International Youth Day 2020: The dilemma of youth participation in Nigerian politics
By Chimaobi Afiauwa
“One of the penalties of not participating in politics is that you end up being governed by your inferiors”- Plato.
The above Plato’s quote resonates in me whenever I ruminate about the fate of youths in Nigerian politics; not just our youth but other intellectuals who have completely avoided politics because of the perceptible disdain in it.
Political participation has become one of the hallmarks of democracy. However, the level of citizens participation in politics is dependent on their political culture. To this end, there are predominantly three types of political culture in the literature: parochial (low consciousness), subjective (neither low nor high consciousness) and participant political culture (high consciousness).
If there is any generation of Nigerian youths that understood the importance of political participation and the penalties of not participating in politics at all, it was that of the pre-independence and first republic.
Under the scourges of colonialism and its derisive effect of dehumanisation accompanied by rapacious economic pillage and plunder, it was the youth of that time that awakened the political consciousness of other Nigerians to the perils of colonialism. Through their activism, they mobilised traders, workers and students in protests against enslaving and discriminatory policies of the colonial government. Not just protests, symposia, seminars and conferences were organised by these youths to enlighten older Nigerians on their rights; they as well gave them platforms for political participation. Tafawa Balewa, for instance, at the age of 30, had formed the Bauchi Discussion Circle — a group which provided a needed platform to his people to deliberate on Nigerian politics, particularly on how it affects them.
As early as 1945, personalities like Nnamdi Azikiwe, Obafemi Awolowo, Tafawa Balewa, Anthony Enahoro, just to mention a few – all in their youthful age, were already in the scheme of things, orchestrating the processes of decolonising Nigeria. They all had their articulated opinions and positions on any national issue. At that point, one could already see that Zik was in favour of a “strong centre federalism” while Awo, in aversion for Zik’s postion, was for a “loosed centre federalism”. It was, therefore, not surprising that many of them represented thier respective regions, political parties and ethnic groups in subsequent constitutional conferences.
Popularly referred to as the nationalists, these generation of youths knew that their agitation for political inclusion in the then British Nigeria would not be complete without belonging to political parties. Thus, when the opportunity availed itself through the provision of elective principle of Clifford constitution in 1922, they quickly grabbed it with their two hands, and formed political parties.
The formation of the Nigerian Youth Movement (NYM), a metamorphosis of Lagos Youth Movement (LYM) formed in 1934, was, and still remains, the crescendo of youths political consciousness in Nigeria. NYM through its youth mobilisation across the country, subsequently dislodged NNDP from the Lagos Legislative Council in the elections of 1938.
Another pre-independence political party, Action Group (AG) was formed by the Pan-Yoruba leader and sage, Obafemi Awolowo at his youthful age of 41.
Interestingly, this generation of youths needed no special Act of the Parliament like the present day ‘Not Too Young To Rule’ to contest for elections. They did not just contest for elections to make up the numbers; they contested and won legislative elections. At the age of 36, Tafawa Balewa was already flinging his ‘Agbada’ in a filibustering legislative arguement in the Northen House of Assembly. Nnamdi Azikiwe, on his part, became a member of the Lagos Legislative Council at the age of 43 in 1947. Very significantly, it may baffle some to know that the historic motion for Nigeria’s self-rule in 1957 was moved by a radical and ebullient 30 year old Anthony Enahoro in 1953.
When nepotism, corruption and political intolerance grossly engulfed Nigeria in the first republic, again, the youth of that time did not hesitate to take their fate into their hands. Young military revolutionaries below the ranks of Lieutnant Colonels, staged a coup, albeit ill-fated one, to reposition the country. Major Chukwuma Kaduna Nzeogwu, a 29 year old Army officer led other young officers to execute the first coup on the 15th of January, 1966.
Subsequently, other major political crises which were all off-shoots of the first coup, saw young military officers leaving their footprints on the sands of time, either for the right or wrong reasons. The political crisis that ensued after the counter coup of July 1966, saw Yakubu Gowon become the Head of State at the age of 31. Then, at 32, he superintended over the country during her turbulent time of civil war that began in 1967. His counterpart and another dramatis persona of the war, Ojukwu, was 34 when he declared the secession of Biafra.
But, today, even as the world celebrates International Youth Day, there has been a paradigm shift in youths’ participation in Nigerian politics; as a matter of fact, their political fate has taken a downward spiral. While it is difficult to rummage through the annals of Nigeria’s political development without coming across the footprints of Youths who shaped the political landscape of the country during pre-independence, first republic and the military era, the present day youths are now finding it difficult to even break into the corridors of mainstream politics.
One may be forced to ask why the paradigm shift?
Since the return of civilian rule in 1999, Nigeria’s political system has wittingly found a way of transforming ex-military leaders into politicians. Starting with Obasanjo as President, retired military Generals realised that their political ambitions which were cut short by the return of the military to the barracks, could be resuscitated under the civilian rule. Of course, being the ones that prepared the document for the hand over, they set the rules in their favour. Thus, the statutory requirement to become President or Governor, was to have a minimum qualification of O’level and be between the age of 45 and above. Once the die was cast, many retired military officers dumped their ‘Khaki’ in preference for ‘Agbada’.
This, indeed, precipitated the re-cycling of leaders and gerontocracy in Nigeria because many of them who ended up occupying political positions were one time or the other, Governors or Heads of State during the military era.
But, today, even as the world celebrates International Youth Day, there has been a paradigm shift in youths’ participation in Nigerian politics; as a matter of fact, their political fate has taken a downward spiral.
