By Toyin Falola
Youth participation in politics and their role in government is one that has gained traction amongst Nigerian youths in the last two decades. Discussing this subject at a well-attended lecture at the University of Texas at Austin on February 9, 2021, under the title, “Youth, Politics, and the Future of Nigeria,” Ololade Bamidele, an active member of the Nigerian Civil Society, a successful career journalist, and currently the Secretary to the Editorial Board of Premium Times (the digital news media), commented on the socio-political and economic circumstances of the Nigerian youth, which, he explained, produced the “Not Too Young To Run” (NTYTR) and #ENDSARS movements, two of the more recent expressions of youth frustration in the Nigerian status-quo.
He logically kicked off his account by providing the definition of “youth” in Nigeria, as well as an introduction to the country’s expanding youth demography and its socio-economic implications. This is followed by a historical contextualization of the changing roles played by youth in Nigeria’s political evolution, from the pre-colonial era till present times. Then he moved on to the factors limiting youth participation in politics, rounding off with an explanation on how the resulting agitations produced NTYTR and the #ENDSARS movements, and what this means for the future of youth participation in Nigerian politics.
In his introduction, Bamidele explained that these movements, which he attributes to the rising levels of discontent in leadership performance and limited youth representation in leadership positions, also have, as a source of agitation, questions on the origin of people who can aspire to, attain, and exercise positions of leadership in Nigeria. As such, the common use of the maxim which proclaims the youths as the “leaders of tomorrow” is not because of its appeal amongst the youth whom it supposes to enthrone, neither is it an outcome of its truism founded on the principle of a natural law of succession, which provides that the older generations yield the stage for the new ones. On the contrary, its popularity is mostly due to its transformation into a motto that expresses youth frustrations against what appears to be an idea of a divine right to leadership, held by an elite clique that is impervious to changing times and standards.
Moving to the definition of “Youth,” this, he explained, depends on differing sociological perspectives, cultural contexts, and national delineations as provided for by the United Nations (UN). Thus, after providing (youth) definitions drawn from the Economic Community of West African Countries (ECOWAS), the UN, South Africa, Liberia, and Kenya, he settles on that provided in Nigeria by the National Youth Policy of 2009, which defines Nigerian youths as those between the ages of 18 and 35. In the case of Nigeria’s youth demography, over forty (40) percent of the populace is said to fall within this category. This number, which is consistently expanding owing to high fertility rates, poor family planning decisions, and lowering death rates, is projected to hit 400 million by 2050.
He explains that the existing economic difficulties created by an expanding population unmatched by economic growth and social investments in education and healthcare are made more dire by low economic earnings. This issue of low economic earnings has remained because of the failure to move the discussion on the diversification of the economy from a mono-product economy beyond the talking stage. These complications, he submitted, can only be resolved by changing the nature of politics, improving governance through more inclusiveness, and better resource allocations to cater to the needs of the population.
In providing a historical context to buttress the argument for the central role of youth in societal development, Bamidele made the point that youths have played key roles in the social and political organizations of societies across various nationalities and groups. Whereas you had the age-grade associations in the “traditional” pre-colonial period, the colonial era had young Nigerians—the likes of Herbert Macaulay, Julius Ojo-Cole, and J. B. Danqua—organizing and leading the movement against colonial rule. They created political associations like the West African Students Union (WASU), and the National Youth Movement (NYM) in 1925 and 1934, respectively. These associations, which later morphed into political parties on the eve of independence, came to include personalities such as Samuel Akinsanya, Kofo Abayomi, Nnamdi Azikiwe, Obafemi Awolowo, and Samuel Ladoke Akintola. Others were the National Council for Nigeria and the Cameroons (NCNC) in 1944; Action Group (AG) in 1950; Northern People’s Congress (NPC) in 1949; and the Northern Elements Progressive Union (NEPU) in 1950. Such were the nation’s political actors at the time of independence—made up of youths in their 2os and 30s.
In the era after political independence from Britain, the military officers who hijacked power, and those who led the country during and after the Civil War, including Kaduna Chukwuma Nzeogwu, Yakubu Gowon, Olusegun Obasanjo, and Murtala Mohammed were in their late 20s and 30s. Even those who opposed the military as members of student unions under the aegis of the National Union of Nigerian Students (NUNS) set up in 1956, youth activists, members of civil society, and professional groups were youths representing the frontline of progressive social actions. They stood in defense of social freedoms and human rights against tyrannical and oppressive regimes, often suffering through several consequences.
Things, he said, began to change with the coming of the Second Republic in 1979, and the instances of repressive leadership. Thence the frontline roles of the youth began its decline, culminating in their consignment to the “Youth Wing” of political parties. Before long, the youth were reduced to agents of destabilization in the hands of political elites who deployed them as thugs, especially during elections. With growing youth populations, less state intervention, and increasing unemployment, more youths resorted to decadent behavior, littering the streets of the urban centers in various regions of the country as “area boys,” “agbero,” and “Yan Daba.”
Regarding the factors limiting youth participation in politics, Bamidele listed poverty and other legal and political hindrances such as eligibility restriction, marginalization, and the commercialization of politics as responsible. The age restrictions which stipulate 40 years as the requirement to vie for the presidential seat; 40 years for senatorial positions; and 30 years for memberships to the federal and state Houses of Representatives, automatically disqualifies everyone in the youth bracket. And with commercialization comes the added challenges of sponsorship in Nigeria’s money-intensive election processes. This, he said, further marginalizes the youth who is already economically disempowered, and increases the necessity for godfathers and godfatherism. Due to these factors, the huge youth population, which accounts for over 50 percent of voters’ registration in the country, has not translated into increased youth participation in elections and their representation in elective offices.
This way, the options of Nigerian youths are almost exhausted as they are denied the opportunity to wield the transformative tool of political office while being compelled to bear the brunt of poor political decisions. Hence the feeling of frustrations built-up into the energies that produced the YIAGA/NTYTR movement and the #ENDSARS. The NTYTR and the #ENDSARS are, therefore, symbolic in the sense that they represent an increasing capacity of Nigerian youths to organize and channel their frustrations into social movements and protests to call for a change in the status quo. The success of the former (NTYTR) in bringing about a reduction in the age requirements for elective offices and that of the latter (ENDSARS) in bringing an end to the notorious police squad (SARS) represents an awakening by the youths as to the efficacy of pressure groups.
It is thus with this optimism—reinforced by gains recorded in youth candidacy in the 2015 elections and the inspiring organization of the ENDSARS protests—that we approach a future of youth leadership. Many ideas are packed into this lecture, and we do have a roadmap to rethink various aspects of youth politics.
*Prof Falola is Professor of History at The University of Texas at Austin, USA and a Special Columnist for Nigeriancurrent.com