The idea of Nigerian youths in politics and governance has been advanced by several youths and youth groups in recent times. In 2014, I led a group of young Nigerian professionals under the banner of Rethink Nigeria to present a document on this issue to the then National Conference.
The document made a case for youth inclusion in politics and governance. The argument we made back then, remains the same today. The idea of youth as leaders of tomorrow has reduced a demographic majority to a political minority. What this means is that while the youths control the majority of votes cast during elections, they end up controlling nothing after politicians win elections.
A close look at the history of Nigeria shows how much the youth have featured prominently in political leadership and governance. But in recent times, the story is not exactly the same.
Shehu Shagari became a Federal Legislator at the age of 30 and a Minister at the age of 35. M.T. Mbu became a Minister at the age of 25 and Nigeria’s High Commissioner to the United Kingdom at the age of 26. Richard Akinjide became Minister of Education at the age of 32. Maitama Sule became Oil Minister at the age of 29. Audu Ogbeh was a Minister at the age of 35. He is still serving today as a minister. And the list goes on.
In contrast, today’s reality is a polity where Nigerian youths are used as election consultants, social media battalions, and political thugs. Many have blamed the new trend on a conspiracy of the elite class who just cannot stand the idea of vacating the scene for the younger generation creating a system that makes it impossible for young people to emerge and succeed in politics and governance. While this perspective is not entirely incorrect, there are more than enough premises to validate the argument that Nigerian youths are their biggest problem.
Greed, selfish ambition, lack of capacity and “over-competition” have conspired to weaken the ability of Nigerian youths to collaborate effectively as a united front that advances the well-being of young Nigerians.
Let’s look at some of the challenges that have constrained the Nigerian youth to the fringes of political leadership and governance and why nobody really takes them seriously.
First, selfishness. The idea that you must have everything for yourself alone and others can go to hell is a predominant characteristic of young people today.
Then you have the integrity challenge. Young people cannot expect to be trusted with leadership if they insult politicians in the social media one moment and the next moment approach these same politicians cap in hand.
The third is the mentality of every man for himself; the idea that you must demonize and destroy other youths as long as it guarantees you a spot at the top.
Lack of capacity is another major issue. The urge by youths to arrive quickly at the top without first subjecting themselves to building capacity going through process; mentorship, followership, and apprenticeship. Today, many young people want to own a company and lead an organization, even when the capacity for such leadership is lacking.
We must not forget poverty. Many youths are constrained by sheer economic pressure and find themselves ready to do anything for survival.
Competition in place of healthy collaborations has turned many young people into rat race runners who feel compelled to prove a point that they are the best at what and end up not seeing any good in others.
A recently disturbing trend is the rising wave of intolerance to dissenting viewpoints and ideologies. Come to the social media and see what young people are doing to themselves in the name of politics and the superiority contest to establish who holds the best opinion.
The ‘Pull Him Down’ syndrome is a predominant characteristic of today’s youth. If it’s not me in that position, whoever else is there must be disgraced, embarrassed and pulled down.
I remember being labeled with all sorts of names in the social media and the only crime I committed was taking a political appointment to work with the Nigerian Govt. Every ministry where I served as a ministerial aide, much of the attacks I faced came from young people. Ministries that were forgotten suddenly became trending topics on Twitter because Ohimai went there. They completely forgot I was a young person like them and needed their support to succeed. As far as some were concerned, I had joined their oppressors on the other side. Today, many of such critics back then have now lost their voices. Everything is now fine with the Defence, Foreign Affairs, Youth and Sports ministries… Ohimai is no longer there!
Frontline Nigerian blogger Linda Ikeji bought a house and the greatest noise came from young people like her. There was even a time attempts were made to take down her blog.
Audu Maikori was arrested for a Facebook comment he apologized for and some youths in the Nigerian social media wanted him jailed.
I was shocked during my visit to Harvard when I discovered how a contemporary has been going about in international circles parading himself as “Mr Fix Nigeria”. I am mostly known by the name “Mr Fix Nigeria”. It’s the username for all my social media handles. It was a name I earned in 2007 while carrying out my national youth service assignment at the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC). So I told the folks at Harvard there is only one “Mr Fix Nigeria” and he’s not the one you have been dealing with.
But on a serious note, these are reflections of what young people do to themselves in the name of competition and survival and these are the complicated symptoms that characterize why young people are failing to organize themselves effectively into a powerful bloc of change makers who can inspire true leadership beyond exploits in business and the creative industries.
Looking at the concept of political participation and the way forward, it is instructive to note that Nigerian youths must wake up and face the reality that their votes on election day gives them enough power as youths. It is a necessary first step but it is more complicated than that.
If you observe critically, you will discover that what most young voters are able to achieve on election day is to validate the options presented to the electorate by political parties. What this means is that the voter is not really the one who wields political power but the party people who decide the candidates we all vote for on election day. The far-reaching implication of this is that when party A and party B give us bad candidates, whichever candidate the majority decides ends up being a bad leader anyway.
Going forward, the key to effective youth participation in politics and governance is to begin to get involved at the political party level. That is where all sort of characters we disdain as leaders first emerge. If we are not involved at the level of the parties where decisions are taken on the candidates presented to the electorate, the youths, despite their demographic majority, are unable to effect real change.
But let me sound a note of warning. The advocacy for more youths in politics and governance does not automatically guarantee good governance. A corollary to the earlier context I provided is the fact that there are young people who are incompetent, dishonest and corrupt. I have been a passionate advocate of youth in politics and governance but I’m always quick to add that they must be young people with character, integrity, a pedigree, and a track-record. In Nigeria, we don’t look at track records anymore. We need to start really looking at people’s track records, what they have done and where they are coming from.
Packaging and social media followership is the language of today’s generation, but it does not qualify you for leadership. Young people must start asking aspiring leaders, especially fellow youths: what have you done? Show us your resume.
We must also encourage young Nigerians to build capacity first before parading themselves as superstars. There are no short cuts. A good number of our elders may have stumbled on leadership at a very youthful age, but increasingly, today’s reality requires competence and hard work.
All youths cannot go into politics but many of them; the competent ones with character and integrity must get in there. And their fellow Nigerian youths must encourage and not demonize them.
I look forward to the day youthful and youth-friendly people like Toyosi Akerele, Chude Jideonwo, Kola Oyeneyin, Linus Okorie, Fela Durotoye, Hassan Rilwan etc will run for office. Young Nigerians must support them if ever or whenever that time comes. I’m aware my good friend Dayo Isreal is seeking political office in Lagos. As young people, we should support him.
Conclusively, young Nigerians will need to also understand that as youths, we are not in a rat race competition. We can coexist to ‘coopete’ – working together even when we have different targets and aspirations. We all need to start looking at ways we can collaborate as young people across political divides. We must learn from the older generation and how they team up together to advance their interests. Enough of this politics of APC versus PDP that has turned young Nigerians who were once friends into public enemies. This is the only way we can begin to win and change Nigeria together.