Since the return of democracy in 1999, Nigeria's burgeoning youth population has made the headlines come election time. This year's election, the sixth in the current 20-year-long democratic dispensation, has highlighted the role of the youth in deciding who rules Africa's most populous nation more than ever before.
Nigeria has a population of more than 100 million people between the ages of 18 and 35. The election on 16 February 2019 in Africa's largest democracy is mainly a race between the incumbent, a former military head of state, and a former vice president who served for eight years. Both are in their 70s, and they are up against 70 other candidates.
The main campaign machineries - in the traditional media and on new media - working in support of the two candidates and their agendas are being driven by a team of young voices on both sides of the campaign battle. This makes it seem that the young voting population of Nigeria is comfortable supporting the two septuagenarians - or is it that they have their hands tied when it comes to the choice of leader that is being offered by the country's two main political parties, the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) and the People's Democratic Party (PDP)? The PDP is the main opposition and was in power from 1999 to 2015.
Nigeria's constitutional requirement of party sponsorship as a prerequisite for running for office has largely contributed to the lack of choice for young voters. The youth is left with candidates that do not reflect their desires; candidates who are sponsored by parties controlled by political heavyweights and godfathers who certainly do not represent an issues-based ideology.
Since the collapse of Nigeria's first republic and the successive military coups, heads of government in the military era have been gallant young soldiers who seized the chance to take control of their country in military uniform. After Aguiyi Ironsi's six months at the helm in 1966, the next set of military rulers were all in their thirties: Yakubu Gowon (31), Murtala Muhammed (37) and Olusegun Obasanjo (38). Obasanjo would hand over in 1979 to Shehu Shagari, who himself was a member of the Federal House of Representatives back in 1954 at the age of 29, for another short-lived democratic dispensation. A certain Muhammadu Buhari would topple Shagari's government. Spanning a period of over half a century, these former young military officers have never looked back, still holding Nigeria by the horn in a merry-go-round of leadership.
It is rather ironic, then, that the now older military heavyweights turned political class have continuously labelled the agitation by young people to be given the mantle of leadership as being "too soon". They describe the youth as being too hungry for "overnight wealth" and do not want to work hard for their living, with President Buhari infamously labelling the youth as "lazy".
Not too young to run
The signing into law of the Not Too Young To Run Bill was seen to have opened up the chances of a young president. The Bill reduced the age of eligibility for contesting elections in this youthful country to 35 for president (down from 40), 30 for governors and senators (down from 35), and 25 (down from 30) for House of Representative and State House of Assembly candidates. The journey to this point was gruelling, however: Since 2016 it has involved the building of momentum by the advocacy group YIAGA; getting the National Assembly, in which the youngest serving member was 43 years old, to say yes to the Bill; getting majority signatures from 35 State Houses of Assembly; and, finally, assent from the president himself. Failure at any of these points would have stopped the Bill dead in its tracks.
Independent candidates were also allowed to run for office, quashing the requirement for aspirants to be members of political parties. Hitherto this required young aspiring office seekers to gain approval from the political establishment to emerge as candidates in party primary elections that have become famous for violence, the imposition of candidates by godfathers and the financially powerful, as well as non-compliance with electoral guidelines. Currently, the ruling APC have been barred from fielding candidates at all levels in two states, due to such candidate imposition that resulted in electoral irregularities.
However, the two main political parties that could have broken the barrier for a young and aspiring presidential candidate have proven to be a deterrent to the Not Too Young To Run Bill. They have imposed high prices for nomination forms and costly administrative charges that only the old politicians who currently benefit from the largesse of Nigeria's wasteful and overspending political system could realistically afford. Undeterred, young aspirants are trying to make their way into the political space through 89 other registered political parties that are running against the candidates of the old heavyweight parties, the APC and PDP, both born before Nigeria's independence in 1960.
The Youth Party
Despite their high number, young Nigerians engage less in mainstream politics than their older counterparts. This apathy is the result of decades of military rule, government corruption and failed leadership, causing young Nigerians to become disillusioned and detached from traditional politics.
Since 1999, politics have become extremely costly in Nigeria. A whole lot of money is involved - in a nation where the minimum wage is 18 000 Naira (about US$50). Most of the voting youth are students, recent graduates, the unemployed and the under-employed, all of whom can barely afford the cost of the politicking.
All these highlighted the need for young people to come together and create a "third force", with the youth as its constituency. In October 2014, the idea of a youth party to expand the democratic space, especially for the youth, was initiated by a group of young Nigerians. However, the name - Youth Party - was rejected by the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) as being "too restrictive". In March 2017, the party would drag the INEC to court and challenge the legality of the rejection of that name. The courts affirmed the position of the Youth Party in October 2017 and compelled the INEC to accept the name. In 2018, the Youth Party joined 90 other political parties on the ballot paper for the forthcoming elections, after proper registration.
But clearly a party for the youth is not the only requirement for successfully galvanising a third force: The Youth Party, despite its presence in about 28 states of the federation, including Lagos and Abuja, had just about 6 000 members prior to registration. The party has no presidential candidate and only two candidates at federal level vying for the House of Representatives seat, despite having some of the cheapest nomination forms among the political parties.
Despite the efforts of "not too young to run" advocates and the emergence of new generation youth-based political parties, the President of the National Association of Nigerian Students, Danielson Bamidele Akpan and a delegation met with President Muhammadu Buhari in January 2019 and promised the support of Nigerian students with 20 million votes to help in his re-election bid. This was in the middle of an industrial action that had grounded all public universities by the Academic Staff Union of Universities, leaving students stranded at home for months.
Is there a demand for a young Nigerian president?
Nigeria is pictured in the mainstream media as a country with a persistent demand for a younger president, but it does seem as if having a young president is not the most pressing concern of the young people who are going to decide Nigeria's election - the first in which citizens born under the current democratic dispensation will be able to vote. The youth is in fact much more interested in getting things to work in the country, or of simply finding a way to continue surviving the hustle. It remains to be seen which one of the front-running septuagenarians will capture the vote of people young enough to be their grandchildren and lead them to the promised future.
Nigeria might not get its young president in the current election, but the country, with its massive youth population, deserves one, for proper representation. At this point, young people might be viewed as lacking the political experience the country needs, but this might change soon, given the number of young people who are now participating and joining the hitherto "murky waters" of Nigeria's politicking. If the youth can rally, either collectively as one force or by becoming a prevailing force in the dominant political systems, the next general election in 2023 might just be the game changer.