That these gerontocrats have clustered the political space of Nigeria is not much of a problem to me, but their inability to deliver good governance is much of a bigger problem. Over the years, these leaders have been riding on the gullibility of the youth to perpetuate themselves in power. For, indeed, it has become a mere political rhetorics of youths being told hitherto that they are the leaders of tomorrow; yet the manifestation of it has for long been impossible, if not elusive. Even the incumbent President, Muhammadu Buhari, who had the opportunity to lead the country as a military Head of State at a young age, only signed the “Not Too Young To Rule Act” on the condition that the youth should allow him finish up his tenure.
Ironically, however, not even the “Not Too Young To rule Act” can help the course of youths participation in Nigerian politics. Why? Politics in Nigeria is overtly monetised; hence, they lack the wherewithal for political mobilisation. This, perhaps, explains why so many youth organisations keep soliciting for patronage form politicians. Monetisation of Nigerian politics is being use as a veritable tool in the hands of politicians who have the wherewithal to limit the space for active political participation. For instance, you dare not pick any party’s nomination form for Governor, if you are not a multi millionaire, or have someone of such who can bankroll your political ambition.
Cleverly, but very mischievous of them, our keplotocratic politicians have replaced political participation – a fundamental dividend of democracy – with stomach infrastructure (otherwise known as belly politics). Belly politics, among many other things, has become a diversionary strategy by politicians to make their supporters very insensitive to their antics. They only empower people, particularly youths, but only to the extent that they sing their praises, albeit sycophantically. The radical ones are, however, empowered more than the praise singers (political hallelujah boys), but all for the purpose of making them footsoldiers. This explains why there are always the issues of proliferation of arms, holiganism and thuggery amongst youths during elections.
To go further, the harsh economic reality of Nigeria has, and remains one of the factors limiting youths participation in politics. An average Nigerian youth is more concerned about economic survival than political participation.
Unemployment, under-employment, drug abuse and prostitution are some of the effects of Nigeria’s economic predicaments on the youth. And all these have been occassioned by years of successive maladministration of the country’s abundant resources. A country that has not be able to harness the potentials of her youths, has led to many of the youth seeking for greener pastures abroad through some dangerous means.
Among many factors that can be blamed for the passive participation of youths in Nigerian politics, the attitude of the youth towards politics cannot be left out. Despite the fact that they constitute about 45% of the country’s demographics, majority of them still exhibit political parochialism. Sadly, those who have subjective political culture are quickly bought over by politicians to become their defacto spokepersons and e-rats.
Moreso, the platform of Student Union Government (SUG) that is supposed to be a breeding ground for youths to learn the arts of politics and governance in the higher institution, has been corrupted. Yes, there is no shameful and obnoxious characteristics of Nigerian circular politics that are not found in Student Union Government politics across our higher institutions. Tribalism, ethnic/religious chauvinism, cultism and other primordial sentiments have become the unwritten factors that decide the outcome of SUG elections. It would probably be a herculian task, if not mission impossible, for a student of University of Nigeria Nsukka (UNN), who is of Northern extraction to become the SUG President of his school. I am sure the same fate would befall on a student of Ahmadu Bello University (ABU) that is from the Eastern region.
Just as Nigeria’s macro politics is built on frivolities, so is the SUG politics. Prior to elections, caucus meetings are usually held in popular hotels and bars within and outside campuses. Funny enough, whenever such meetings are held, aspirants are the ones expected to foot the bills of whatever is consumed in the course of the meeting. The caucus members or stakeholders as they are popularly referred to, see such meetings as opportunities to milk aspirants, not minding if they have what it takes to lead.
And this reminds me of the experience I had in my alma mater, University of Port Harcourt. I was opportuned to attend one of the caucus meetings that took place before the SUG election of 2015/2016 academic session. The meeting was called by a body of Speakers and Deputy Speakers of Student Association of all faculties on campus. Immediately aspirants got wind of the meeting, they started trooping in to the bar where the meeting was being held. As a ritual in politics, of course, they came to declare their interests on different elective positions and also solicit for supports from the body.
For any aspirant to introduce him/herself and subsequently present his/her manifesto to the house, a bottle of wine must be on the table. Not only the wine, money has to be placed under the wine to serve as its base. Now, the amount of money under your bottle of wine would determine how strong or otherwise it is standing. The shout of “standing well well” would mean that the money is satisfactory to the house. Before the meeting ended, a substantial amount of money had been realised coupled with about fifteen bottles of wine.
After the caucus meeting, the question that came to my mind was very simple: would the youth do any better if given the opportunity to rule this country? This question is better imagined than answered. I also came to the realisation of the fact that, whenever a Nanny (She goat) is grazing with her kids, the kids are always watchful and observant of how she moves her mouth in masticating the grass. Nigerian youths, in any case, have not been bad students on the politics of frivolities; they have obviously learnt from their masters – the gerontocrats. It should, however, be made clear at this point that politics and good governance relatively has nothing to do with age, but credibility and competence. For, if being in a leadership position at a youthful age automatically translates to good governance, then Yahaya Bello of Kogi state would have been the best Governor in Nigeria. Unfortunately, his style of administration in the state, is much of a discredit and demarketing the “Not Too Young To Rule” agitation.
Insofar as our gerontocratic leaders have not taken us to the promise land, handing power over to the youth may appear a dilemmatic option. And while youth participation in today’s Nigerian politics is long overdue, their involvement should not be based on premordial sentiment, but because they have something better to offer to the suffocating socio-political and economic landscape of the country.