one year to meet the constitutional bar of section 131(b) before he began his movement, waited on INEC to register his En Marche as a political party,” wrote a certain Abdul Mahmud.
Another wind of optimism is currently blowing across the youth population in the country following the signing into law of the age reduction bill, popularly called #NotTooYoungToRun Bill, by President Muhammadu Buhari on May 31.
But at the same time, the signing of the bill has also once again drawn attention to the same old structural defects in the political system, with many analysts and players in the political process saying age had never been the issue. They argue that even though the age qualification for the office of the president had been 40 all along, the country had never produced any president within that age range since the country’s return to democratic rule in 1999.
They are also raising questions regarding education, experience, capabilities and preparedness of the Nigerian youths to hold high political offices.
The bill, as assented to by President Buhari, reduces the age qualification for the office of the president from 40 to 35; House of Representatives from 30 to 25, and State House of Assembly from 30 to 25. The age qualification for governor and Senate was retained at 35 years.
But those who spoke to BDSUNDAY stressed that while the signing of the law was a good omen for democracy, it may not make the needed impact because of the complexity of the Nigerian political system.
It’s beyond age
Chidi Okoro, a frontline governorship aspirant in Imo State on the platform of the All Progressives Grand Alliance (APGA), acknowledged the ‘Not Too Young To Run’ law as a step in the right direction which could expand and open up the Nigerian political space.
With youths making up over 65 percent of Nigeria’s population, Okoro said it was important to open up the political space for them to play more direct and active part to shape a future that would largely be theirs.
He, however, contended that age had never really been the main issue in Nigerian politics and governance as there were also issues of competence, as well as funding, which deter participation of more interested people, especially the youths.
“It’s been more about competence – the preparation and readiness including capability of the persons we elect into office. That’s a major clog that we should look to unlock,” he said.
As part of the process, Okoro advocated that the ‘Not Too Young To Run’ law should be followed up with more actions, especially the Independent Candidacy Bill, which would further open up the space for everyone, especially the youths.
“But the youths have to prepare for the burden that leadership is. We must put more emphasis at enabling our youths to build that capability,” he said.
“One radical way to start to do this more will be to reserve minimum of 30 percent of political office appointments for youths. This provides our youths with a fast-track development to build capability. The other more conventional way is to develop our education, especially the basic education, to prepare our younger ones for life in leadership,” he said.
He also called for empowerment of the youths through job creation, which would prepare the youths for leadership in a more consistent manner.
Nkem Akinsoto, US-based writer and trustee, Strategy and Innovation for Development Initiative (SI4DEV), a non-governmental organisation registered last November in Nigeria, is of the view that age was never the biggest barrier for younger people to participate in elections in Nigeria.
“Only a handful of names come to mind as I think of young people running for the presidency; people like [Nuhu] Ribadu, [Dele] Momodu, and probably Chris Okotie, and these people were nowhere near 40. Goodluck Jonathan emerged as the youngest president at over 50 years after climbing up the political ladder, and aided by a series of fortuitous events,” Akinsoto said in a Facebook chat with BDSUNDAY.
“In summary, the problem isn’t just age limit but the political atmosphere in the country, which is toxic turnoff for a lot of law-abiding young people. The steep nomination fees are so insurmountable that many aspirants resort to illegal activities to meet up. Older corrupt politicians are there to take advantage, offering filthy lucre in exchange for connections and votes,” she said.
Akinsoto said she was more interested in seeing the clause for independent candidacy pass, which unfortunately did not happen. If it had passed, Akinsoto said, the Independent Candidacy law would have allowed young people and not-so-young aspirants run on their own terms and avoid the dirty and sometimes dangerous tangle of party politics.
She, however, said with the consistency and tenacity of the young people who pushed the bill and saw it to passage, all hope was not lost.
“Because the young people who saw this bill from infancy pushed it through to this point, I definitely believe they are fully capable, committed and resolved to see their dreams to reality, same as if they were to run and secure any political position,” Akinsoto said.
“One young man caught my attention during the last Lagos State local government elections, Mr. Rhodes Vivour, an experienced and competent professional. There are more like him, some of whom I’m working with in SI4DEV. I look forward to having men and women like this run and win elections in Nigeria,” she said.
Babajide Ogunsanwo, data analyst, while appearing on Channels Television Sunrise Daily on Friday, June 1, said it shouldn’t be about age but about performance.
“If you look at the United States, even though their constitution allows them to have a 35-year-old president, never in the history of the country have they had a president in his 30s. The three youngest presidents, Theodore Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy and Bill Clinton, were in their 40s,” Ogunsanwo said.
“So when we look at the performance of a government, we should not focus on age, we should focus on deliverables and the things that they actually do,” he said.
Ogunsanwo said rather than talk about age, he would want to see aspiring young leaders being more specific about how they would grow the Nigerian economy.
“As long as the youth focus on their age as their right to democracy, they wouldn’t go too far,” he said.
