Now That The Young Can Run, By Chris Ngwodo
…any insurgence of youth in our politics must herald the ascendancy of progressive ideas. Among other things, this entails a rejection of sexism, misogyny and inequality, and the dismantling of the criminalised funding structures of parties which politically weaponise poverty and sustain a corrupt officialdom.
The recent passage of the “Not too Young to Run” Bill into law is a feat that reaffirms the possibilities of political activism in our democracy. Credit is due Samson Itodo, head of the Youth Initiative for Advocacy, Growth and Advancement (YIAGA), Honourable Tony Nwulu who sponsored the bill and the activists who toiled to push this amendment to the Constitution around the country and right up to the president’s desk. There can be no understating the hard work, organisation and lobbying that went into achieving the rigorous requirements for passing the constitutional amendment.
Paradoxically, now that formal ageism has been nullified by the amendment, we will find that the age barrier may have been the least consequential of the barriers to youth participation in politics. One of the striking things about the group photograph that President Muhammadu Buhari took with the activists on the steps of Aso Rock after assenting to the bill was the number of women in it. Nearly half of the people were women. It is probably the most number of women not holding official positions that the president has ever been photographically captured with in the same space. This is significant. The immediate optics of the signing ceremony suggest that dismantling the age barrier will lead to a dismantling of the gender barrier, which keeps women out of politics.
Nigerian politics is not just unrepresentative of a very young population, it is also grossly unrepresentative of the society in terms of gender. Women make up 50 percent of Nigeria’s population but occupy less than six percent of the seats in the National Assembly. Taking down the age barrier will permit a younger generation of women who are gratifyingly far less tolerant of patriarchy and unapologetic for having a voice to participate in politics. This will not be easy. The Senate’s rejection of the Gender and Equal Opportunities Bill indicates the deep substructure of patriarchal privilege and sexism in our society. The sexist barrier is as insidious as the age barrier. Recall President Buhari’s cringe-worthy sexist declaration in October 2016 that the First Lady, Aisha Buhari, belongs in the kitchen and the “other room”. He made that pronouncement as a riposte to Mrs. Buhari’s articulation of her political views and incredibly, while standing right beside the world’s most powerful female head of state, Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel. Such flagrant sexism expressed by the occupant of the nation’s highest office indicates the pervasive climate of male chauvinism in our politics.
Sandbagged By Moneybags
Young aspirants who can now run will find a formidable financial barrier standing in their way in the form of the malign influence of money in our politics. For the 2015 elections, the Peoples Democratic Party and the All Progressives Congress sold their presidential nomination forms for N22 million and N27.5 million respectively. Aspirants to gubernatorial offices in both parties had to cough out N11 million and N5.5 million respectively. Cumulatively, both parties realised N3.8 billion from the sales of presidential and gubernatorial nomination forms. The economist, Bismarck Rewane estimates that an effective presidential election campaign requires at least $2 billion or between N300 to N400 billion to even stand a chance. Even candidate Buhari lamented the high cost of procuring the nomination form. The APC national chairman John Odigie-Oyegun defended the cost as being designed “to separate the boys from the men.” The chairman was oblivious to how that justification contradicted his party’s profession of centre-left progressivism. It is easy to see how these impossible costs discourage honest people from seeking office or leaves them vulnerable to compromise by unsavoury interests.
Youths with political aspirations will also find themselves facing an organisational barrier. Because parties resemble corporations with entrenched owners and shareholders, young late comers to the scene face an uphill task in navigating the intentionally byzantine layers of requirements required to even contest for the parties’ nomination tickets.
In 1986, General Ibrahim Babangida banned some 5,000 veteran politicians to make way for “new breed” politicians untainted by the roguery of older generations. In short order, it became clear that the “old breed” moneybags had the financial firepower and therefore the means to teleguide their comparatively far less resourced successors. The new breed became puppets and hostages of old breed agendas.
We need to rigorously interrogate how parties are funded. Political parties are less ideological movements than special purpose vehicles set up by elites for state capture which are then illicitly funded by public resources, which explains the influence of public functionaries such as governors in the parties’ cosmology. Without addressing the financial barrier through party finance reform, the removal of age restrictions simply sets the stage for governing elites to build dynasties and place their children in strategic positions. This is not farfetched. Politicians already corner plum federal appointments for their sons and daughters. It is by no means fanciful to assume that they will do the same with elective positions. It would be a bizarre irony if in dethroning an implicit gerontocracy, we end up entrenching an explicit plutocracy.
