It’s great; after a youth-driven campaign, the Nigerian Senate has passed a bill to alter the Constitution so that young people from the age of 25 can run for federal office. The Hashtag is #NotTooYoungToRun, and it’s made a good run across social media, and the traditional media, to some extent. Unfortunately, it doesn’t get much far beyond that; the #NotTooYoungToRun bill, even if signed into law, will be of no significant political gain to Nigerian youths. The first reason for this has to do with purpose.
What’s the purpose of #NotTooYoungToRun? “To foster inclusive political participation [in Nigeria],” wrote Chioma Agwuegbo, on the website of the Youth Initiative for Advocacy, Growth, and Advancement (YIAGA), which has led the advocacy for the bill. “Young people are saying that we want to, and are ready to be actively involved in the decisions and policies that affect us, saying we are no longer interested in being leaders of a tomorrow that never comes – the time to take charge of our lives is now,” she added. Nobody can disagree with any of those words, but the issue is that, the bill, for all its good intentions, only allows young people to run for office, in the same way that Harvard University allows anyone seeking tertiary admission to apply. Thus, choice is about chances; because, while, with this bill, it may look like young people will have the choice to gain political positions, they practically have no chance at winning.
Allowing and empowering are two different words, and the #NotTooYoungToRun bill does not even near the latter. The majority of young people between the ages of 25 and 30 are in the socio-economic bracket constituting of the unemployed, uneducated and those living under 2 dollar a day, and there’s no way that this bill empowers them. If, indeed, the #NotTooYoungToRun bill was about getting young people into political offices, then it would have gone far beyond merely altering the age requirements; that was the easiest part of the political challenge facing young people.
The more substantive way to empower youths in the political process would be passing laws that guarantee that they get elected. The quota system is one initiative which could have been proposed. For example, there could have been a mandate to all political parties to compulsorily select a certain percentage of their candidates for political office from the age bracket of 25-35 years. Another way to go about this would be to stipulate that legislative bodies be bounded by a demographic quota (30 percent youths, 40 percent women, 10 percent people with disabilities). But, even if the #NotTooYoungToRun bill had adopted the aforementioned suggestions, it would only be achieving political positions for the youths, and not political power.
There’s a world of difference between political position and political power, and public office holders are some of the best examples of this difference in the world. Our rigged political system, machined by patronage networks and cabals, is surfeit with public office holders who answer first to their sponsors and godfathers, than to the people they are elected to serve. Thus, there’s no reason to believe that young people, if elected under this current political system, would not often end up being pipers merely playing the tune dictated by the financiers. And with their loyalty bought and paid for in this our money-takes-all political system, it is more likely to be the case that young people elected into office would at best pay lip service to the issues facing the youths. The only way to avert this would be to go beyond seeking political positions for young people to ensuring that political power resides with them.
Right now, political power resides in money and influence peddling, and most young people, towards who the #NotTooYoungToRun campaign is targeted, have neither of the above. (The only exceptions are children of the rich and powerful, as well as young people who have made millions through questionable means). To truly give political power to young people would be to dislodge its current residence, which means, first, root out money in politics and second secure the only real political resource that the young have, their votes, by guaranteeing not just free and fair elections, but a level playing field in political campaigns. When politicians can no longer buy votes, do not need astronomical figures to purchase Expression of Interest forms and youths know for a fact that their votes would count regardless of how big a man the politician is, that is the only time that young people will have real political power.
With political power, young people will not only have a largely unrealizable access to political office—as the current #NotTooYoungToRun bill seeks to afford them—they will have real control over the institution and priorities of their governments. In such a scenario, an elected public official, even if too old to walk, would, when mandated by young people, take their wishes and interests and run with it till it is achieved. This is what we should be aspiring towards, not just some nice sounding hashtag that realistically achieves nothing.