Samson Itodo is an elections and constitution building enthusiast and he works with the Youth Initiative for Advocacy, Growth & Advancement (YIAGA). He has been a vocal voice behind the #NotTooYoungToRun campaign which amongst other things, seeks to get more young people into elective office. In this interview with SIGNAL’s THE INFLUENCERS, he talks about the myths and realities of youth in politics, electoral reforms, lessons from the emergence of Emmanuel Macron in France, governance issues among others.
You have been at the forefront of pushing advocacy for the Not Too Young to Run bill. What is this bill about?
#NotTooYoungToRun bill is a bill that seeks to reduce the constitutional age requirement for running for elective office in Nigeria. The ultimate goal of the bill is to promote increased youth participation in the political process. The bill with gazette number HB. 544 seeks to alter Sections 65, 106, 131, 177 of the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria (as amended) to reduce the age qualification for the Office of the President from 40 years to 30 years; Governor 35 to 30, Senate 35 to 30, House of Representatives 30 to 25 and State House of Assembly 30 to 25. Hon. Tony Nwulu, representative of Oshodi/Isolo Federal Constituency II of Lagos state, is sponsor of the bill. The Senate of the Federal Republic of Nigeria also passed for first reading a constitutional amendment bill aimed at aligning the voting age of 18 with the eligibility age for contesting for political offices in Nigeria. The bill also referred to as the #NotTooYoungToRun Bill seeks to guarantee the right to full political participation for young people. The Bill with gazette number SB. 363 was read and passed for the first time during the Senate plenary on November 1, 2016. The bill is sponsored by Senator AbdulAziz Nyako representing Adamawa Central Senatorial District. This Bill seeks to alter Sections 65, 106, 131 and 177, of the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria (as amended) to remove age as a criterion for political candidacy in Nigeria. The bills also seeks to mainstream independent candidacy into Nigeria’s electoral laws in order to strengthen and increase the competitiveness of the political process. Not only will independent candidacy check the practice of imposition and substitution of candidates by political parties, it will also promote issue-based politics. The bill has passed the 1st and 2nd reading stage in the House of Representatives and the Senate. The bills are now before the National Assembly Committees on Constitution Review. The #NotTooYoungToRun Campaign is a movement of over 80 youth civil society organizations working together to promote the passage of legislation that reduces the age limit for contesting elections in Nigeria. The movement is committed to mobilizing citizens to engage with the legislature during the ongoing constitution review process using social media, parliamentary committees, public demonstrations, debates, lobbying, and so on, to demand a reduction in the age of eligibility to stand as a political candidate. It is important to highlight the fact that that the campaign is now a global campaign. Countries of the world have risen to accept that reality that young people are beyond statistics. They are so important for development. Any society that desires to succeed must empower, engage and support young people.
The idea of the bill has been described by some commentators as a waste of time. Those who hold this opinion believe it will require an almost impossible constitutional amendment to enable Nigerians who can vote at 18 to be voted for at that youthful age. What do you think?
These comments which have criticized the National Assembly and its constitutional amendment process as a waste of time or a joke in place of national priorities has surprised and dismayed the members of the #NotTooYoungToRun Campaign in equal measure. The proposed constitutional amendment to lower the age of eligibility for elective offices is borne out of the need to expand the political space for greater youth representation. For a country where about 63% of its population is under the age of 35, it is almost criminal that the minimum age for contesting most elections is 30 years and that is just for the Houses of Representatives and Assembly. For the remaining offices, young people are not eligible to contest by age. This systematically excludes the youth demographic from the decision-making process despite the fact that they will live with the results of those decisions longer than the older population. Lowering the age of eligibility will also afford young people the opportunity to start learning the ropes of governance at a younger age by deepening inter-generational dialogue and mentoring, where they learn from the older and more experienced ones. This is what the #NotTooYoungToRun bill will achieve. The constitutional amendment process and this bill particularly do not detract the National Assembly from other equally-pressing issues afflicting this country. As a matter of fact, this bill will help in bringing in more ideas that can solve our socio-economic issues by virtue of having young and capable people as part of the decision-making process.
