Nigerian youths need to get their act together

By Rafiq Raji, PhD

It was International Youth Day (12 August) in the weekend just past. Marking the day was endorsed and adopted by the United Nations Security Council in 2015. This year’s celebration was dedicated to “highlighting the contributions of young people to conflict prevention and transformation as well as inclusion, social justice, and sustainable peace.” Well, I think that in coming years, the accolades should also include leadership and good governance; at least in the African case. Because elsewhere, in the developed world for instance, young people have begun to take over the reins of power. Wait a minute, it has started to happen on the continent as well. In the just concluded Kenyan elections, a 23-year old student won a seat in parliament. How did he campaign? On foot, from homestead to homestead. His hardwork began to pay off when “boda boda” (“okada” in Nigerian parlance) riders decided to support him. It would have been impossible, though, if the law did not allow for independent candidacy. MP-elect John Paul Mwirigi beat seasoned politicians with deep pockets in a keenly contested vote in Igembe South constituency of Kenya. Mr Mwirigi is an undergraduate at Mt Kenya University, where he is studying for a degree in education. He garnered 18,867 votes to beat the ruling Jubilee party’s candidate Rufus Miriti, who secured 15,411 votes. Mr Mwirigi should inspire African youths everywhere.

More crucially, young people could begin to coalesce into power blocs that determine who their country’s leaders would be. Uhuru Kenyatta (age 55), who beat Raila Odinga (age 72) to win re-election last week, probably owes a great deal to Kenyan youths. Even more astonishing, at least 25 governors were voted out in the recent Kenyan polls. I would be hugely surprised if the youth vote was not differential. 9.9 million youths (aged 18-35 years) registered to vote, 51 percent of the 2017 register, based on Kenya’s Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) data. And television reports of the various long queues of voters patiently waiting to cast their votes showed a significant youth participation. Incidentally, the likely leading contenders in the next presidential elections five years from now, are relatively young: Deputy president William Ruto (age 51) and Baringo County Senator, Gideon Moi (age 54), son of former longserving president Daniel arap Moi. They could be younger, of course.

Old man, do not tell me nonsense
Young Africans are making great strides elsewhere. Julius Malema (age 36) and Mmusi Maimane (age 37) of South Africa are in their thirties. Together, the pair, though with divergent political ideologies – the former a socialist firebrand and the latter a capitalist orator – have quite successfully put the elderly country’s president, Jacob Zuma, on his toes. Incidentally, Mr Malema used to be an ally of President Zuma, helping him to unseat his predecessor, Thabo Mbeki, another old man. Africans’ reverence of age has meant that their mostly incompetent, arrogant and dishonest old leaders, some who have been at the helm since their countries were granted independence by their erstwhile colonial masters, have been able to do whatever they like with impunity. Unsurprisingly, a bold Mr Malema began overtime to be an irritation to Mr Zuma, who deftly kicked him out of the party. In this regard, Mr Zuma took a painstaking step-by-step approach to ensure that Mr Malema would leave permanently. What Mr Zuma likely did not anticipate was the possibility that Mr Malema could on his own, constitute a formidable force outside of the ANC. It was assumed much of his influence stemmed from being a youth leader within the ANC. With the benefit of hindsight, this proved to be a mistake. Mr Malema went on to form the ultra-nationalist Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) party, now a perennial thorn in the flesh of Mr Zuma and indeed the ANC. What is remarkable is that Mr Malema through it all displayed unusual maturity, determination, and leadership. Under his leadership, the EFF now has seats in parliament: such is its astonishing effect that ANC MPs dare not take a snooze anymore. Mr Malema has also displayed commonsense in seeing the utility of partnering with the white-backed Democratic Alliance (DA) party when the need arose. Incidentally, Mr Malema’s accession also coincided with the DA’s surprise move to elect Mmusi Maimane, a black person, to the leadership of what is still largely a party of white people. Mr Maimane is also remarkable in many ways: He grew up in Soweto, a “black peoples’ town” in the outskirts of Johannesburg, became a lawyer and is now the official leader of the opposition in parliament. Still, despite their divergent backgrounds and evolution, Mr Malema and Mr Maimane have managed to work remarkably well together.

Wield your power
This should be a challenge to young Nigerians who harp about how difficult and ‘dirty’ the political terrain is. Instead of being tools for frivolous protests, they could spend their time securing a voter’s card, registering with a political party or setting up their own, and so on. Were they to coalesce their interests, every politician who aspires to success in the land would have no choice but to court them. So even though a constitutional amendment is afoot to ensure that more young people can run for public office, they can still do much under the current laws. To be fair, politics is very difficult in Nigeria. The financial hurdle alone is enough to discourage anyone. These are just excuses, however. Crowdfunding is a veritable tool that youngsters can use to finance their political ambitions, used only recently to compensate the family of a cop who died in the line of duty. And if party structures were hitherto constraining, since their gatekeepers are old men, independent candidature, once allowed, should free those who worry about being soiled in “dirty” party politics.

For this to happen however, young people must unshackle themselves from their so-called “home-training” that has cultured them to respect age even when the elderly person is clearly wrong or being unabashedly selfish. Wisdom, unlike the popular adage, does not come from how old a person is but how experienced. A young person can be wiser than many an old man if he or she has experienced more challenging life events. And if the person is an avid reader, he or she could easily learn many of the things that a lifetime of experience may not provide. Besides, no one can really say how much of a leader they are until they are faced with the responsibility. Thus, until young people begin to engage their older colleagues without fear, they would remain subjugated and relegated. Breaking out of this backward psyche would be difficult, however. But if Nigerian youths hope to kick out the old men who think that leading us is their birth right, they would need to summon the courage to act. I need to get a voter’s card.

Also published in my Premium Times column. See link viz.

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