An important debate reared its head sometime ago and was quickly beaten back and literally buried under the rubble of Nigerian politics. On an official visit to the United Kingdom, President Buhari was addressing the Commonwealth Business Forum on 18th April, 2018 and was reported as having made some distasteful remarks about Nigerian youth to interviewers. He had remarked that Nigerian, youth most of whom had not bothered to receive an education, felt entitled to free social services simply because Nigeria is an oil producing country. These reservations were quickly summarized as the president branding all Nigerian youth as lazy and unprepared for leadership and responsibility. A combination of opposition political hawks and social media sharks tore the president to shreds even before his plane landed back in Abuja. Realising that those aged under 35 constitute the bulk of Nigeria’s surging demographics, the president who was heading towards a bumpy second term campaign beat a hasty retreat.
Earlier, some political creatures had knocked together a pseudo political movement- ‘Not Too Young to Run’. The underlying rationale was to draw some attention to the long standing alienation of Nigerian youth from high political office. The object was to lower the age limit for contesting for the offices of president, state governors and National Assembly membership. The movement aimed at making the point that the youth were as entitled as anyone else to run for the highest offices in the land. They even sponsored a bill which the National Assembly debated and passed. A downward adjustment of the age requirement for the highest offices in the land was effected. Mr. Buhari made sure that he gave his signing of the bill into law the fullest publicity if only to bury the noise of possible youth opposition. Soon afterwards, the frenzy of elections took over. There were hardly any youth candidates in the 2019 elections.
The central issue remains the role of youth in the political leadership of the nation. The argument has long subsisted that some of Nigeria’s problems of development have persisted because our political process has been reluctant to create avenues for the younger generation of Nigerians to ascend to positions of power and authority in the democratic dispensation.
With roughly half of the nation’s estimated population of 200 million aged under 35 years, there is a strong argument in support of greater participation of youth in political and civic duties. The crises that we face– of unemployment, mass poverty, food insecurity, technological backwardness and climate change challenges, insecurity and general disorder– are mostly generational in the sense that it is the youth that stand to bear the brunt of their impacts. The future is their life time. A political and civic space dominated by an ageing generation is perhaps not in a position to understand these issues in their modern contexts. Even more urgent is the need to emplace a political leadership in the country that is at once youthful, highly educated and equipped to interface with other world leaders in a world of breath taking technological developments.
In all of human history, the energy and idealism of youth has often been the driving force of national history. No nation can deny itself the benefit of this vital energy. Even in the transitional phases of Nigeria’s national history, young actors played defining roles. Yakubu Gowon was 32 when he became Nigeria’s head of state and led the nation through a trying civil war and subsequent national reconciliation. The Biafran leader, Odumegwu Ojukwu, was 34 when he declared the Biafran secession and led his people through a gruesome war of survival. At 33, Wole Soyinka staged a spirited opposition to the federal war effort and genocide against the peoples of Biafra for which he was detained for months on end. At the age of 26, Alfred Diette Spiff became the founding military Governor of Rivers State and recorded landmark achievements in the development of the young state that were not surpassed until the civilian government of Governor Rotimi Amaechi.
Elsewhere in the world, young people have continued to make outstanding contributions to the leadership of different countries either for good or for ill. Jerry Rawlings was only 33 when he seized power in Ghana and led a revolution in public ethics and political process that changed the moral tone of Ghanaian politics for all time. The history of Libya cannot be complete without the landmark ascension and reign of the late Muammar Gadaffi, the young army officer who came to power at the tender age of 27 by overthrowing the monarchy and activating an Arab revolution of his own definition.
In a more contemporary context, the political power map of the world continues to be drawn and redrawn by relatively young players. Mohammed Bin Salman, the crown prince and de facto leader of Saudi Arabia is only 34, having assumed office at 31. In North Korea, Kim Jong Un now 36, who has held the world in mortal dread of his hermit kingsom, was barely 30 when he succeeded his father.
Even in a world ruled by the triumph and prevalence of partisan democracy and politics, we are witnessing the rise of an increasing number of young politicians at the helm of affairs in major democracies. Emmanuel Macron swept to the French presidency at the age of 38. Finland is led by the 34 year old Sauli Niinisto. Iceland’s Gudni Johanesson is 44 while Sebastian Kurz won election to become the leader of Austria at the age of 33. New Zealand’s Jazinda Arden is only 39 while El Salvador’s Nayib Bukele is a mere 38. Ethiopia’s new Nobel Peace Prize winning prime minister Abiy Ahmed is just 43. The examples of a youth take over of leadership of major countries keeps multiplying around the world.
In the Nigerian context, we see an unrelenting vice grip of the commanding heights of political power and authority by an ageing breed of politicians. The median age of Nigeria’s political leadership is above 65. While this infamy rages, there is a lively debate about the civic orientation and political education of our youth.
The prevalent value system of our youth is ruled now by a dangerous obsession with money and material objects. To arrive is to thrive in fraud, epic corruption and wanton ostentation. The career aspirations of a good number of Nigerian youth is in fields that may not ultimately positively affect the larger society. They want to be DJs, drinking lounge owners, twerk artists, strip club entertainers, musicians of instant hit success, internet fraudsters and even bandits and gangsters. In their new parlance, to ‘blow’ is to suddenly emerge from the obscurity of desperate penury into instant wealth of a magnitude that will dazzle the imagination of even the most adventurous entrepreneur. Blame the prevailing season of anomie in which there are no opportunities for positive identification. Blame it on the decay of the family and the collapse of the community and the serial failure of leadership. The line of blame can elongate but the reality confronts us with frightful prospects.
Of course, the vast majority of Nigerian youth would ordinarily ply a more honourable route. They want to be respectable professionals, dedicated workers if they can find jobs and responsible citizens in general if we can show them worthy role models.
But those are becoming rare. The crass monetization of our politics has placed a roadblock on the path of youth who may want to aspire to a role in the civic and political spaces.
In a democracy, political power does not shift along generational lines on its own accord. Youth who want political power and relevance will need to struggle for it within the context of existing or new party structures. But first, there needs to be a critical mass of youth with a nationalistic political consciousness to power and drive a pan- Nigerian political movement. That movement already has the demographic advantage of the youth bulge. But even then, a pan -Nigerian youth political movement needs to cut through the nasty barbed wires of geo politics, ethnicity, primordial allegiances and decadent feudal loyalties.
A generational revolution in our political space can only come about through increased political education, consciousness building and the emergence of political parties in which the youth occupy the commanding heights. Most importantly, nation building must resume and replace the current frenzy of state building which merely places institutions like littered furniture all over the geographical space while citizens feel homeless and hopeless, devoid of a sense of nation being.