Bypassing the Bipartisan Duopoly
Youths with political aspirations will also find themselves facing an organisational barrier. Because parties resemble corporations with entrenched owners and shareholders, young late comers to the scene face an uphill task in navigating the intentionally byzantine layers of requirements required to even contest for the parties’ nomination tickets. The parties’ mazy and opaque internal bureaucracies are deliberately structured to constrict the flow of information, limiting what should be common knowledge to a circle of almost gnostic privilege and thereby enhancing the power of godfathers and party barons who while usually not part of the official leadership retain profound influence over parties’ selection processes. These are the barons that control party structures, patronage networks and armies of operatives on the ground.
On the face of it, this is all normal politics. No young politician should waltz into a party armed with nothing more than youthful exuberance and ambition and expect to be granted access to resources that others have painstakingly built up over time. Even so, this state of things is also representative of the brand of politics as usual that has long failed Nigerians. Internal party democracy is undermined by the vested interests that rig and control proceedings from the shadows. Oiled by illicit financing, their patronage structures are not only machineries of subornment at the grassroots; they are also political monopolies. If this subsists, the two major parties in Nigeria will effectively create a bipartisan dictatorship with political leadership at all levels simply rotating between both in a perverse game of musical chairs with no transformative impact on the society.
Clearly, the passage of the Not too Young to Run amendment is only one in a series of reforms required to truly liberalise the political space. For all the euphoria inspired by the amendment, some caveats are necessary. During Babangida’s transition to civil rule programme, the radical scholar Festus Iyayi famously compared the “old breed – new breed” transference to old snakes giving birth to new snakes.
Obviously, young politicians can also create their own parties and join the melee that already currently involves 68 political parties. But an equally, if not more useful, alternative would be to amend the Electoral Act to permit independent candidacy. This would enable more aspirants get into the field while by-passing the party slugfest altogether. Such candidates would have to run on their own personal antecedents and records and bet on their ability to inspire, persuade and mobilise the electorate without falling back on party brands. Without the distractive banners of political parties, such individuals may exhibit a greater sense of responsibility in office because their personal reputations, rather than any party brand, are at stake. In the light of a potential APC-PDP duopoly, a genuine third force would not necessarily be another party; it could be made up of legions of independent candidates ushering a gale of positive disruption into politics.
The Age of Their Ideas
Clearly, the passage of the Not too Young to Run amendment is only one in a series of reforms required to truly liberalise the political space. For all the euphoria inspired by the amendment, some caveats are necessary. During Babangida’s transition to civil rule programme, the radical scholar Festus Iyayi famously compared the “old breed – new breed” transference to old snakes giving birth to new snakes. “They will have the same poison,” he said, “even though the younger ones will be more active.” The clamour for greater youth participation in politics carries the risk that old infirm scoundrels will simply be supplanted by younger and more virile scoundrels. It is a sobering reminder that the truly transformative potential of our politics lies not in the biological age of governing elites but in the values and ideals of their would-be successors.
In 1996, when the Septuagenarian Republican Bob Dole ran against the youthful incumbent, Bill Clinton, for the American presidency, the silver-tongued democrat quipped, “I don’t think Bob Dole is too old to be president. It’s the age of his ideas that I question.” In Nigeria, it is not the ages of those in power that rankles so much as the age of their ideas and their heedless attachment to anachronisms. Thus, any insurgence of youth in our politics must herald the ascendancy of progressive ideas. Among other things, this entails a rejection of sexism, misogyny and inequality, and the dismantling of the criminalised funding structures of parties which politically weaponise poverty and sustain a corrupt officialdom.
In the early 1930s, a series of anti-colonial movements sprang up across West Africa which differed in different ways, but each called itself a youth movement. As the historian Elizabeth Isichei observed, this was “not because their members were really youths – they were often middle-aged – because the word ‘youth’ has often been used in West Africa to symbolise one’s rejection of the past.” Recently, the term “youth” has come to symbolise fawning sycophancy and mercenary nihilism in the service of political dinosaurs. It must once again become synonymous with a progressive rejection of obsolescence.
Chris Ngwodo is a writer, analyst and consultant.