Not Too Young To Run: The Demand for a Youth Inclusive Constitution, By Cynthia Mbamalu
The #NotTooYoungToRun movement presents a model for citizens’ activism, because for the first time in my lifetime and that of so many Nigerians, I see Nigerians uniting across religious, ethnic and political lines driven by one goal – youth political inclusion. That to me is the Nigerian spirit that we all need.
“Today I march because I want to run for elections in 2019 and if the president for any reason does not give his assent to the age reduction bill it means I will have to wait until the next election cycle and I do not have four years to wait” – Benedicta Ndi Kato
“Greatest Nigerian youth, today we ask for inclusion, today we build the future, today we decide our destiny, today we walk towards inclusion, we have worked, National Assembly has passed the Bill, the State Assembly has passed it and now we need the President to Assent…” – Rinsola Abiola
This is the current reality of young Nigerians who have worked in different capacities in their communities and beyond but whose aspiration to run for elective offices have been constantly fettered by the Nigerian Constitution. The Constitution ordinarily should be the guarantee of the protection for the exercise of rights in a democracy. As a people, we should be worried that when we go to the polls during elections, our options of candidates into the various elective offices from the Presidency to the State Assemblies are limited to a select few who are not a true reflection of our population. We should be worried that the face of government at the different levels do not reflect youth or even women, in a country where the youth demography is projected to be over 50 percent of the total population, and the number of women projected to be almost half the population of Nigeria. The NotTooYoungToRun bill, which seeks to reduce the age for contesting elections in the Constitution is an affirmation of the need for a more inclusive political system and electoral process. It is a bill that is long overdue and a youth movement that is much needed in a country where young people are beginning to lose hope in the government and in Nigeria.
So, when we marched on March 14, 2018 from the Unity Fountain to the presidential villa in Abuja, we did not march under the scorching heat of the sun because we wanted to participate in a fun activity. We marched because we need the presidential assent for the #NotTooYoungToRun bill to become law; it is long past the time for complacency over the outright injustice in a system that has constantly excluded the youth from government. Considering that in the 2015 general elections in Nigeria, only 11 percent were youth candidates for the Senate, 10 percent for governorship, 18 percent for the House of Representatives, 29 percent for the State Houses of Assembly election, with almost half of that number not qualified to run for the election based on the age criteria in the Constitution. We marched because we believe that inclusion is a fundamental principle in a democracy. We marched because each time we see the news and reports highlighting the increase in the rate of youth unemployment and poverty, we are shaken and worried about the threat that this poses to national development. We marched because Nigeria is ours and we are major stakeholders in the development of our democracy and sustainable development in Nigeria. For the movement, we recognise that the process of socio-political transformation begins with the Constitution.
The Constitution-making process in modern times provides an opportunity for socio-political transformation, especially to the extent to which the process incorporates citizens’ participation. More countries in sub-Saharan Africa, such as Kenya, Rwanda, Zimbabwe, are adopting a more participatory process in their constitution making processes, which have produced more progressive constitutional guarantees, ranging from constitutionalising more social economic rights, the rights of women and youth to the adoption of affirmative action for the promotion of political inclusion for women and youth. The Kenyan Constitution, for instance, adopts conscious and targeted steps to ensure youth political inclusion by aligning the voting age with the eligibility age for contesting election at 18 years, with special seats reserved for the youth in the national assembly, Senate and the county assembly. Within the West African region, our close neighbour and sister country, Ghana, guarantees the rights of young people in the country to run for election into their parliament from 21 years old. In Gambia, young people can run for the legislative seat from 21 years old, and 30 years for the presidency; in Liberia young people from the age of 25 years can run for election into the House of Representative, at 30 years for the Senate seat and at 35 for the office of the president. This has enabled more youth candidates to emerge as elected officials from the recently concluded elections in the mentioned countries.
This time around, both the national and international interests in the constitution amendment process in Nigeria was sparked and has been sustained by the enthusiasm of young people leading the #NotTooYoungToRun campaign and engaging the constitutional amendment process. March 14, 2018 was the second time we marched for this bill and each time I see hope and a future for our democracy.
Notably, there are challenges to youth candidacy in Nigeria and even Africa beyond age limitation, ranging from money politics to the lack of internal party democracy. However, we have tested our ability to organise and we have seen the power in our organising democratically based ideologies, and in our number. The NotTooYoungToRun movement models it all. Convened by YIAGA Africa with a Strategy Team at the federal level, State coordinators for each of the 36 States and leadership teams consisting of young people from the local government areas in each State, the movement began with simple forms of advocacy. We learnt to leverage on both social media and traditional media, engage our respective communities, write as many letters as possible, with advocacy visits to both federal and State lawmakers, tracking the progression of the bill and constantly sharing information on the bill with the public, making the necessary phone calls and text messaging, engaging political, traditional and religious institutions and calling on the support of international friends. The Age Reduction Bill, which was introduced as a private member’s bill in the House of Representative by Honourable Tony Nwulu and in the Senate by Senator Abdulaziz Nyako became a subject of national discourse with young people at the different levels, leading the conversation on youth inclusion and why young people must engage the Constitution amendment process. The Age Reduction Bill was successfully passed by the National Assembly and 35 State Assemblies and is currently at the stage of presidential assent. As one of the leading movements emerging from Nigeria and connecting young people in Africa and beyond, NotTooYoungToRun is a proof that we are in the era of the youth, where the power for socio-political transformation begins with young people setting the political agenda and influencing political behaviour.
Perhaps we should consider the fact that our constitution-making process in Nigeria has over the years remained somewhat closed and elitist, with the decision-making process driven by the law makers in the National Assembly and State Houses of Assemblies, at least since our transition to democracy. There is no doubt that at different points in our democratisation journey, issues have been raised questioning the 1999 Constitution of Nigeria as a true representation of the will of the people. As such, almost every Assembly has made attempts to amend sections of the Constitution with some being successful and others failing, like the 2012 constitution-making process, which failed at the stage of the presidential assent. This time around, both the national and international interests in the constitution amendment process in Nigeria was sparked and has been sustained by the enthusiasm of young people leading the #NotTooYoungToRun campaign and engaging the constitutional amendment process. March 14, 2018 was the second time we marched for this bill and each time I see hope and a future for our democracy.
The #NotTooYoungToRun movement presents a model for citizens’ activism, because for the first time in my lifetime and that of so many Nigerians, I see Nigerians uniting across religious, ethnic and political lines driven by one goal – youth political inclusion. That to me is the Nigerian spirit that we all need. The youth, as it is, have learnt to unite in our demand for accountable leadership and national development. As citizens, we have a responsibility to ensure that we build a Nigeria that works for all citizens and that our democracy does not become the dictatorship of a majority that is not a true representation of our vast population. The only option we have is to engage until we achieve results because as young Nigerians we have a higher stake. #NotTooYoungToRun is history being made.
Cynthia Mbamalu is a devoted Human Rights and Gender advocate with special interest in Constitution-Building and Elections. She is the Program Manager of YIAGA Africa, and can be reached via firstname.lastname@example.org. She tweets @DCynthiaM