Ayo Kusamotu, a lawyer and former House of Representatives aspirant in Osun State, said the coming onboard of the law was a plus to the political system. He, however, stressed the urgent need for government to equip the youths and provide an enabling environment for their development.
Kusamotu advocated for a total overhaul of the political system in the country and enthronement of internal democracy within the political parties, adding that few youths could make inroad in the current political system in Nigeria even with the law.
“Yes, the law may be a progress, but it goes beyond that. I would advise government to concentrate on providing enabling environment for youth development in the country, build schools, give soft loans to young entrepreneurs, and build hospitals. That is what we need,” Kusamotu said.
“However, I think our political system, as it is, is very complex. So, it goes beyond just the law, we also need a total overhaul of the system. Look at the political parties, there is no democracy, there is godfatherism, the process is highly monetized. All these need to be checked if we are to make any headway,” he said.
Babalola Olumuyiwa Aschor, a youth leader in Kowa Party, while advocating that certain percentage of positions be reserved for the youths, charged government to check the monetisation of the electoral system if any progress would be achieved.
“The Not-Too-Young-To-Run law will only improve youth awareness and consciousness in Nigeria’s politicking; that’s the best it will achieve. The law won’t get youths into governance,” Aschor said.
He said that if the government was serious about opening up opportunities for youths to participate in the political process, it must create level playing ground for them as well.
“Reducing age limit to run for public elective positions does little. Political parties must be made to allocate 50 percent of their elective positions to young aspirants within the ages of 25-40. Government should look into election funding. Cost of nomination forms within political parties is way too high for an average Nigerian youth. I ask for this aggressive approach because we need to put an end to this recycled system. Nigeria has recycled leaders more than any country in the world,” Aschor said.
For Aliyu Yero, a Political Science lecturer at Kaduna State University (KASU), Nigerian youths are not yet ready to take up the mantle of leadership of the country.
Yero advised young people aspiring to run for any political office to first seek guidance and mentorship from experienced hands versed in Nigerian history and politics for effective leadership.
He argued that Nigerian youths lack the required skills to run a political office effectively due to their poor quality education, calling on government to restructure the education system for the youth to have access to qualitative education that would make them better citizens.
“There is no doubt that the future of Nigeria is in the hands of the youth, but young people of today are not like those of yesterday. The literacy rate is low compared to other developed nations,” Yero said.
“Inasmuch as there is a need for new ideas as the world is gradually turning to a global village, the youth must have qualitative education first before running for political office. Education plays a vital role in the development of any nation. Therefore, government should give priority to qualitative education that will be accessible and affordable. It is the only tool that will reshape and reorient the youths towards developing their nation,” he said.
Chris Nwokobia, a 2011 presidential candidate under the platform of Liberal Democratic Party of Nigeria (LDPN), told BDSUNDAY on phone in May last year that for the optimism of the youths to bear fruit, there was need for Nigerians to ask for a legislation that would allow Nigerians in Diaspora to vote in 2019. He added that if the bill is eventually passed into law, about 5 million Nigerians resident in different countries could vote in embassies and online and that would make a huge impact.
“The bill is already before the National Assembly. I think some of the lawmakers are already getting the wind of what is happening. The bill that they passed on collation of results in polling units it is their greatest undoing; it means that at that points where most elections are rigged may just be difficult for them now,” Nwokobia told our correspondent.
“If from the polling centres election results are posted they are going to have problem if they attempt doctoring the results posted already. All things being equal, the level of transparency in the next election will definitely be higher,” he said.
For the #NotTooYoungToRun Movement which championed the bill, all of the above facts are not lost on them.
In a statement issued at a press conference following the signing of the law by the president, the movement acknowledged that the signing of the Bill marked the beginning of a new era in Nigerian politics, which would enhance “democratic development, deepen intergenerational dialogue and learning, reduce political violence and instability, enhance competitive politics, but above all, fulfil an essential requirement of democracy which is to facilitate the implementation of the fundamental right of political participation for Nigeria’s youth, which form 65 percent of the population and 53 percent of registered voters”.
While hailing the signing of the bill as “an affirmation of our belief in inclusive democracy” and that “the campaign has shown that democracy thrives when citizens assert their sovereignty through effective, strategic and systematic engagement with democratic institutions”, the movement also recognised the fact that that alone was not sufficient to guarantee youth representation in political offices.
“It will require reducing the cost of politics, democratic primaries within political parties, affirmative action/quotas and, most importantly, credible and peaceful elections,” it said.
The movement, therefore, demanded, among other things, that “political parties should reserve 50 percent of party tickets for capable, competent, and morally upright youth aspirants across all elections in 2019”; that the National Assembly should “expedite action on assenting to electoral reform bills bordering on limiting campaign expenditure and cost of securing party nomination”, and that political parties should “uphold the principles of transparency, democracy and accountability in party primaries”.
CHUKS OLUIGBO & INIOBONG IWOK