ISSUES | #NotTooYoungToRun – Beyond the Legislation – By Bolaji Abdullahi

First time I received a group of young people in Ilorin who wanted me to support the campaign for the bill on ‘Not too Young to Run’, I asked them what the race was. Was it an inter-house sport competition, Okpepe Mountain race or Lagos Marathon? I told them that if they were running just to keep fit, that is fine. They can just start running. And a treadmill would do just fine. But if it was a competitive race, in which medals and glory are at stake, they need to work really hard at preparation. To achieve podium success in any global sport competition, you need 10, 000 hours of grueling training. 10, 000 hours translates to 2.5 hours of intensive preparation for 10 years. Along the way, you will enjoy small victories here and there. But you will also suffer several disappointments, frustrations and heartbreaks as well. In the end, you will succeed only if you listen to that immortal admonition by the great English poet, Alfred Lord Tennyson,

“One equal temper of heroic hearts,

Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will

To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”

I have employed the metaphor of sport to explain political competition. But if I am to extend it a little further, I will say that a political race is more like a marathon than a 100-metre dash. It requires an almost superhuman stamina.

More directly, let me say that I understand that what the youth are asking for is greater political participation. But participation is what everyone does already. Merely supporting a candidate in an election is a form of participation. Voting, canvassing, campaigning, debating, are all forms of participation. Even snatching of ballot boxes, attacking political opponents in cyber or physical space and occupying are all forms of participation. To this extent you can say that perhaps, more than ever before, especially with increased access to the social media, youths are participating in politics more than ever before. However, what I understand the youths to be saying with the ‘Not too Young to Run’ is that they are no longer content with playing in politicians’ supporters club, they want to be the players themselves. In other words, they want to deepen the quality of their participation, they want to lead the line; no more playing caddies or ball boys. Anyone with a sense of history must support this aspiration. But it is the youths themselves who would have to demonstrate that they are indeed ready to take the baton. And this goes beyond a mere legislation. The statusquo is deliberately constructed and sustained to serve particular purposes or interests. You must not expect people who have fought to win themselves a sit at the table to give it up or legislate themselves out of existence just because you make enough noise. Advocacy is a very important tool for advancing participation, but it is not a tool strong enough to alter the power configuration upon which the statusquo is constructed. If we are in doubt, we only need to look at the many years of campaign for greater participation of women in politics.

Women are a distinct demographic category, much more than youth, which is a transient identity. Yet, decades of struggle for greater representation of women in politics has not really changed much. Nigeria has about the lowest number of women representation in parliament in the whole of Africa. Out of 109 Senators only 7 are women. Why is this so?

Despite the constitutional rights to participate in public life, which is ordinarily conferred on every citizen regardless of gender, women have still found it extremely difficult to access political or public office. This is not because they don’t want to or they lack the capacity, but because they usually lack the resource or the social capability to do so. Like Armatya Sen argued, “the functioning of each individual, the activities that one may undertake, depends on the set of actual capabilities with which one is endowed by a broad constellation of social factors.” In essence, we cannot argue that women have the right or freedom to participate in politics or public life when they are deprived of the resources to exercise such right or freedom.

Therefore, even when political parties and government have not deliberately instituted any barriers to close the space to women participation, other critical and non-systemic factors may still retard the participation of women. The nature of our market economy and the specific issue of access to resources is about the most important factor. And these touch on the larger social arrangements in our country and how this empower or disempower women.

The issues that youths would face as they seek greater participation in politics would not be significantly different from those that women have encountered. There are barriers which are much stronger and much more resilient than legislations. Dismantling the legislative barrier is an important task; but it does not solve all the problems. At best, it is just a starting point.

Youths need to develop a set of competencies that would enable them to engage with the statusquo in a more productive ways. To creatively subvert the statusquo you need a level of intelligence and social skills that allows you to be accommodated within the statusquo. A ‘we’ versus ‘them’ mentality can only reduce you to a rabble of plebeians making ineffectual noise from behind the gates. You cannot abuse people into surrendering power to you. As long as young people continue to maintain an adversarial posture that is powered by a sense of sanctimoniousness or a sense of entitlements they can only drive themselves farther away from the goal of gaining power and influence to bring about the change that you desire to see in the country.

Nigerian youths like to recall how young the first and second generations of politicians and political leaders in this country were and they use that as a basis to demand greater participation. While this is potentially a strong argument, we must however look closely at those romantic eras of our history. Apart from the advantage of being pioneers, those guys, regardless of their faults and foibles, proved that they were ready to take over power from the colonialists. They had good education. They were knowledgeable. They were exposed. They had the right connections. They organised movements. They joined political parties or formed one. They worked for their parties, and earned recognitions. They spent years under tutelage and worked their ways up. They had ideological perspectives. They had visions, broad and deep. They all believed in things greater than themselves, for which they were prepared to live, suffer and possibly die for. They were prepared to submit to the leadership of someone they believed had something that they themselves did not have.

