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Opinion: Obstacles to Effective Citizenry Political Participation in Nigeria: Further Comment on Not Too Young to Run Act; By John I Abhuere


Since June 2018 when the Not Too young To Run Act was enacted, there has been misreading in the air. The general feeling is that at last the youth can run and win political offices in Nigeria. In the first part of my reflection I showed why the assumption here may be wrong. In reality, the youth like their adult counterparts, were not constrained by law or age but by extra -legal technicalities or detailed requirements for winning an election in Nigeria.
There are the visible and invisible obstacles, permanent disabilities and operational difficulties beyond age qualification which had disabled many Nigerians from effective participation in the political process of the country over time.
I shall explore further some of these obstacles that have worked against effective citizenry participation in the country. Truly, the youth were not held back from active politics or having a fair share of political power by lack of adequate laws but by other other factors such as lack of money, organisation and experience, man- made obstacles, party structure, behind the scene manipulation by the godfathers and some other unseen factors, including charisma, cultism etc. Unless these were taken care of, the dream of effective youth participation in the political process of Nigeria would be frustrated.
There are indeed many hindering factors against effective political participation of the youth. A leading factor here is mass poverty: poverty of money, knowledge, skills and experience.Most of the youth are unemployed and thus poor materially. They are certainly not in a position to run a successful campaign unless sponsored by the rich .
For me the major problem or most hindering factor here has been high cost of running for political office in Nigeria. As William Cohan has shown in his book – Money and Power- How Goldman Sachs came to rule the world- (Anchor Books 2011) money is a very potent factor in power politics. It plays an important role in politics. If you are in doubt, ask the Abiolas, the Trumps, Kennedys, the Obasanjos, etc and they will tell you the truth. With it, a man or group could easily carry out a successful political campaign, win party nomination, influence the direction of politics in society and help to get tickets for favored candidates.
It is needless to say that the kind of money that would win political power in Nigeria is beyond the reach of the youth. Thus if it is legislated today that only those below thirty years should run for political offices including the president’s, you would find that only the youth with access to good money will emerge. To this extent, the Not Too Young to Run Act may just be a tool to concentrate governance or political power on few rich families in Nigeria. As just hinted this may produce the unintended consequence of dynasty politics where children of the rich succeed their parents and dominate the political space of the country. That would not be democracy but oligarchy or plutocracy or highly adulterated form of democracy that deepens inequality and heightens exclusion of many from the decision making process.
Against the hindering factors, the youth should be prepared for shocks and to absorb them. Politicians do many strange things including spending much time holding meeting with friends and even enemies, rivals and highly distrusted people. Remember that there is no noble ideology binding them in Nigeria today – just sheer greed driven by selfish interest, no national interest or collectively shared values. Only self interest to win power.
Some of the problems are with the youth – for instance lack of political education, experience and skills while others – far more weighty and complex are with the larger environment for instance elite’s corruption, arbitrariness of the god fathers etc which are outside the control of the youth. Together they have made the youth helpless. This is important to stress because before the “Not Too Young to Run”Act, there were laws that opened opportunity for them to serve say at the local government areas, Legislative Assembly etc but which the youth failed to take due advantage of.
The big question is: Why were they unable to take advantage of existing opportunity? And what is the ground today to change the game for the better?
On the whole lack of money and poor knowledge are the greatest hindrance to effective youth participation and they will take time to abate or overcome. Thus, I am distressed as I wonder aloud about how to get the good and altruistic rich Nigerians that would guide the youth right, pick their election bills without stringent dependency conditions or making them puppets in power. Or invest honestly in the promotion of democracy without really compromising it. There might be few, but it is difficult to find them. This is necessary in order to make the Not Too Young to Run Act to achieve its main goal.
It should always be borne in mind that one thing is to make laws another is to make them work. Two key actors are important, namely the state to create the enabling environment and the citizens to rise to the occasion of operating under the law with care, requisite knowledge and skills to do the needful. No doubt the game is hard to play and difficult to learn and the task here is to draw attention to some of the leading issues and to suggest what the youth should do to overcome difficulties in the political arena of the country. The youth must be taught the right thing and shown the right way.
I think there has been too much gaze on the age factor here. But this is the littlest of the obstacles to effective participation. Whatever age set, the youth would grow up to know that beyond the age thing, there are so many environmental factors that had constrained effective citizenry participation in politics in Nigeria for a long time now.These include party structure, low level of political education, leadership challenges, party funding, high cost of running for elections in the country, party membership and discipline, rigging, lack of skills and experience in political organizations, elite’s manipulation.
In this regard, I am worried by current powerlessness and helplessness of the youth in Nigeria and the lessons of history and experience of elections in Nigeria which clearly show that age has not been the major hindrance to winning election to political office today. While the ambition here will surely take far longer time than imagined to materialize, over time I have come to the conclusion that even though a low age limit may be useful, it is not as important as funds, organising skill, experience etc. The emphasis on lower age limit for political offices is misplaced and diversionary. The aspiring youth need to know all this and begin a process of self development and empowerment to confront them in their bid for a rewarding political career.
