In the last couple of days, I read two articles by two of Nigeria’s most talented youths, Chude Jideonwo and Ohimai Amaize. The two articles were asking essentially the same question: why are African youth voting for old men? This is a very important question indeed.
“It’s odd to see so many engaged, empowered and angry youth turn to symbols of the same old order to make change happen in countries desperate for a turnaround,” Chude wrote, and then gave reasons why it may not be so odd after all.
He said when young people are confronted with a choice between a bad candidate and an old candidate, a sense of “responsibility” makes them to overlook age as a factor. “Pragmatism”, “cynicism” and a “ferocious mix of anger and hope” he said, are other reasons young Africans are helping to bring old men to power.
For Ohimai, everything boils down to a “conspiracy of the elite class”, who has continued to disempower young people, using the potent tools of illiteracy and poverty. In other words, youth participation in politics has been limited largely to playing in the supporters’ club of the same older politicians who have denied them the means and the opportunity to take to the field themselves.
Both writers have offered us valid interpretations. However, I tend to disagree with Chude where he appears to suggest that the political fortune of young people on the continent are changing. Young people, he said, have “only now begun to build the street savvy that can win elections or hijack political systems.” In particular reference to Nigeria, this would appear a little like an overstatement. I have not seen the evidence anywhere that young people are developing the essential capability that could win elections or “hijack political systems.” Worse still, I can’t see even a theoretical movement in that direction.
On his own part, Ohimai has tried to frame the youth as hapless victims of some elite conspiracy. This may not be completely correct. Young people are victimised by many things and at different levels, but in recent times, they are no longer as passive as Ohimai would want us to believe. And as Chude rightly noted, 2011 was the age of “real” participation in politics for the youths. That was also arguably the golden era of youth enlightenment and participation in social enterprise and entrepreneurship. Interestingly, Ohimai himself is a prime example of this coming-of-age, when he became the youngest Nigerian to manage a presidential candidate at the age of 26! It was the era of “Futures Award”, pioneered by Chude and his irrepressible companion, Debola Williams, which recognises and celebrates exceptional young people. It was the era of “Enough-Is-Enough” and “Occupy Nigeria”.
I was Minister of Youth Development at the time. And I experienced quite intimately, the sheer energy and ingenuity of the Nigerian youth at the time. While so many factors combined to make Goodluck Jonathan president in 2011, his “Breath of Fresh Air” arrival was surely a creation of Nigerian youth. It is also clear that the decline of the Jonathan presidency started when he lost the youth population with the fuel subsidy removal of January 2012. If ever there was a time that the youth were going to truly come to their own in this country, it was 2011 and 2012.
However, if 2011 was the golden age of youth political participation in Nigeria, 2015 would go down as the age of decline. Shortly after the election, I asked my friend, Cheta Nwanze, another incredibly talented young man of that era, what went wrong. Ever perceptive, he pointed out that ‘youth’ is a finite identity. Many of the youths of that era have grown to become men and women with their own families. I think there are bigger issues as well.
The Nigerian youth was a powerful force in 2011 because they were able to build a consensus and mobilise around a common political agenda. Even though a 2011 report indicated that being Nigerian was a fourth-level identity to most young people at the time, Nigerian youth were able to subordinate those other primordial identities of tribe, religion and region that mattered to them to an overarching considerations for good governance, rule of law and social equity. This was not the case in 2015. Things, literally, fell apart.
Looking back at the 2015 election, one should ordinarily be delighted that youth participation in politics was even more intimate and more clearly defined along political party lines than on the previous occasion. Unfortunately, this has turned out to be a destructive force, at a level we have not witnessed before.
Two years after, the youths are still carrying on as if the election was not over. Those on the losing side are still smarting from defeat and have allowed their pains to determine their reaction to everything. They have proudly adopted the banner of the “wailing wailers” that was thrown at them and appear to constantly be in need to justify the political choice they made two years ago. When they should be sober, they have been gleeful. When they should be reflective, they have been vengeful. Their political affiliation appeared to be more important to them than the Nigerian nation itself.
On the other hand, those on the winning side have indulged in suicidal triumphalism. They are intolerant of even the slighted criticism and have gone round with annoying sense of entitlement and exaggerated patronship. Meanwhile, the people that really mattered, the political elite class that Ohimai blames for the disempowerment of young people, have responded to new realities; they are now busy working on new relationships and building new alliances. They have forgotten about 2015. The Nigerian youth is however, still there, locked in a fight-to-finish, abusing, cursing, caricaturing, falsifying, and doing everything to win a battle that had long been over. The actual players are busy seeking new opportunities, the Nigerian youth is locked in a mortal combat over who could blow the loudest vuvuzela.
It speaks to the weakness of our political parties that a single electoral defeat would lead to the collapse of one of the strongest political parties in Nigerian history, the PDP. However, despite its factionalisation, we could see efforts being made to rebuild the party. One would expect that this presents a good opportunity for the youths be truly involved and ensure that whatever comes out in the end reflects their aspirations. But you don’t see them do this. Rather, it is the same “elite class” that Ohimai said is the problem that is now left alone to be the solution. The “PDP youths” appear content to just play their politics on social media.
A couple of weeks ago, the APC inaugurated its constitutional review committee. Given the frustrations and grievances that the so many “APC youths” have shared with me in private conversations, one would expect that they would see this as a great opportunity to push for a real youth agenda by actively engaging the committee members. Regrettably, you don’t get a sense that this engagement is happening. Our youths are rather busy returning “fire-for-fire” and tearing at one another on twitter and Facebook.
If we are to see the kind of savviness that Chude mentioned in his article, which would bring the youths to the centre of political power, Nigerian youths will have to be guided more by what they can think, rather than what they can feel. They have to rise above sheer egotism and cultivate the social skill that would enable them to understand that a political opponent is not necessarily a personal enemy. Nigeria is in desperate need of a successor generation. This can only emerge incredibly talented youth population. However, as long as the youths remain trapped in a culture of hate, cynicism, talkativeness and self-destructive egotism, young people will continue to see themselves running back to the past to find a solution to the future that belongs to them.
Bolaji Abdullahi is a former minister of youth development and sports, and the National Publicity Secretary of APC. He writes this as a personal opinion and not that of the APC.
The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author.