Michael Ajasin, Prime Minister Balewa, K.O. Mbadiwe, S.L. Akintola, S.G. Ikoku, Balarabe Musa, Bala Usman, Sunday Awoniyi, Bisi Onabanjo, Chuba Okadigbo. All exceptional young men. All followers. The legendary Chinua Achebe was once Deputy National Chairman of Aminu Kano’s Peoples Redemption Party (PRP). The people they followed, Aminu Kano, Obafemi Awolowo, Nnamdi Azikiwe, Ahmadu Bello, these were the leaders. They were not necessarily saints. They were not the oldest, or the brightest. But they were intelligent enough to know that what was at stake was much greater than themselves. They were all accomplished professionals, lawyers, journalists, writers, doctors, educationists etc. They were also agitators, but they didn’t just pitch their tents on the opposite ends of the statusquo and abused the politicians. They joined. Even those that established their own newspapers only saw these as part of the armaments they needed to gain political power, not as objectives in themselves. They did not mistake the milestones for the destination.

The first time I met the late MKO Abiola, I was just 21 at the time and an intern in Concord Newspapers. He prayed for me and said, “We are praying that you young men would be ready by the time we are gone. But you must not be in a hurry. Be patient. Focus on your studies and be sound. Your generation will be greater than us. But you have to be patient and learn from us, from our mistakes and our successes. I worry that you young men of nowadays are too much in a hurry.”

I wonder what MKO would say to this selfie generation, in which everyone wants to lead and no one wants to follow. A generation that has substituted hero-worship with self-worship; that believes it is somehow demeaning to be a follower, but are obsessed with accumulating meaningless followers online. I really wonder what MKO would say to a generation that the only book they enjoy reading is the Facebook, where they promote themselves and abuse people in rotten English. A generation to whom Instagram is more respected than grammar and television more important than vision. A generation that believes that language does not matter; forgetting that language is what differentiates us from animals and most often, is the way other people judge the quality of our mind.

Social media is one of the greatest revolutions that have happened to us. The irony however, is that while it empowers, it also creates huge pathologies. The social media is potentially empowering perhaps in a way that no single factor in human history had been. But the key word is potential. It can also lead to action paralysis and build the illusion of participation and power. This, I must say is not peculiar to Nigeria.

Anver Versi is the editor of New African. Writing in the November edition of the magazine he lamented: “…Many young people today seem to hold vacuous, shallow opinions, make illogical arguments and use false equivalence that evaporates at the first blast of rational thought. In addition to very short attention spans, our electronic addicts also seem to have a severely curtailed vocabulary and seem unable to express themselves except in clichés. We see this especially in the political space – where once reasoned and well-researched, carefully constructed arguments held sway, today we see bombast, insults and name-calling.”

If the life you have chosen is that of abusing other people and politicians, please enjoy your freedom. We politicians actually don’t mind being abused. By the way, please note that if you truly want to play politics, you need to anaesthetise against abuses. It is difficult; but you can achieve it through a simple surgery of replacing your skin with hide. I for one, don’t mind being abused. I only insist that if you must abuse me, please do so in good English.

If political power is what you desire, you need to climb down from your cyber-horse and face the reality of power. Like someone once said, politics everywhere is like cattle-ranching, you cannot do it, without getting your hands dirty. And that’s not the same thing as asking you to soil your hands. There is nothing in my experience that says morality and politics are necessarily incompatible.

If you are old enough to vote; you should be old enough to be voted for. That is the argument and I support it. I have only tried to add that if you are not going to start running at 18, it is because you need to give yourself time to prepare, to serve and to learn. No athlete, no matter his or her genius, can achieve elite status overnight. It takes years of intensive and painful preparation. Peter Crouch started out as a ball boy. No one climbs a tree from the top. You may need to labour for years in obscurity before you attain the glory that you desire. Once a boxer steps into the ring, it sometimes takes only a few minutes before he becomes a hero. But packed into those few minutes were benefits of months, if not years of grueling training and suffering. True success and true power, is hardly handed to anyone on a platter of gold.

Bolaji Abdullahi is a former Minister of Youth Development and Sports. He is currently National Publicity Secretary of the All Progressives Congress (APC). He delivered this address at the Emerging Political Leaders Summit (#EPLSummit2017) on Wednesday November 22nd, 2017, in Abuja. 



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