ABUJA — Ndi Kato, a 28-year-old from northwestern Nigeria’s Kaduna state, strongly believes that she can help her people by running for office to represent her constituency in the local assembly.
“I’ve worked so hard over the past four years to build a very good political career because of what I want to achieve for my people,” she says.
There is a stumbling block ahead of her political journey, though. She says it is “problematic” to push for change without the democratic legitimacy or financial resources that come with holding a top position in government.
Until last year, young Nigerians like Kato who are not up to 30 years of age could not contest for key positions during elections because they didn’t meet the age requirements set by the constitution, which was drafted just before the end of military rule in 1999.
Citizens must be up to 40 years old to run for president, 35 for senators and state governors, 30 for members of the House of Representatives (the lower chamber in the parliament) and state houses of assembly.
This is exactly what a coalition of over 100 youth and civil society organisations led by the Abuja-based non-profit Youth Initiative For Advocacy, Growth and Advancement (YIAGA) are fighting to change.
“A democracy is about inclusion and participation, everyone should be allowed to participate fully whether you are old or young,” says Ibrahim Faruk, senior programme officer at YIAGA.
Using the hashtag #NotTooYoungToRun, the campaigners want to reduce age limits from 40 to 30 for the president, 35 to 30 for state governor and the Senate, then from 30 to 25 for the House of Representatives and state houses of assembly.
Mark Okoye, 30, is the youngest commissioner in Nigeria who was appointed in the government of Anambra state in 2016. Okoye’s appointment gave a boost to the Not Too Young To Run movement.
Mark Okoye, 30, is the youngest commissioner in Nigeria who was appointed in the government of Anambra state in 2016. Okoye’s appointment gave a boost to the Not Too Young To Run movement. (Courtesy of YIAGA/TRTWorld)
Sola Tayo, associate fellow at the foreign affairs think tank Chatham House, says the movement can close the “generational gulf” between the country’s political leaders and the growing youth population.
“I think any attempt to open up the political space and increase political awareness among younger people is a positive thing,” Sola said. “As Nigeria’s demographics change, politics should evolve to reflect this … and to ensure that the population is being represented fairly.”
Nigeria has a population of more than 180 million people, and youth (defined by the National Youth Policy as people between the ages of 15 to 35) constitute around 60 percent of this population .
But much of this youthful population has been cut off from the political system which is largely dominated by older citizens. None of Nigeria’s serving senators is under 40. And since the transition to civilian administration in 1999, none of the four presidents that has led Nigeria was below 50 during the elections. Nigeria’s youngest governor, Yahaya Bello, came into office in 2015 at the age of 40.
Idayat Hassan, the director of the Centre for Democracy and Development in Nigerian capital city Abuja, says young people’s participation in the political process have been encumbered by weak electoral institutions, poverty and unemployment, high cost of politics and lack of internal party democracy that has, for example, fueled the rise in “godfatherism” – a system where influential party members secure political position for another person.
“The effects of exclusion outweighs its advantages; several research finding has shown lack of inclusion in the governance process is responsible for youth involvement in violent extremism and other vices,” Hassan says .
Tayo, an expert on Nigerian issues, believes the military had a hand in the lack of youth representation in the political system.
“The surviving political leaders from post-independence [mostly old military rulers] served together; they know each other and with their associates have made high-level politics a space that largely excludes people from outside their cliques,” Tayo tells TRT World.
“The centralisation of power in Abuja and the influence of the very rich has also contributed to this. When elites mingle they leave little space for everybody else in the room.”