The #NotTooYoungToRun Campaign is a movement of over 80 youth civil society organizations working together to promote the passage of legislation that reduces the age limit for contesting elections in Nigeria. It is important to highlight the fact that that the campaign is now a global campaign. Countries of the world have risen to accept that reality that young people are beyond statistics. They are so important for development. Any society that desires to succeed must empower, engage and support young people.
There has been the argument that “youth” is over-flogged and that youth is not a criterion to get people into political leadership and governance. Do you agree?
The #NotTooYoungToRun Campaign is clear in its message that age is not the issue in terms of the criterion in our democracy. The issues that must be critically examined revolve around inclusion, participation and representation of all groups in the society regardless of age, gender, ethnicity, religion or any other social category. While we agree that youth should not be used as the ONLY criterion to get people into leadership and governance, the exclusion of young people from elective offices robs the society of their contribution to economic and political development. Young people bring vibrancy and innovative thinking to their activities, evident in the way they have built up thriving entertainment, ICT and eCommerce sectors that are now major drivers of the economy. This same vibrancy and innovative thinking will be invaluable in our political space.
Despite the increasing interest by Nigerians in the electoral process, the emergence of new leaders through the ballot box has not amounted to real dividends of democracy for majority of Nigerians. Why is this the case?
The dividends of democracy go beyond building roads, hospital and schools but include representative governance, accountability and responsiveness from elected officials. Since Nigeria’s return to democracy in 1999, there has been slow but steady progress towards democratic dividends in the country. This is largely attributed to poor governance and docile citizenship. Whilst it is important to acknowledge the incremental progress in our electoral process, I must stress the fact that our history shows that most of these elections are not free and fair. This explains why INEC and the National Assembly are introducing reforms to deepen electoral integrity. I am not sure we’ve got new leaders. How many percent? What we have is leaders recycling themselves and family members in political leadership. Cronyism is institutionalized in our political system. This is one issue that citizens must confront. We must break that cycle by ensuring we actively participate in the electoral process beyond voting at elections. Holding our leaders accountable is the greatest sacrifice and contribution we can make to improve governance and engender development.
What roles can Nigerian youths play as active citizens beyond voting on election day?
Nigerian youth’s participation in politics manifests in various ways, ranging from engagement in formal political processes, such as voting in elections, to extra-institutional behaviours, such as street protests or community meetings. Youth participation has seen resurgence particularly through social media channels, innovative informal groupings and heightened engagement in volunteering where youths can play active roles. Recent events in Senegal, Burkina Faso, Nigeria, South Africa and all across the continent point towards new spaces for youth political participation. The recent wave of interest in youth political participation in Nigeria represents a crucial opportunity for creation of avenues for the inclusion of young people and their perspectives in the political process. Nigerian youths can also participate in other formal spaces such as engaging with public institutions and officers such as federal or state level legislative assemblies; joining political parties; registering to vote in elections; or help create new spaces such as developing issue advocacy campaigns or budget monitoring activities. While new spaces for the political participation of Nigeria’s youth are situated within their rights, the challenge therefore is to ensure that the new spaces reinforce, rather than threaten, democracy. Youth participation in formal political processes is seen as declining, with young people increasingly involved in social change agendas through social media, informal networks and protest movements across various geographic, demographic and legal environments.
Why do you think Nigerian youths are finding it too difficult to come together to build a formidable platform of youth influencers across political divides?
The difficulty encountered in coming together to build formidable platforms by youth in national-level politics across political divides is one of the reasons why youths are further excluded from qualitative participation in the political process. Some reasons advanced for this lack of cohesion may be attributed to poor leadership, absence of a unifying ideology, greed, poverty, etc. There is also a failure of the ruling political class to share power with young people and the inability of young people to utilize their social and political capital to influence politics and shift the balance of power in favor of youth. Until young people consider themselves as collaborators rather than competitors, the status-quo will remain. Our strength lies in our ability to unite and confront the challenges threatening our existence.
