It cannot be gainsaid that the Nigerian youth offer no hope for a bright tomorrow, especially with the brand of uninspiring leadership manifested by the ruling elite. The need for youthful participation and indeed, takeover in political affairs comes at the heels of Dr Goodluck Ebele Jonathan’s indictment of the old order that “they had failed the country.” Therefore, the baton of representation ought to change hands from the old generation of leaders to a new order. It must be noted that this philosophy informed the United States’ decision in withdrawing support and goodwill from former Zairean Leader, the late Colonel Mobutu Sese Seko.
Youth, according to the Oxford Advanced Learners Dictionary, can be described as “the quality or state of being young.” It is a stage in the life of an individual; very crucial, because it is the decision-making stage. As much as the youths are important in the politics of today, their blatant relegation constitutes an affront to the saying that “the youths are the leaders of tomorrow.”
This paper seeks to examine the level of the youth participation in the Nigerian polity from the colonial clime, having recourse to historical facts, to the present democratic dispensation. It also seeks to address the level of political consciousness of youth in the country, an indication of positivity to follow.
As a matter of fact, the subject of the participation of youths in politics cannot be fully considered without looking retrospectively towards the Nigerian history. And the starting point begins from the rich nationalist struggle for independence. After that, the fate of the newly independent country became vested upon the shoulders of men in their prime- men who hadn’t even reached the age of fifty. In 1960, Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, Prime Minister of Nigeria and fondly referred to as “The Golden Voice of Africa” was just 48 years old. It would seem that the glorious precedent set by Nigeria’s first and frontal leaders whereby youths dictated the national affairs of the country would remain an everlasting norm.
THE NATIONALIST STRUGGLE
The struggle for political emancipation of Nigeria may not have seen the light of day if it had been orchestrated by the old order of that era. Rather, it fell squarely upon the youths. Quite a sizeable number of them who had migrated overseas to further their education returned, and were at the vanguard of the campaign for independence. Worthy of note is the example of the fiery, Chief Jeremiah Obafemi Oyeniyi Awolowo who underwent his legal tutelage in the University of London. He would later return to lead the Action Group in the West.
Dr Benjamin Nnamdi Azikiwe , bagging a Masters Degree from the University of Pennsylvania in 1933, launched into the deep of politics after his return to Nigeria in 1934. He articulated his political philosophy into a broad concept of Zikism, earning him a large following. Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa is another glorious example, having been elected into the Northern House of Assemby at the age of 34. The struggle evoked a strong political consciousness in the colony, stoked by the passion and the zeal of the youths and the student community in the University.
Thus, the charismatic following of the youthful leaders of the day, and their political philosophy translated into open confrontation with the colonial authority at the time. Kole Omotosho captures this state of affairs in a chapter, “The Trial of The Zikists” in his book, “Just Before dawn.” This chapter tells of the ambitious assassination attempt on the Governor- general by one who was a Zikist; subscribing to the philosophies of Nnamdi Azikiwe. It is trite fact that the political stance and involvement of the youths altogether succeeded in divesting the country of colonial rule.
THE RULE OF THE MILITARY YOUTHS
From the nationalist struggle to independence in 1960 and beyond, national affairs (as have already been mentioned) were dictated by men in their prime of life. The tide of political consciousness was high, so high that when Prime Minister Balewa wanted to sign the Anglo-Nigerian Defence Pact, students of the University of Lagos protested and knocked down that pact. It was so high that it took a 29 year old Chukwuma Kaduna Nzeogwu and four other dashing young majors to inter the First Republic on the night of the 14th of January, 1966 through a bloody military putsch.
In his speech announcing the end of the First Republic, he cited a list of sundry issues; amongst which was corruption, justifying the military intervention. Major General Johnson Thompson Ummunakwe Aguiyi- Ironsi was only 42 years old when he became Nigeria’s first Head of State. Students of the University of Lagos would go on to celebrate his coming branding him “our savior of Nigeria.” And when the counter-coup of July 1966 put an end to his administration and deposited the scepter of leadership in the hands of an unambitous 32 year old Lieutenant Colonel Yakubu Gowon, history would go on to declare him Nigeria’s youngest Head of State.
It must be stated categorically that General Abdulsalam Abubakar is the only Head of State who was older than 53 when he assumed office in 1998. The other military Generals who officered Nigeria were in their thirties or forties when they rode on whatever brought them to power.