They should think less of the age limit because even if the qualification for president is for instance lowered to 17 years, not many youth would become president. For example, the basic educational qualification for the president’s office today is School Certificate or its equivalence. But how many people – adults – with such qualification have been able to get the nomination of their party to run? Only a select few. As a top government official recently volunteered, the president’s position in Nigeria is a product of negotiation behind the scene. This applies to almost every elective office. The youth need to know the parties to such negotiation.
These problems including the sad and embarrassing unintended consequences of the Act are a great source of worry to me today. The question is who will solve these problems and fill the gaps created by them? Who will bell the cat or pick the bills? This is not to say that we should not try hard to lay a political foundation for the youth. But in doing so, we should be careful not to raise false hopes unduly. It is to point to some aspects of our political reality which had frustrated the adults and made politics an exclusive club of the rich under the lock and key of a handful of godfathers in Nigeria.
It is to argue too that the same factors that frustrated the adults would do same to the youth, the Act notwithstanding. The truth is that the frustrating obstacles are still very much around and they would not spare the youth from their harmful touch and hindering effect. It is to show the youth the right way to go and how to go about it. While we hope some good people and the state may rise to work to develop and empower the youths, they should commence a programme of self development.
Before now the youth outside the National Youth Service Corps scheme largely played ignoble role as thugs in the process of the country. The Not Too Young to Run Act can be seen as wake up to change their plebeian role to a more majestic one and to be positively busy in the political scene. Though I have likened the Act to a parent’s gift of toy to children to keep them busy and quiet, yet as I equally observed some toys can be mentally and physically stimulating, engaging and rewarding.
Towards the effort to play the political game, the youth must develop the spirit of persistence and concentration. They should not not be deterred- no matter the high level of frustration or difficulty. They should stay on the political path. As they say “a journey of thousand miles starts with a step”. They must show courage, determination, patience and willingness to move the first step and stay on to master the ropes and rules of the political game. They must not quit the political path no matter how stony and thorny.
As the anxioms say, ‘Time heals all wounds’ and ‘there is time for every thing’ on earth- time to plant and a season to harvest. The youth must therefore be prepared to learn the techniques of the game first before playing it with the assurance that success awaits the diligent learner and able worker with the march of time. As many of the rules of politics in Nigeria are not written, the youth would have to be in it to discover them, and to learn how to apply them profitably. They should always remember the saying that “Nothing good comes easy”: Political power is good and sweet- when properly used for the good of society. Among others this will require them to have a period of mentoring and apprenticeship-a period of dedicated learning to know for instance how to raise money to navigate the political terrains.
The youth must truly be involved. They must begin to use their numerical strength better. Before now they supported one party or the other, but not one formed and funded by them. For personal survival, they were tempted to follow the highest bidder- not one with shared ideology and to play inferior but dangerous role of law breakers, thugs, body guards, etc.
The numerical strength of the youth has been in society over time but was latent for lack of effective organisation. It has not translated into political power because of some factors both within and outside the control of the youth. The youth must organise themselves for power. A good step is to register with a political party of their choice or form for purpose of winning political power in future.
For me the immediate task is to get the youth started in politics through effective mobilisation, organisation, development and empowerment.They should be prepared for a re moulding in thoughts and actions.Towards this end, there is the urgent need for political education to make people discover themselves, to know what politics is all about, their roles in it, essence of powers and how best to use the latter for the common good. For example the strength of the youth in a country such as Nigeria is in their large number- about 60% of the population. But as I observed in my book-Power of youth…. that power or strength has not been properly utilized or harnessed for the good of society. The Not too young to run Act may therefore be important sign of good things in the offing – a sort of wake up bell.
But there are many hurdles to be removed. First is mass illiteracy and low political education of the citizens. Generally political consciousness and political education of the average citizen is low -more so among the youth while little effort has been made to develop and empower them through employment and civic and political education Though there is a growing political consciousness in the country, the youth have not yet learned how to use their numerical strength to advantage, say to work for themselves or to organize themselves into formidable force of positive change. In fact they are disorganized and are far better in working for others than for themselves. They have no common voice, but voices and they do not project one ideology but many ideologies, values which reflect those of their parents, family members, teachers,friends etc they admire.
They need to know and learn the process through participation.The youth need to be educated to realize what political life is all about. Let take party membership for illustration. At the moment for anyone to contest elections he or she must be a member of political party. He has to keep to the rules of the game maintain party loyalty and discipline, gain skills and experience in party organization, make financial contributions to sustenance of party, do some tutelage with experienced members, learn both the visible and invisible sides of the game etc . All these activities which constitute the political learning experience of the individual take some long time to cover which the youth may not be aware of or prepared for.
There is the question of poor or unhealthy attitude to work to consider too. The youth acquired from their homes and adult society a poor attitude to work and the wrong concept of education as a “bread and butter” thing- a passport to level 8 or 9 job in the civil service? There has therefore been a tendency to reject many opportunities outside this poor and wrong idea of education.
