Westminster Foundation for Democracy has pledged support to YIAGA as it seeks legislative reform to the constitution that currently blocks 60% of the Nigeran population under the age of 35 from participating in political life, whilst sharing the UK political party experience of engaging with young people through sister-party networks.
Recently, Samson Itodo, Executive Director of Youth Initiative for Advocacy Growth and Advancement (YIAGA), explained to the foundation the contribution young people can make to political life in Nigeria.
Can you tell us a bit about yourself and how you got involved in YIAGA?
YIAGA got started as a student discussion group in the University of Jos nine years ago. We all started meeting in each other’s rooms to discuss student unionism, human rights issues and how the school was intimidating the student union. We grew from that – promoting human rights to educate and enlighten students about their rights.
Over the last nine years the organisation has carved an image for itself as one of the leading CSOs working on youth. We have built a reputation for ourselves in that field as well as in elections, democracy and public accountability. Today we sit on several committees in the parliament and the electoral commission. And it might interest you to know that YIAGA is still led by young people under 35.
Why are young people so important for Nigeria’s future?
First and foremost, the point needs to be made that developed nations were able to tap into the resourcefulness of the productive workforce, which is the young population that make up 60% of population in Nigeria.
Young people – history and studies have shown – are energetic, skilful and resilient. These are the qualities developing countries like Nigeria need to tap into for development.
And secondly, the issue of inclusion. When you talk about inclusive government for democratic development you need to involve all of the critical stakeholders. If 60% of your population are young then they should actually have a say in the way their society is being governed, in how their resources are being used.
How involved are young people at the moment in Nigeria – what outlets and channels exist for them to participate in political life?
We must look from two perceptions. There is formal political participation and then informal spheres. For the formal structures, of course you’ve got voting at elections. You’ve also got youth institutions like the national youth council and the Nigerian Youth Parliament. There are also young people who are used as election officials by the Electoral Commission.
But within the political parties we have noticed a low turnout of young people as candidates and this is related to the lack of internal party democracy, the increasing cost of politics and running for office in Nigeria, as well as legal factors.
The constitution excludes young people from actually running for office at a very young age. You have to be at least 40. This is unlike what you have in the UK, with an alignment between the voting age and the age of being a candidate. In Nigeria, you have to wait to be a certain age before you can run for office and that is completely undemocratic.
Why do you think these attitudes exist towards young people in Nigeria?
The Constitution was introduced in 1979 following military intervention and decided by the constitution drafting committee, who thought that young people are too adventurous and can be too destabilising if not properly monitored.
Young people have been organising at different levels since then. There are different social political movements across the country advocating for constitutional amendments. One of the most successful campaigns ongoing in Nigeria is the #NotTooYoungToRun campaign – a local campaign that aims to increase the number of young people running for office.
Our political parties have contributed to excluding young people from the political process through party constitutions, party guidelines and the selection of delegates for party congresses. And what has worsened the situation is the fact that the youth engaged in the political parties do not have youth wings or caucuses to represent them.
Are young people eager to get involved in politics in Nigeria?
Yes, there is an appetite for young people to get involved despite the argument that political engagement is not interesting for them. Politicians think young people are too adventurous, and that they care too much about fashion, music and entertainment than governance, but that is not the case.
There is a huge appetite amongst young people who want to run for office, but how can they run for office when the constitution excludes them? How can they run for office when they are economically disadvantaged? The stereotypes have been institutionalised and learning is needed if the space is to be opened up for young people.
Capacity is also an issue. We look at our education system: What kind of subjects, what’s in the curriculum, do we have state education? There are a lot of issues that will need to be addressed if we want to increase the participation of young people in the political process.
How do you hope the programme with WFD will help contribute to greater participation of young people in politics in Nigeria?
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 organising 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.
By looking at good practices elsewhere we can learn from them. Promoting cross-cultural engagement or peer learning is a key tool that can help close the knowledge and capacity gap. It would be nice to learn how young people are organising in political parties in the UK, as well as what is also happening in Nigeria.
Experience-sharing has proven to be one of the fastest ways young people can learn, because they learn from the practical experience of their peers who have actually gone through the murky waters of politics and have succeeded, and learnt from the challenges of their experience in office. So, for young people who want to run in 2019, they will learn from this experience and ensure that they structure their campaign well enough to help them secure the needed votes..
You mentioned earlier that the Government’s perception of young people is that they are only interested in fashion and music – can focusing on the issues that are important across Nigeria show that young people have the ability to succeed politically?
Yes, absolutely. But check the social media use in Nigeria. Today young people are asking questions on social media platforms and asking their elected representatives critical political and governance questions.. There is a new paradigm with state actors and public officials today, who have used social media for getting policy and feedback for the Government.
We can use music to talk to young people about issues of our governance. And young people can also use music to contribute to democratic development or even public accountability. The point must remain that young people as a social category have a way of doing stuff. We have our own language, the way we dress – some will continue to use the tools that we have to propagate our own message, mobilise our peers, engage the government and make them listen, whilst also creating platforms where government can interact with young people on policy related issues. That is very key.
You have a big task ahead of you – what are the key challenges you will face?
The first challenge will be access to data. Ours is a country that has no privatised data, we have no data. Because this programme is hoping to be cascaded at the state level and not just the national level, we are looking at local communities as well. That will require data from all different levels about who is active in politics.
The second issue will be the political climate and the political parties. Working with parties who are floored with leadership crisis will make it very difficult to actually coordinate. That is one of the traps. Identifying young people as the key beneficiaries of the project is something that will take time.
The level of funding and the frequency, as well as the time frame for delivery can also constitute a challenge. But my sense will be that within the limited resources available we will have a maximum impact.
Sam, thanks very much for talking to us.