They say politics is a game of numbers. Does this mean we need more youths in politics?
Yes, absolutely! We need more youths in politics especially in political parties. There is the need to build very strong partnerships between youth and political parties, including those who are not members. Strengthening their advocacy skills and supporting party reforms to open up the space for young people to get involved is central. We need to engage the youth leaders of political parties and build their capacity to strengthen youth engagement. Political parties do not have structured party programmes that are targeted at building youth leadership. Parties do not improve young people’s capacity for advocacy, political organizing or even on standard governance issues of how to participate. So those platforms will need to be created and the political parties can actually help these platforms. We need young people to join political parties. Good a thing we are a multiparty democracy, locate a party whose ideology resonates with yours and obtain their membership and start organizing.
Some reasons advanced for this lack of cohesion may be attributed to poor leadership, absence of a unifying ideology, greed, poverty, etc. There is also a failure of the ruling political class to share power with young people and the inability of young people to utilize their social and political capital to influence politics and shift the balance of power in favor of youth. Until young people consider themselves as collaborators rather than competitors, the status-quo will remain.
What can Nigerian youths learn from the emergence of Emmanuel Macron in France?
The emergence of 39-year old Emmanuel Macron is a huge boost for the #NotTooYoungToRun Campaign in Nigeria, especially as it elevates the conversation around youth participation and holding elective leadership positions. For a country that has an estimated 63% young people as part of its population, it is quite a shame that young people make up less than 5% of elective and appointive positions. This is not for lack of competent young people but because there are constitutional barriers to having more young people in government at all levels. Also, the cost of politics and lack of internal party democracy worsens the situation. Reducing the age of eligibility for elections will increase the participation of young people in governance, increase competition and make generational change easier. Nigeria can really do with the vibrancy and energy that comes with young people. Macron’s youthfulness is only half the story: although this was his first attempt at an elective position, he had some experience in government. He was the Minister for Economy under President Francois Hollande before he left to found his own party. The current constitutional requirements make it virtually impossible to have a young person to be president. This is because barring local government offices, the youngest one can be elected in Nigeria is to either to the House of Representatives or a State House of Assembly at 30. This means before one moves up the learning curve and political ladder to ascend to the Presidency, s/he is definitely no longer a youth. There are five key lessons from Macron’s victory. The first lesson is the fact that you don’t need to be methuselah in politics or have a long political career to win elections. All you need is sufficient knowledge of the system, the trends and the audience. I call this the POWER OF NARRATIVE. Trump won his elections because he understood those three things and he launched the anti-establishment movement that got him into power. Secondly, clinging to the apron string of godfather is no longer a sustainable model for actualizing your political ambition. Macron had the courage to breakaway from his godfather Hollande and established En marche. We must be courageous to call the bluff of those hegemons or money bags who think they can determine your political destiny. Politics is about movement and grassroot mobilization. This is the third lesson. En marche was about people not party leaders or hegemons. Learn to build your own constituency of people. They are the actual voters. The fundamental lesson is; capacity is key in political leadership. Macron campaigned on the strength of his ideological convictions not his age. He was clear about his agenda; transatlantic continuity, globalization and people-centred development etc. That is why I love the Not Too Young To Run campaign. Its not about age but creating the space for young people with the capacity, competence and integrity to hold political office for the common good of the people. Lastly, He inspired hope in the people. He was a source of inspiration to the people. Young people represent HOPE therefore anyone young people seeking to run for office must represent that hope the people want. The hope that he/she possesses the capacity to solve problems, promote equitable distribution of the nation’s wealth, promote inclusion and ensure peace and security. His victory is a wake up for Africa. We need to start thinking of innovative ways to cultivate leadership or recruit leadership. The starting point will be to redefine our philosophy and definition of leadership. Leadership is service, capacity, competence, integrity and hope. There has to be an institutionalized pathway for leadership development and transition from youth/student leaders to mainstream politics. It is important to promote intergenerational dialogue. This generation needs it.