Henceforth the youth must be ready to do away with their graduate- mentality- the bread and butter concept of education that places greatest premium on paper qualification that repudiates hard work and which had caused the “Diploma decease”in many countries including Nigeria. Are they ready to learn the basics of political game? They need to know that the sound principle of getting to the top of any chosen career include sound knowledge, skills, competence and experience . These come with hands on the job, mentoring, team work over time.
Towards this ultimate goal, the importance of effective participation of the youth in politics as a way of learning how to play the game very well cannot be over- stressed. As already observed, some of the factors that have kept many qualified Nigerians from power are visible, others are not, and one only encounters them when one is in the game proper. It is largely a hands- on thing- a kind of on the job learning experience. The youth would have to be in it to know what is in it and how best to go about it.They must remain focussed on the game to explore both the internal and external factors many of them outside of the book. Thus their practical involvement is of essence here for self- discovery, self- education, self- Learning, and self correction.
The knowledge gap problem is as serious as the money shortage issue. Not many young people are members of political parties.yet many are dreaming or even salivating for power. Thus there has been low levels of political skills and experience among the youth. While there is therefore the need to acquire appropriate skills knowledge and experience in political organization, many of the youth have no managerial, organisational and administrative skills and financial muscle to mobilize and organize resources including fellow youth to play the power game.
They must be ready for stiff competition. Democratic politics is all about competition for positions and the youth must be ready for the game by learning and mastering its ropes. For this to happen as expected, the youth must be active and alert. They must make up their mind, and develop a strong liking for politics and a heightened desire for political power. The political jungle in Nigeria is both wide and wild. It requires care to navigate. They must therefore move with deliberate caution and an open mind to learn a game which some writers such as Alamu Tatalo have described as very “cruel in Nigeria”.
It should be observed that the idea to promote political inclusion of fresh hands in politics is not new in Nigeria. Since the Nigerian Youth Movement (NYM) days of the 1930s the idea has been in the air. Many political parties had youth wings to catch them young. It was what Gen. Ibrahim Babangida meant when he propounded the idea of new breed politicians only to have puppets at hand working for their grand masters instead of the nation. Some past governors then in their forties or mid thirties in a bid to promote greater participation of younger people in government had organised a movement which aimed to have only people under 50 years hold electoral political offices in Nigeria. But it failed to fly.
All these attempts did not deliver power to the youth. They were kept at the periphery and subjected to plebeian role especially as messenger of chaos, disruption etc. Apart from environmental constraints, the idea of excluding the over fifty people from politics was largely a stupid one. Besides most of the under fifty people had no money to invest in politics. Very soon, it was found out that the few so called new breed politicians who got into office at relatively young age were morally bankrupt and they were no better in substance, character, performance etc than the old breed politicians in governance. Like the old breed politicians, corruption flowed heavily in the blood of the new breed politicians. It was their major disease too!!!
As many Nigerians under 50 years did not have the financial means to participate effectively in the political process to attain political power, the vacuum was filled by the money bags. And this explains the rise and dominance of the god fathers in the political space of Nigeria today. And the phenomenon will not abate with the advent of the Not Too Young to Run Act. While as already observed the fear is rife that the advent of the Act may assume a new dimension by nurturing and entrenching dynasty politics in the country, it would heighten the influence of the godfathers and make their illicit business to flourish with all the adverse implications for democracy.
Some people may see this as cynicism taken too far. But it is not. I argue on the basis of knowledge, experience and long period of intellectual engagement with the question of youth/citizenry participation in the development especially how to use their power and energies to move the country forward in the right direction. Let me reveal here that I was one of those who advocated for a lower age qualification than 45 years for political offices which was originally proposed for president in the draft copy of the constitution by the Military that was then under debate and review. I made my presentation at the Sokoto sitting of the Review committee and called for the lowering of the age qualification to accommodate more youth in politics – to promote effective youth participation in the political process.
But many years have since past with opportunities to watch, review, assess and evaluate developments and I am much wiser now than hitherto. I can see the reality and its associated futility. Based on lessons leant from history I can say it even if with some sense of disappointment and frustration, that the current age limit is not the problem. Rather than legal age limit, the real hindering factors against effective youth participation are environmental constraints especially funding, party structure and high cost of elections in Nigeria.
My advice to the aspiring political youth is to empower themselves for the D-Day by reading the law, mastering its contents, putting it aside to begin to learn the seen and unseen rules of power politics in Nigeria. The present age limit will not take them further beyond their present reach because it is littlest of all the requirements or incentives that would catapult the youth to political power. Like others in the Nigerian political jungle, the youth need money, political education, party experience, organisational skills, appropriate platform to canvass for votes, enlightened environment to campaign on issues, etc. Unless special arrangements were made in favour of minority groups such as the youth, women, disabled, their access to power will not be guaranteed. Yet affirmative action that grants special privileges to a group at the expense of others is not truly democratic but a corruption of the principle of democracy.

Dr. Abhuere is the Founder/Chaiman Centre for Child Care and Youth Development, Abuja.

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