Let me begin by congratulating the Law Students Association of Nigeria (LAWSAN) on the occasion of its 2018 National Convention which is being hosted here at the University of Lagos. As someone who has been actively involved in students’ unionism, politics, activism, advocacy and mobilization, I have an idea what the organizing team must have gone through putting all of this together. Please give yourselves a resounding applause.
When I was first contacted last December by the National President of LAWSAN, Adedayo Samuel Osijo through a message on Instagram, I was skeptical. I thought it was one of those Instagram stalkers who have perfected the art of sliding into DMs and thereafter making life unbearable for you with all manner of requests and demands. But after I carried out a series of checks, I discovered he was real and not an impostor. When he told me the association had decided to invite me as a speaker at this year’s National Convention, I said to myself, what does a layman like me have to offer to aspiring learned men and women of the legal profession?
Straight now to the business of the day. I have been asked to deliver a paper on the topic: “Politics as a Career: Not Too Young to Participate”. Usually, with most young people, especially young Nigerians, the idea of ‘politics’ connotes danger, corruption, something dark, dirty and evil. Many Nigerians have come to see politics as a no go area that must be left for professional politicians alone. And rightly so because most times, the impression that we have of politicians is that they are people who get their hands dirty and are ready to do anything to get power and hold on to power. Every election year, hardly do we conclude the electoral process without news of violence and bloodshed. But I tell you what, despite the negativity that has beclouded our understanding of politics and politicians, the truth remains that in a democracy like the one that we currently practice in Nigeria, politics is the engine room of governance and governance is what determines the direction of our society. Whether we end up with incompetent leaders at various levels of governance is determined by politics. Whether we end up with a dysfunctional education system is determined by politics. Whether we end up with security agents who instead of protecting us are the ones now terrorising us is determined by politics. Whether we end up with bad roads, no hospitals, dilapidated infrastructure, hunger and poverty is determined by politics. Whether we end up with a society where nothing works at all is determined by politics.
To put it in another perspective, it was exactly the same thing that the famous German playwright Bertolt Brecht was referring to when he said: “The worst illiterate is the political illiterate, he doesn’t hear, doesn’t speak, nor participates in the political events. He doesn’t know the cost of life, the price of the bean, of the fish, of the flour, of the rent, of the shoes and of the medicine, all depends on political decisions. The political illiterate is so stupid that he is proud and swells his chest saying that he hates politics. The imbecile doesn’t know that, from his political ignorance is born the prostitute, the abandoned child, and the worst thieves of all, the bad politician, corrupted and flunky of the national and multinational companies.”
When the great Greek philosopher Plato said; “One of the penalties for refusing to participate in politics is that you end up being governed by your inferiors”, he was simply saying that the easiest way for any society to fall into the hands of its worst individuals is for the best in that society to fold their arms and refuse to participate in politics. I have simply provided this background to underscore the role that politics plays in shaping our collective destinies as a people.
This brings me to the heart of our discourse. Do young people have a role to play in politics? Are young people too young to participate in politics? Is politics reserved only for the older generation? The history of Nigeria since independence suggests otherwise.
Shehu Shagari became a Federal Legislator at the age of 30 and a Minister at 35. M.T. Mbu was Minister at 25 and High Commissioner to the United Kingdom at the age of 26. Richard Akinjide was Minister of Education at the age of 32. Maitama Sule became Oil Minister at 29. General Yakubu Gowon was Head of State at 32. Audu Ogbeh was Minister at 35. More than half of the Balewa cabinet were 40 years of age and under. So if you look at these facts of our national history, young Nigerians certainly have a role to play in the politics of this nation. Clearly, politics is not reserved only for the older generation and nobody should tell you that you are too young to participate in politics or to lead.
But before we stretch the conversation further, it is imperative to understand the concept of participation in politics beyond the scope of occupying leadership positions alone. Supporting a candidate in an election is a form of participation. Voting, campaigning, debating for yourself or against an opponent are all forms of participation. Holding your leaders accountable, joining a political party or running for office are all forms of political participation.