A CHANGE IN THE NORM
The Nigerian political terrain began to witness the traversing of familiar political troubadours from the second republic. Once the blueprint for transition to civilian rule was laid out, and political parties began to spring up, the political gladiators in the First Republic, significantly aged, began their campaign for elective posts. This culminated in Shehu Shagari emerging as President of Nigeria at the age of 54. Before then, he had been elected Parliamentary Secretary to the late Tafawa Balewa at the age of 33 (1958) and went on to serve three times as Minister in the First Republic. Simply put, the Second Republic eroded the norm of youthful participation by returning actors of the First Republic.
An exasperated Fela would later cry out in his song:
The same old politicians
Wen rule Nigeria before
The same old politicians
All of dem dey dere now!
This leads one to question the position of the youth population who had become docile overnight; particularly those who under the umbrella of the National Union of Nigerian Students (NUNS) had protested against Obasanjo’s decision to commercialize education: The Ali-Must-Go riots. Some of these youths, ripe enough for contesting elective posts, would have constituted sufficient replacement for the class of old leaders. The era of the Second Republic presented a situation whereby the youths were content with forming pressure groups protesting mis-governance while the leaders of the country continued unabated. However, credit must be given to them as they played that part with as much vigour as they could muster.
THE YOUTH IN TODAY POLITICS
The politics of pre-May 2015 presented a pathetic situation worthy of mention. While the youths seemed to have derived an apathetic disposition towards national affairs and the governance of their country, political leaders from the extinct republics continued to hold sway as the Lords of The Nigerian Clan. Military administrators returned to rule Nigeria or expressed their desire to rule the country both at the gubernatorial and the presidential level.
Furthermore, battle- scarred politicians retired to the Senate, a cozy resting place, leaving no chance, justifiably so, to the somewhat reluctant new generation. Even in President Buhari’s Cabinet, none of his ministers are within the 30-40 years age bracket. Presently, it appears that the Student Unions dotting the many University communities have become ready tools of political patronage, in contrast to the ideology establishing them. This leads one to wonder why our youths should beg for fish when it lies within them to seize the fishing net. Besides that, in the government of the Student Unions, tales of financial misappropriation and cutthroat political intrigues abound.
Even as the pressure which used to be foisted upon the governments of the eighties and nineties seems to have died an unnatural death, attempt must be geared towards its resurrection, and also a campaign to launch the youths into mainstream political engagement in Nigeria. On this note, popular Nollywood Actor, Desmond Elliot must be commended for delving into politics. Elliot who had in the past articulated his desire to go into politics appears to be manifesting his dream now. It remains a fact that Nigerian youths have conquered the world in sports, entertainment, literature etc. Therefore a youthful intervention is needed at this time of change in Nigeria.
Thankfully, there seems to be a reawakening of the political consciousness of Nigerian youths. This is evidenced by the level of political support and sophistication which was shown to the incumbent President in the electioneering period. One would have expected such support to deaden fitfully after the elections but it continues to wax stronger every day. The political consciousness of the youths can be felt keenly on social media (twitter, facebook, nairaland) as the policies and decisions of government are objectively analyzed and criticized on these fora. This is quite commendable.
President Barack Obama’s charge to the Ghanaian Parliament when he visited the West African Nation must be noted here: “So I especially want to, again, speak to the young people of Africa. In places like Ghana, you make more than half the population… You have the power to hold your leaders accountable and to build institutions that serve the people…” This statement remains relevant today; the Nigerian youths have demonstrated that their voting power isn’t to be taken for granted. They, alone, can determine the defeat or otherwise of a political candidate. Even as that is evident, the intervention of youths in politics is highly needed. Even as Nigeria boasts of a fairly literate youth population, many of whom have been educated abroad, it is time they look towards contesting political posts in the land rather than going to work in multinational companies.
This paper has discussed extensively the participation of youths in politics from the nationalist struggle to the present dispensation. It is hoped that the political consciousness (the feBuhari, March 4Buhari) which was evoked by the last general elections would blossom into wider political involvement of the youths. Already, there seems to be instilled in the average Nigerian youth a desire to probe the decisions of government. In the fullness of time, it is hoped that Nigerian youths would be able to negotiate the path to progress of the country.