Many youth bodies like NANS, NYCN etc have been the playground of scandals, and leadership crises. Why should Nigerians trust young and emerging leaders?
There is a need to critically examine the causative factors that underpin the leadership crises that have rocked youth bodies such as NANS & NYCN. In my opinion, you would find that due to the long waiting period that youth have to endure between when they can vote and when they can be voted for, that is, the transition from youth bodies to mainstream elective politics is one of such factors. The most resounding argument against youth leadership and participation is the uncomplimentary narrative that young people are inexperienced and immature for political leadership. The view that age determines experience is primitive and it advances the interests of only a certain segment of the society. Age does not determine the competence of an individual. What determines experience or competence is exposure to leadership and capacity building opportunities and commitment to self-growth. In reality, there are older people in public governance who have little or no experience just as there are also records of younger people who have gained competence due to their life experiences or exposure. Therefore, the argument that age determines experience holds no water. What is critical is whether an individual seeking to run for office has the competence and character to hold such office.
Activist or politician? Who has a better platform and opportunity to impact society?
Both have a platform and opportunity to impact society. There is a thin line between political society and civil society. They are all active players in the polity. Whilst the politician may be in a position of authority to take policy decisions, the activist has a role to contribute to the policy making process and ensures accountability. Truth is activist needs politicians and politicians need activists. Our approach should be one of partnership and collaboration.
The fundamental lesson is; capacity is key in political leadership. Macron campaigned on the strength of his ideological convictions not his age. He was clear about his agenda; transatlantic continuity, globalization and people-centred development etc. That is why I love the Not Too Young To Run campaign. Its not about age but creating the space for young people with the capacity, competence and integrity to hold political office for the common good of the people.
Do you agree that the voter is not the one who wields real political power but those who decide the candidates the citizens vote for at the level of the political parties?
The voter is the kingmaker. We must not deviate from this ideal. Whilst our political reality contradicts this ideal, we must not encourage it or allow it to fester. Agreeably, party delegates vote for candidates who are presented by parties in an election. Without the voters on election day, the candidates will remain candidates of their parties. Voters can elect to vote or not vote for a party candidate in an election. It is the voter that wields real political power. You may ask who will the voter cast his/her ballot if there are no candidates. The delegates in parties hold political power but the voters wield real political power.
What kind of support do you need from Nigerians to push the Not Too Young to Run bill till it becomes a reality?
In order for the #NotTooYoungToRun bill to become law, citizens’ especially young people must organize and take action in the form of contacting legislators and asking them to support and vote in support of the #NotTooYoungToRun bill. The constitutional amendment process requires that the National Assembly Committees on Constitution Review include the proposals in their reports and for two-thirds of the members of the House of Representatives to support it for third reading. There is also a requirement for two-thirds of the State Houses of Assembly to vote in favor of the clauses in the reports – that means 24 of the 36 State Houses of Assembly must support the Bill. Finally, the President must assent (sign) the bill before it becomes law. While the constitutional amendment process is ongoing, other spaces for engagement include but are not limited to participating in public hearings and constituency engagement on constitutional amendment; preparing and submitting a memorandum to the National Assembly Committees on Constitution review in support of the bill; organizing advocacy visits to legislators; mobilizing youths and youth organizations for a rally to the National Assembly or State House of Assembly; or debating the principles of the Bill within your networks using online and offline platforms.
The voter is the kingmaker. We must not deviate from this ideal. Whilst our political reality contradicts this ideal, we must not encourage it or allow it to fester. Voters can elect to vote or not vote for a party candidate in an election. It is the voter that wields real political power.
Any final thoughts?
Kofi Annan, former Secretary-General of the United Nations buttressed the importance of youth not only as future leaders, but as actors of society today, with a direct stake in the development process when he said, “No one is born a good citizen; no nation is born a democracy. Rather, both are processes that continue to evolve over a lifetime. Young people must be included from birth. A society that cuts itself off from its youth severs its lifeline; it is condemned to bleed to death.”
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