However, it is instructive to note that when it comes to the real business of governance, you cannot do it from the sidelines. You must find your way into the arena of public service whether through an elective or appointive position. And this is where young Nigerians usually get it all wrong. Often times, the case for young people in politics and governance is anchored on the premise that they are young. But I have always been quick to warn that age is not enough to earn you a seat at the table of leadership. There are incompetent young people. There are young people who are corrupt. More than the age factor is your pedigree, your proven track-record, your character and integrity.
Let me at this point share with you a personal experience that lends credence to my argument that pedigree and track-record cannot be overemphasized in the quest to build an enduring career in politics and governance. In 2003, I was admitted on the JAMB Merit List to study English and French (Combined Honours) at the University of Ibadan. Immediately I secured my admission, I joined several campus press organisations at the university where I honed my writing skills and developed myself in the practice of campus journalism. Beyond writing for campus tabloids, I contributed to national dailies and organized several events under the banner of the Union of Campus Journalists (UCJ) and other similar press organisations. My extra-curricula activities exposed me to the mainstream media and as an undergraduate, I met and established contacts with the high and mighty in the media industry including the likes of Dr. Reuben Abati, the late Dimgba Igwe, Ben Murray-Bruce, Chief Dele Momodu and a host of others. For some of these contacts, a mentor-protege relationship developed and blossomed. I started out in my first year with a CGPA of 5.5 but towards my third year, my grades began to wobble under the pressure of the huge workload of combining academics with extra-curricular work. I say this to remind you that sometimes, there are sacrifices you must make in the pursuit of your dreams. There are times you will lose some things in other to gain other things. For me, I was focused because I saw the combination of academic work and extra-curricular activity as the capacity building process I needed to take a critical step further in the journey towards my life’s goals.
And so in 2010, it was about three (3) years after my graduation from the University of Ibadan. I had just put together the ‘Maga No Need Pay’ song as an Ambassador for Microsoft Nigeria when I received a call from Chief Dele Momodu. Chief Momodu said to me that he was going to run for President in 2011 and wanted me to be his National Presidential Campaign Manager. I was just 26 years old. I was shocked. Initially, it didn’t make sense to me. I saw myself as too young and inexperienced for that assignment. I wondered why he chose me. My immediate response to him was; “Sir, I don’t have any experience. I’m too young for this.” And he said to me; “Ohimai, look at the history of Nigeria. Some of the founding fathers of this nation led this country in their late 20s and early 30s. What makes you think that you are too young to run a presidential campaign?” Apparently, Chief Momodu had been paying attention to those years of my extra-curricula campus activities which in the eyes of some of my contemporaries was a waste of time. He had seen something in me that I had not even recognized. That was a defining moment of self-realisation for me. I took on the challenge and went through the process, oversaw my candidate’s party primaries at the National Conscience Party (NCP), won the party ticket and proceeded to the general elections. Of course we did not win. But I learnt a whole lot. I have written a book which will soon be published, documenting my experiences running that campaign. It was my baptism of fire in Nigerian politics. My assignment with the Momodu presidential campaign in 2011 entered my name into the history books as the youngest presidential Campaign Manager in modern democratic history. But more significantly, the experiences I gathered in that journey played a critical role in defining the excellence I brought into my work as a Ministerial Advisor in four federal government ministries of Nigeria – Defence, Sports, Youth Development and Foreign Affairs between 2011 and 2015. One lesson you can learn from me during this period in question is how I approached this new phase of my life with humility. When I was offered an appointment as a ministerial aide, I could have turned it down on the pretext that I had a “big profile” haven been national coordinator of a presidential campaign. But I did not allow my profile as a presidential campaign manager get into my head. I accepted the offer and subjected myself under authority and became a student in the school of public service.
After my job was done in those four federal ministries, in 2016, I was invited to work as a new media strategist on the re-election campaign of Ghana’s former President John Dramani Mahama, which made me the first Nigerian youth to be engaged as a new media consultant by the sitting President of a foreign country. I have decided to use my personal story as an example to show you that it is possible. Because if I could do it, there’s nothing stopping you. You can even do better! I believe that seated today in this audience are future Senators, Ministers, Governors and Presidents.
