Nigeria is the most populated country in Africa and the seventh most populated country in the world. Nigerian youths represent over 65 per cent of her entire population. History shows us, countries with an increasing youth population tap into their energy, innovativeness, vibrancy, resilience and ambition as part of a sustainable road map to economic growth and development.
Unless deliberate efforts are made in Nigeria to harness the potential in her youth population, young people will continue to be confronted with growing challenges and barriers to their participation in the country’s development and democracy.
Apart from high levels of corruption in virtually all facets of the democratic institutions, some other notable barriers to youth leadership are economic, institutional, and cultural barriers.
Economic barriers in my view, relate to factors limiting or reducing the willingness of the Nigerian youth to fund basic political activities embedded in our democratic process. Due to the highly monetized nature of democracy in Nigeria, spending huge sums of money to sway support for one’s political ambition is unavoidable.
For most young people in Nigeria, the harsh economic and living conditions in the country results from high unemployment rates and this makes participating in our democracy as candidates of any political party almost impossible. In addition, it’s daunting overcoming institutional barriers in Nigeria’s major political parties.
The older generation of politicians deliberately exclude young people from playing key roles or taking up leadership positions in democratic institutions. Despite creating positions for youth leaders in the country’s political parties, most individuals who occupy these positions fall outside the age demography of youths.
Youths according to UN are individuals whose ages are between 17 to 35 years. The fact that the national youth leaders of both the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), Rt. Hon Ude Okoye and the All Progressives Congress (APC), Alhaji Ibrahim Dasuki are 41 and 48 years old respectively, underscores a disturbing trend of youth exclusion in the country’s democratic institutions.
Also, cultural barriers have had profound negative impact on the leadership selection process of political parties in the country. The cultural notion that young Nigerians must undergo many years of tutelage by older politicians before they can become qualified leaders encourages youth exclusion from politics as candidates of political offices. The practice, in my view is not only archaic but retrogressive.
While the younger generation look up to my generation and those before us for answers or solutions to questions or problems related to the growing barriers to their future participation in our democracy, we seem not to have found one.
Those in leadership positions today have shown little or no concern to the ugly development and the perils are imminent. When youths are not provided with requisite support mechanism preparing them for leadership roles in the society, they will easily derail. Some become willing tools for politicians during elections.
Those who grow into political thugs are given handouts during elections then turn to nuisances of the society immediately the elections are over.
It is believed majority of youths who joined the Boko Haram sect in the North Eastern parts of Nigeria were used and dumped by politicians.
However, when the elections were over and their patronage ceased, the youths turned to Boko Haram for refuge. Similar trend of events have played out in Southern parts of Nigeria too.
Kidnapping, armed robbery and militancy for large ransoms are popular notorious activities youths in these geopolitical regions of the country indulge in.
Following the situation of things in the country and the low chances of increasing youth participation in leadership, going forward, I urge Nigerian youths to ignore any attempts to be used for election thuggery. The political parties and other democratic institutions should reserve over 40 per cent of their party executive positions at various levels to youths. The same affirmation for youth leadership should be used to issue political appointments in the country.
Conversely, Nigerian youths have demonstrated capacity in different walks of life. They can be tenacious during difficult periods and even in areas where young people from other parts of the world will not dare to go.
The show of their resilience is second to none. When I look back at my experience in Aba, I recall growing up with hardworking men and women in their teens, who were constantly innovating and manufacturing products and rendering services in midst of scarce resources. They would put up small manufacturing units at the back of their homes and produce leather shoes, belts and handbags. These products would later be branded “Made-in-Aba” and shipped out for higher earnings.
The government can solve some of these problems by establishing youth leadership development centers across the six geopolitical regions of the country, provide merit based scholarship to deserving Nigerians, help young Nigerians understand and enshrine the spirit of patriotism towards an inclusive and better Nigeria, and sponsor an affirmative action plan giving our youths their rightful place in the decision making process at local, national and regional levels. Nigerian youths are currently in the fringes of our society and as a result, concerted efforts should be made to draw them into the center of government.
On a broader scope, if young Nigerians are included in discussions pertaining to nation building, we will produce confident leaders facing the country’s problems with solutions. Again, my conviction that young Nigerians with good leadership credentials should be given a fair chance to high leadership elective positions in our democracy has spurred me to remain resilient in the campaign for youth leadership and development.
Although my ambition to serve my people as their senator was stopped at the party primaries level, I will continue to advocate for fairness and inclusion of young Nigerians in our democracy. The best we can get out of leadership lies within them. If other concerned Nigerians could join me in this campaign and advocacy, I see a young and competent democratically elected president sworn-in in 2023.
Youths exposed to leadership roles early in their career will end up as future and better administrators of our limited resources. Emphasis on education, leadership trainings and empowerment should be put on the front burner as an action item in the major political parties.
If we continue to ignore them the consequences will be irreversible.
– Onyeizu, a former APC Senatorial Aspirant and Sloan Fellow of Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), is an expert in Youth Empowerment and Governance