Before The Young Start Running

By Muhammed Abdullahi

Exactly five years ago, I was invited to a conference in Abuja organized by the Youth Alliance For Constitution Review. The main objective of the conference was to seek a reduction in the constitutional age requirement for elective offices. After a rigorous two day dialogue and panel discussions, the two key segment of attendees at the conference still held firmly to their belief and conviction about age vis-à-vis political participation.

While the elders at the 2012 YACOR conference in Abuja believed that age should actually play some gate-keeping function in determining those to be admitted into the political field, the youths insisted that wisdom and the common sense required to pilot the affairs of a country are not only obtained with the ‘grey hair’ license. The 2012 conference therefore ended in a one-sided resolution, with the youth holding strongly to the notion that experience is much more fundamental a requirement in politics than age.

Therefore, when the #NotTooYoungToRun campaign started, I was not surprise that YACOR was again at the forefront of pushing for age reduction for elective offices. Obviously, the guys who convened the 2012 conference in Abuja are still very much passionate about their conviction, although exposure to the nitty-gritty of power acquisition in Nigeria had somehow watered down the enthusiasm of some of us that were part of that journey five years ago.

Thanks to the faith and consistency of advocacy groups such as the Youth Initiative For Advocacy Growth And Advancement (YIAGA) and the unwavering commitment of large army of young Nigerians who prosecuted and promoted the #NotTooYoungToRun campaign, a bill that lowered the age requirement for elective offices has now been passed by both chambers of the national assembly. No doubt, the #NotTooYoungToRun remains the most successful constitution amendment campaign spearheaded by young people from 1999 till date. It is a huge achievement that would no doubt boost the morale of youths and strengthen their resolve to challenge belligerent status quo.

However, after the celebration of the achievement recorded with the passage of the #NotTooYoungToRun comes the reality of the nature of the political field on which the youth would now run in competition with other political actors and players. Yes, it is discriminatory to preclude young people from taking part in politics and governance simply on account of age, but would the youths now gain more inclusion and secure more seats on the decision making table now that the constitutional hindrance has been removed? This is the question young people must ask as they prepare to run.

To be candid, I would have been disappointed and may in fact question the ability of our lawmakers to think deeply if they had failed to pass the #NotTooYoungToRun. This is because as the campaigners themselves repeatedly emphasized, it was just a campaign “aimed at increasing the number of young people running for office by lowering constitutional age limits for contesting elections”. In other words, the youths are much more interested in the process than the outcome. We seemed to be okay with just being able to participate. And this explains why apart from age reduction, the other thing we sought with #NotTooYoungRun was independent candidacy.

While I have seen a copy of the #NotTooYoungToRun bill when it was just a draft, I don’t think there was any mention of the need to reduce the humongous fees paid to obtain tickets for the various elective positions. While we all know that the economic situation of most young people is such that they cannot afford the millions currently being demanded for party tickets, we seemed to have assumed, quite wrongly, that independent candidacy would address that hindrance. But it won’t.

The truth is, even if we have independent candidates, our highly monetized political process would still demand that the candidates spend to fund ‘stomach infrastructure’ for voters, set up their own campaign structures, pay party agents, put ward coordinators in place at different levels and possibly bribe conniving electoral officers. In the end, the difference between running as a party candidate or as an independent would most certainly be that between six and half a dozen.

Of course, I am not oblivious of the godfather/godmother syndrome and the capacity of these political merchants to sponsor young people for elections. But if all young people want is to secure funding from someone who will then teleguide all their choices and decisions in office, then we may as well quit pretending that our involvement in the governance of this country would portend any hope of a glorious future.

Already, we have documented evidence of why ‘begging’ for money to contest elections would never be to the advantage of anyone but the benevolent sponsor. Once the youth have a set of interests to represent in office apart from the Nigerian people, then we have actually not gain anything with the #NotTooYoungToRun or any youth-focused electoral reform for that matter. Once we rely on political old-timers to fund our aspirations as young people, we have no doubt given out the legitimacy that comes with power acquisition. We would take power with the right hand and give it away with the left. It is that simple.

Those who labored to get the #NotTooYoungToRun passed would most likely think of me as a pessimist. But then, reality is often mistaken for absurdity unless one is blessed with a discerning mind. As the politics of Nigeria stands today, I do not think the passage of #NotTooYoungToRun would lead to any significant change in our mainly octogenarian political culture. While we have now obtained the legal clearance to square up with old politicians in the political arena, we must be willing to face the fact that we are still encumbered by other factors, chief of which are money and the political network necessary to win elections.

It is important that young people continue with the present tradition of looking for avenue to break into mainstream politics, but it is necessary that we do this absolutely within the confign of competitive politics. We must stop playing the victim card with our emphasis on age, while we instead seek for opportunities to infiltrate the political scene systematically but deliberately. Rather than seeking to frontally take over power from established political lords who are yet unprepared to leave the stage, we must stoop to conquer by negotiating for the sort of inclusion that will give us access to the things we lack presently as young people. Yorubas have a saying that unless you are holding onto the handle of a cutlass, you dare not question the cause of your father’s death. We need much more than age before we can run and win.

Muhammed Abdullahi is the mid-week “The Advocate” columnist of The Discourse. He can be reached on Email: muhammed@thediscourseng.com, twitter:@mfabdullahi

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