Nigeria, give youth a chance!

Age old problem: Nigeria’s Constitution restricts who can participate in government but this is about to change (Nichole Sobecki, AFP)

Age old problem: Nigeria’s Constitution restricts who can participate in government but this is about to change (Nichole Sobecki, AFP)

Nigeria, like most African states, is an overwhelmingly youthful country. More than half of its 182-million people are under the age of 30, and that percentage is expected to increase as the population grows.

But there is no youth representation at the highest levels of government. Legally, there cannot be.
According to age limits imposed by Nigeria’s Constitution, senior positions are the preserve of the older generations. Presidential candidates must be over the age of 40, governors and senators over 35 and members of the House of Representatives over 30.

Young activists are trying to change this. #NotTooYoungToRun is a campaign designed to lower these age limits and increase youth participation in politics.

Launched in 2016 by the Youth Initiative for Advocacy, Growth and Advancement, a coalition of youth advocacy groups, the campaign has been an overwhelming success — proof, perhaps, of just how powerful Nigeria’s youth can be if harnessed effectively.

Spurred on by the campaign, in July last year the Senate passed a Bill to lower these age limits. The Bill also makes it easier for independent candidates to run for office, potentially removing another barrier to entry. This month, 12 provinces have passed similar Bills, part of the legislative process necessary to amend the Constitution.

Senator Gbolahan Dada, representing Ogun West, is one of the 86 senators who voted in favour of the Bill.

“I supported this Bill because I am sure that we have brilliant minds that are full of energy, zeal, enthusiasm and ideas on good governance. We need to get them involved in politics so as to help in repositioning the country,” he said.

There are other hurdles that Nigeria’s aspiring young politicians must overcome before being able to mount a serious campaign. Most significant is the cost of running for high office. Even incumbent president Muhammadu Buhari had to borrow the 25-million naira (R830 000) to enter his party’s presidential nomination race.

Nonetheless, removing legislative restrictions on youth involvement is an encouraging start.

The campaign has also captured international attention and has been picked up by the United Nations, which wants to promote greater youth representation globally. Young people under 30 make up less than 2% of the world’s MPs.

“Young people have every right to be active participants in civic and public life and it is time to ensure they no longer face arbitrary barriers to run for public office, whether at the local, regional or national level,” the UN secretary general’s envoy on youth, Ahmad Alhendawi, said.

“Through the #NotTooYoungToRun campaign, my office will work with partners around the world to raise awareness about the issue of age discrimination and promote and expand the rights of young people to run for public office.”

Elsewhere in Africa, young people have shown what they can do when given the opportunity to contest political office.

In Ghana, a 22-year-old law student, Francisca Oteng-Mensah, defeated the incumbent MP to become Ghana’s youngest ever lawmaker in the June 2015 general elections. Last year, 23-year-old Paul Mwirigi became Kenya’s youngest MP and 24-year-old Cynthia Muge won a coveted local government seat.

Can Nigeria’s youth build on this inspiration?

Afolabi Olalekan Emmanuel, 27, is a student at the University of Lagos, and the former president of the student union. He said the planned constitutional amendments has encouraged him and other student politicians to run for office in the 2019 elections.

“The game has changed. The 2019 election is going to be an interesting one in the sense that a lot of Nigerian youths would want to test their might.

‘‘It would be a time for experimentation, a time to show the strength of the youths politically, and I hope that the Nigerian youths would see this as an opportunity for them to come together in one voice,” he said.

Valentine Iwenwanne in Lagos

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