As young and aspiring lawyers who are contemplating a career in politics, it is important to know that there is nothing dishonourable about politics and that politics is dirty only when we leave it in the hands of dirty people. I served four years in the Nigerian government and came out with my integrity in tact. I came out untainted not because I wasn’t tempted or tested but because I had the grace of God on my side. The grace to stay focused on the principles and ideals of service above self-gratification. It is possible to serve even at the highest level of politics in this country and still uphold your character, your good name and your integrity.
And you might be seated in the audience right now listening to me and saying to yourself; “I am competent. I think I have the character and the integrity to go into public service.” Good thinking. Your journey has just begun, because there is no short cut to your political destination. If you are seeking elective office especially, you must be ready to take the bold step of joining a political party. Yes, political parties have their issues, but angels will not descend from heaven to change these political parties. You are the ones who will get involved as card carrying members of these political parties and reform these parties from within – inside out. Our political parties will not become more transparent, more democratic or more sensitive to the leadership yearnings of our people when we have built a wall of “us versus them” and standing on our side of the wall as armchair critics wishing that somehow, some miracle is going to happen! And let me also add at this point what many people who may have encouraged you to join a political party may have missed out of the conversation. You cannot embark on this journey alone. You need numbers. You need like-minded colleagues, associates, friends and contemporaries to take this bold step along with you. You need a critical mass of co-travelers to make your journey impactful, because politics is a game of numbers and one good tree, no matter how outstanding, cannot make a forest. What this simply means is that in any democracy, the choices made by the majority, no matter how poor those choices are, will always stand. You may be the best man in the room, you may have the brightest idea in the room, but if you don’t have the numbers on your side, you are going nowhere.
Much as I am a very passionate advocate for youth participation in politics, there are barriers to participation that you must scale. In today’s Nigeria, since our return to democratic rule in 1999, the youths have been mostly confined to the wings and fringes of politics, governance and leadership. We seem to have become victims of a political system deliberately designed to exclude even the best and brightest of us. We have been told over and over again that we are the leaders of tomorrow. Recently, we are now being described as emerging leaders. When will this tomorrow finally come? When are we going to eventually emerge?
In all of this, the Nigerian youth is easily a demographic majority considering an estimated population of 68 million of us. To put this in context, this is twice the population of Ghana; more than the population of South Africa and bigger than the population of the United Kingdom. It is such that if the Nigerian youth population were to be a nation, it would be the fourth largest country in Africa and 19th in the world. By sheer numerical strength, we would as young Nigerians be a major country. But in political representation, we are the minority. How do we overcome these barriers and begin to participate strategically in a way that ensures that our impact is felt and can no longer be ignored?
First, for those of you who are aspiring to run for office sometime in the future, you must be ready to build the capacity for politics. Like I have said before, age is not enough to qualify you for a seat at the table. More importantly is what you are bringing to the table. As a popular legal maxim explains it, “Nemo dat quod non habet”, literally meaning “no one gives what he doesn’t have”. By building capacity, I also do not mean going to school alone to acquire a degree or post-graduate degree. You must be willing to learn the art of politics from the man and woman on the streets because again and again, politics is always a game of numbers. And the numbers are mostly not on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook. They are mostly at the grassroots where the Internet data is either too slow or in most cases, unaffordable and non-existent. Many Nigerian youths are quick to reference the emergence of the very youthful Emmanuel Macron in France as an evidence that it is also possible for youths to emerge here in Nigeria. But Macron’s youthfulness is only a part of the story. While it is true that this was his first attempt at an elective position, he had some experience working in government. He had served as President Francois Hollande’s deputy secretary-general and actually had his eyes set on becoming Hollande’s Secretary of State for the Budget, but he was considered young, too inexperienced and not familiar enough with the ins and outs of the political system. But faced with a crisis in the Economy, President Hollande found himself in a tough position where he was forced to appoint Macron — a former Rothschild banker — as his new Economy Minister. All of this happened before Macron eventually left Hollande to start his own party and then built it from scratch into a movement that helped him become President.
