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Youth: Getting ready for public office
With few or no opportunities to emerge as candidates for elective offices—because they are too young or because they have limited experience—some young Africans are now actively campaigning for a reduction in the age limit for running for public office.
Young people “can no longer be spectators, cheerleaders and campaign merchants in the democratic process,” insists Samson Itodo, a Nigerian human rights activist and the executive director of the Nigeria-based Youth Initiative for Advocacy, Growth and Advancement (YIAGA Africa), a youth organization that promotes good governance, human rights and youth political participation. YIAGA has offices in The Gambia, Ghana, Liberia, Nigeria and Sierra Leone.
Using YIAGA Africa’s platform, Mr. Itodo and other youths founded the Not Too Young to Run initiative in May 2016 to campaign for a reduction in the age limit on those vying for political office. The campaign’s slogan is, “If you’re old enough to vote, you’re old enough to run!”
The campaign receives financial and technical support from the Washington, D.C.–based National Endowment for Democracy and National Democratic Institute for International Affairs, the Democratic Governance for Development Project of the UN Development Programme and the Open Society Initiative for West Africa, based in Dakar, Senegal.
Passing the bill
The Nigerian government last May ratified a constitutional amendment that reduced the age limit for state legislators and those in the federal House of Representatives from 30 years to 25 years, for senators and governors from 35 to 30 and for the president from 40 to 35.
Mr. Itodo said they fought hard to achieve the feat. “The main challenge was convincing legislators to vote in support of the amendment. Dislodging political inequality is an uphill task in a country like Nigeria,” he told Africa Renewal in an interview.
Campaigners began by enlisting the support of what the activist referred to as “change champions”—federal parliamentarians Tony Nwulu and Abdulaziz Nyako—who introduced the amendments in both chambers of Nigeria’s bicameral legislature—the Senate and the House of Representatives.
Even after both bodies approved the amendments in July 2017, two-thirds of 36 states’ legislatures needed to approve before the bill could become law. At that point, Mr. Itodo recalled, campaigners deployed robust tactics. “Popularizing the campaign and galvanizing public action was tough. Social media helped us set the public agenda and mobilise young people to participate in the campaign.”
After meeting with Mr. Itodo’s team in April 2018, Nigeria’s vice president, Yemi Osinbajo, said, “The fact that you are old enough to vote means you should be old enough to run.”
The vice president’s ruling party, the All Progressives Congress, is up for reelection in February 2019 in what is likely to be a close race, a factor not lost on pundits who suggest the administration is supporting the initiative to gain youth votes in the upcoming elections.
Cynthia Mbamalu, a cofounder of YIAGA and a member of the Not Too Young to Run strategy team, is not concerned about any underlying political calculations. “Did the lawmakers and the president think about their reelection in passing the bill? They probably did, but who wouldn’t, especially when young people constitute over 50% of the voting population?” she told Blueprint Newspaper, a Nigerian publication.
President Muhammadu Buhari signed the bill into law in May 2018, praising the campaigners for establishing a “formidable legacy.”
The constitutional amendment “has energized our youth and will further democratize the governance of our nation,” concurred Bukola Saraki, Nigeria’s Senate president, speaking on behalf of his colleagues.
Since the bill became law, Mr. Itodo says more people are showing an interest in running for office.
Global efforts launched
The global launch of the Not Too Young to Run campaign took place in Geneva, Switzerland, in November 2016, at the first UN Forum on Human Rights, Democracy and the Rule of Law.
The Office of the UN Secretary-General’s Envoy on Youth, the UN Development Programme, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, the Inter-Parliamentary Union, the European Youth Forum and YIAGA jointly launched the global campaign.
“Young people have every right to be active participants in civic and public life. It is time to ensure they no longer face arbitrary barriers to run for public office,” said the former UN secretary-general’s envoy on youth, Ahmad Alhendawi, at the launch.
High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein maintained that “younger generations are not adequately represented in formal political institutions.” The IPU secretary-general, Martin Chungong, added, “If young people are not too young to get married, to serve in the military or to choose the parliamentarians who will represent them, they are not too young to run.”
Young people around the world have since adopted the hashtag #NotTooYoungToRun to raise awareness of the campaign on social media. But Nigeria’s constitutional amendment is the campaign’s significant first success.
An African force
The African Union (AU) and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) also endorsed the campaign in Africa. “The ECOWAS Commission is partnering with the AU on the empowerment of the youth of the continent with a bid to release their creative energies, raise their productivity and turn a vibrant human resource into an African development force,” the body stated in September 2017, ahead of a three-day consultative meeting on youth in Abuja.
In The Gambia, girls’ and women’s rights activist Isatou Bittaye leads the Not Too Young to Run campaign launched in February 2017 in that country. Ms. Bittaye also leads the Gambia’s branch of the Young Leaders Program, an initiative of Women Deliver, a global advocacy group for girls’ and women’s rights.
The Young Leaders Program quotes Ms. Bittaye on its website: “Political parties’ executive and selection committees are dominated by men. It is in there that important decisions are made and candidates are selected to contest for political office.”
Ms. Bittaye and her team have held meetings in the country’s five regions to mobilize young people to get involved in politics.
Hard work begins
Passing laws that reduce age limits for those holding public office is only a first step in getting young people elected; the hard work involves (but is not limited to) developing and articulating the best policy ideas during vigorous political campaigning, networking and getting logistical and financial support.
Mr. Nwulu, who cosponsored the bill in Nigeria’s parliament, told Africa Renewal that “the bill has been passed, it’s just the beginning. It’s now left for young people for whom this bill is meant to begin to take advantage of all that it offers.”
It may be tempting to think that the law is the end of the journey, says President Buhari, and cautions, “It is only the beginning. There is still a lot of work ahead in ensuring that young people take full advantage of the opportunities provided.”
Ms. Bittaye believes that success will depend not only on constitutional provisions but also on the active engagement of young people in politics. “There will be no progressive policies for young people without the involvement of young people. Through their involvement, young people can…lobby for parties to adopt youth policies.”
Activists are optimistic about the possibility that other countries will replicate the success in Nigeria. If that happens, the youth will find more seats at the leadership table, and old politicians could find it more difficult to exploit young people for selfish ends. Time will tell.