By Opeyemi Oriniowo
My week started with an early Monday morning phone call from a vibrant and promising family friend who is still licking his wounds from the defeat he suffered after a rigorous bid for the local government chairmanship ticket in one of the States in South-West Nigeria. He was in an in-house competition with his father’s peers who could be considered as part of the party establishment in power, so it made it quite easy to predict how things would pan out. I gave him all the support I could and after the dust settled, I admonished him, that for me, it wasn’t about him winning the primaries and the election, but more about his audacity to run, the momentum it gathered and the hope it raised in a generation that has largely surrendered. I guess that helped put his loss at the primaries in perspective, as we both went on to dissect the process, his approach and sieve out the lessons.
Moving forward, his call this morning was to discuss an offer of a State Assembly ticket by one of the newly formed political parties laying claim to Nigeria’s youth demography as singularly for us by us. Our conversation went along the lines of me advising him by sharing my thoughts on Nigeria’s youth development and youth political participation landscape with the hope that a broader understanding from my standpoint will provide him the necessary insight to make the decision to either leave his long-standing, state-level incumbent but relatively unpopular political party, for the new alluring party with not much to offer than potential.
First, let me state that as Nigeria’s youth, we have come a long way, especially with the recent passage into law of the Not-Too-Young-To-Run Bill by 34 state assemblies in Nigeria. This effort was largely driven by civil society organisations using a movement model that resonated with virtually every Nigerian youth, perhaps more for loftiness of the idea. It is without doubt a great precedent and template for policy and legislative advocacy through movement-building, and we must commend every one of us that was involved, particularly organisations like YIAGA that played a coordinating role at the national level.
I am aware that March 14, 2018 has been set aside as the national day of action to push for presidential assent to the Not-Too-Young-To-Run Bill. I particularly look forward to my involvement in this mobilisation effort at Unity Fountain, Abuja. However, I don’t need a crystal ball to predict that the president will waste no time in assenting to this bill, especially at this critical juncture of his presidency that is on and off life support. I trust the president’s handlers to see how jumping in front of this youth wave benefits him as yet another gift, albeit tokenistic, for the teeming youth that were instrumental to his victory at the polls in 2015. It is the least he can do vis-à-vis the four million jobs that were lost last year and the increase in youth un-employment rate from 14.2 percent to 18.8 percent in 2017, to say the least. Besides, it makes for good optics for the 76-year-old leader, who might get a second term in office as president of a country where youth account for over 63 percent of the electorate, to identify with the Not-Young-To-Run bill. The joke is on us!
My friends, I hate to burst your bubble but it is evident that it took more than our advocacy to get the movement to this final stage of the president’s assent. Where in the world or particularly on our continent have we seen power given up so easily? They know a bill reducing the age we can run for office is not a potent threat to the establishment, so they might as well join us in the charade and milk it for all that it is worth. So while we celebrate this milestone, let us not suffer fool-hardy. The process to the actual change we seek is a marathon and must be seen as resilient, vigilant and equipped to go the long haul. So far, our collective disposition is of a people only prepared for a hundred-metre race. We are presently the generation with the potential of rising above the parochial interest of self that manifests as ethno-religious divide, which is at cross purpose with our collective well-being.
Without mincing words, we are presently failing to live up to expectation, as some of us who should know better are carrying on as if our intention is to be recruited into the status quo as an exception, and to continue with the usual oppression. Within the youth civil space, there is a distasteful penchant for titles, such as those of ‘Coordinator’, ‘Founder, ‘Leader, or ‘Executive Director’ of one youth movement or the other, as against striking partnerships and building networks where the collective goal is bigger than any individual ego-feeding habit. Our singular strength is in our numbers and our numbers won’t amount to much if we are unable to aggregate our voices. To do this, we must understand that those of us at the forefront of the struggle with decent education from within and outside of the country, whose parents started us up with a middle-class and upward standards of living are not the representation of the average Nigerian youth. The foundation of democracy is choice and its benefit can only be realised when the people have the capacity to make the right choice. The greatest injustice done to the generality of us is the systemic denial of our right to good education. This has hindered our collective choices and we must move the Not-Too-Young-Run advocacy to a movement aimed at waking our demography up across all social strata.
Secondly, we do not deserve a shot at the helm of affairs of this country just because we are young, so I will advise that we end such crass opportunism. So far, there are at least three registered political parties claiming to be representing the youth of this country without any corresponding grassroots movement in any part of the country; they are not even in any serious talks with existing socio-political youth groups across the federation. We need to understand the age long principle that you only reap where you sow. I was expecting that by now we would have a grand roll-out of plans to build structures across geo-political zones. We need to begin a volunteerism drive targeted at secondary schools and higher institutions of learning. We might as well rule out the 2019 presidential election that is only 11 months away.
Thirdly, we must be frank with ourselves and ask each other what we have to offer that is better than the status quo. What business have we run? What is our track record of public service? Are we responsible in our immediate families and communities? You can’t be seen as running from your old student’s association and also shying away from estate meetings, yet want people to entrust a local government in your hands. As a rule of thumb, I will advise we young people that we collectively decide not to vote any of us, or anyone for that matter, into a political office, who has no primary occupation. We need professionals in politics, not professional politicians. The Not-To-Young-To-Run movement can only be sustained beyond the presidential assent against the backdrop of a paradigm shift that is rooted in a new socio-economic order for Nigeria. We must not allow the movement become a recruiting ground for the sustenance of the old order. We must not end up becoming the justification of the old cultural narrative where age is synonymous with leadership capacity. This is food for thought!
Opeyemi Oriniowo is a youth advocate, international development practitioner and analyst.