Second, the road to building a successful career in politics is not in crying on social media and abusing politicians into surrendering power to you. As long as you continue to antagonize politics and people in politics, you are simply pushing yourselves away from the goal of gaining power and influence that will bring about the change that you desire to see in this country.
Third, young people cannot participate effectively in politics until they master the principles of collaboration across political divides. We must learn from the older generation and how they team up together to advance their interests. While many young people are tearing at each other’s throats over the politics of APC versus PDP, the older generation have found ways to collaborate. To be successful in politics, you must be ready to work, sometimes with the people whose faces you don’t like.
Fourth, young people must be ready and willing to follow before parading themselves as leaders who have arrived. Many young people who cannot win a single election in their local government wards are parading themselves today online and offline, both within Nigeria and beyond as the movers and shakers of our time. Some of them are even celebrated beyond the shores of Nigeria but back here at home, they cannot win a councillorship election. And the reason is simple. All politics is local. It was my mentor Chief Dele Momodu who said: “It is not how quickly you get to the top that matters; it is how long you stay, and it is plenty of preparation, focus, passion, hard work and tenacity.” Earlier in this paper, I mentioned a list of eminent Nigerians who led this country in the age of their youth. But guess what? They were not in a hurry to get to the top. They spent years under the mentorship of people who were ahead of them and worked their ways up. They had bold ambitions. They wanted to conquer the world but they were prepared to submit to the leadership of someone they believed had something that they themselves did not have. They were ready to be followers. Today, some of the young people that many of you seated in this hall regard as your social media icons see themselves as “big men” who are too big to follow or learn from anyone. Rather, they want you to follow them on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook. Don’t be like them because you cannot build a successful political career if you are not ready to learn and follow.
In September this year, by the grace of God, I will be 34. With all the great things that God has done in my life, I believe I have not even started yet. I consider my destination still very far ahead because I have learnt never to mistake my milestones for my destination.
Let me conclude by emphasizing once again that the concept of youth participation in politics is incomplete without the concept of youth preparation for politics. Nigeria’s former Minister of Sports and Youth Development, Mallam Bolaji Abdullahi said recently at an Emerging Leaders Summit in Abuja, and I quote: “No athlete, no matter his or her genius, can achieve elite status overnight. It takes years of intensive and painful preparation. Peter Crouch started out as a ball boy. No one climbs a tree from the top. You may need to labour for years in obscurity before you attain the glory that you desire. Once a boxer steps into the ring, it sometimes takes only a few minutes before he becomes a hero. But packed into those few minutes were benefits of months, if not years of grueling training and suffering. True success and true power, is hardly handed to anyone on a platter of gold.” End of quote. I have found no reason to disagree with him.
But does this in any way suggest that there are no young people who have been deprived the opportunity of proving themselves in politics and governance despite working so hard, toiling and paying their dues? There are a good number of such people. My advice to them and to some of you who will face similar roadblocks in the future is to draw inspiration from the story of Abraham Lincoln who endured a steady repeat of failure and defeat before becoming President of the United States. If you want to learn about somebody who didn’t quit, Abraham Lincoln is a perfect example. Born into poverty, Lincoln was faced with defeat throughout his life. He lost eight elections, failed twice in business and suffered a nervous breakdown. Many times, he had a reason to give up on his dreams but he did not and because he didn’t quit, he became one of the greatest presidents in the history of the United States. Stay focused on your dreams and never, ever give up.
I thank you for your attention.
Ohimai Godwin Amaize, the publisher of SIGNAL online newspaper delivered this address – POLITICS AS A CAREER: NOT TOO YOUNG TO PARTICIPATE at the 2018 National Convention of the Law Students Association of Nigeria (LAWSAN) hosted at the University of Lagos on Tuesday 6th February, 2018. He tweets at @MrFixNigeria.
The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author.