Getting citizens involved in decision-making processes is one of the challenges facing modern democracies. Public debates have emerged as a significant tool in confronting this challenge.
Through public debates, a series of forums where people’s opinions, interests, and expectations are expressed on an issue that concerns the whole or part of the society, citizens are able to air their views on those issues of national concern.
The spirit of public debate was once again revived in one of the halls of Barcelona Hotel Abuja on 29th June 2016 as young people from across Nigeria gathered to debate the #NotTooYoungToRun bill.
The #NotTooYoungToRun bill, sponsored by Hon. Tony Nwulu (PDP/Oshodi/Isolo II Federal Constituency, Lagos State) seeks to lower the age for running for elective position in Nigeria as well as to mainstream independent candidacy into Nigeria’s electoral process.
The public debate was organized by a coalition of youth groups advocating for the #NotTooYoungToRun bill, with a view to stimulate public discourse on the rationale and general principles of the bill, popularize the bill and mobilize citizens’ support for the bill, as well as enlighten citizens on the role of the legislature constitution review processes and strategies for engaging state and federal legislators.
The public debate drew representatives of youth organizations, civil society organizations, international donor organizations, the United States Embassy Abuja, Universities, major political parties as well as the media.
To help shape the discussion; Ayisha Osori –Gender Activist, Bankole Omishore-, SSA to the Senate President on New Media , Yusuf Shamsudeen of the Centre for Democracy and Development and Chibueze Ebii- Communications Manager at Heinrich Boell Nigeria were assembled as the first set of panelists.
Maryam Laushi, a member of the #NotTooYoungToRun Strategy Team, moderated the first session which had the topic: Getting Independent Candidates On The Ballot in Nigeria: Hope or Doom For the Electoral System.
In her contribution, Ayisha Osori focused on the impact passing the #NotTooYoungToRun Bill will have on Nigerian women. She stated that the type of political structure operated in Nigeria makes independent candidacy necessary. She observed that political parties in Nigeria lack clear ideologies and ethos, adding that lack of talent in political parties is responsible for opaque structures of parties. Declaring her support for the bill, Ms. Osori said that passing the bill will allow popular people come into governance. Osori also said that she would not vote in 2019 if the quality of candidates do not improve.
Similarly, Bankole Omishore said he supported the #NotTooYoungToRun bill because it will allow candidates run for elections on their terms. He decried the lack of ideologies in political parties and said that young people must be given the opportunity to dictate, not negotiate.
Chibueze Ebii on his part noted that he wasn’t very optimistic about the independent candidacy leg of the bill. He called for the election management body to be strengthened first so that more people can trust the system.
Making a case for the constitutionality of independent candidacy, Shamsudeen Yusuf said it will inject new thinking in Nigeria’s development paradigm and open up the process for enhanced political participation.
The moderator, Maryam Laushi then turned to members of the audience to make their contributions.
Tracy Okoro of the New Nigeria Initiative called for young people to form their own political parties and to engage in more field work.
Ayisha Osori, however, disagreed that Nigeria needs more political parties. She wondered how having more political parties has helped Nigeria so far. Shamsudeen Yusuf also agreed that Nigeria doesn’t need youth political parties as that will create new power blocs.
If the first #NotTooYoungToRun debate session was hot, the second session could only be described as volcanic.
To discuss ‘Liberalizing the Age Requirements for Elections in Nigeria: A Yes or No Agenda’, organizers of the debate assembled Rinsola Abiola- member of the APC Board of Trustees and SSA to the Speaker of the House on Social Media, Nana Tim-Dudeifa- ICT Lawyer, Benajamin Ubiri- Broadcast Journalist at Nigeria Info FM Abuja and Ezenwa Nwagwu- Chair, Partners for Electoral Reform as panelists. The session was moderated by Kingsley Bangwell, Executive Director of Youngstars.
While Rinsola Abiola said she believed age requirement for running for elective position in Nigeria should be lowered, Benjamin Ubiri categorically stated that he didn’t believe age requirement should be lowered, while Nana Tim-Dudeifa said she believed the age requirement should be ‘tweaked’.
In her argument, Ms. Abiola said it was unfair that young people who make up about 70% of the constitution are sidelined. According to her, if young people are good enough to run campaigns, raise funds and be on the Board of Trustees of political parties, then they are good enough to run.
Mr.Ubiri peppered his counter-attack with analogies saying that the sick prefer to be treated by experienced doctors instead of fresh graduates. He called on young people to wait their turn as everyone cannot be a conductor in an orchestra.
Ms. Dudeifa agreed that experience is needed in life but questioned what experience really is. She defined age as a social construct but argued that experience is gained not by waiting for one’s turn, but by practice.
Speaking further, she noted that positions of governance are learned in stages from elementary school and that technology has made it possible for young people to explore their options. She revealed that rather than peg the age restriction at 25, it should be lowered to 18.
“We place a lot of responsibilities on 18-year-olds in Nigeria. At 18, a young person can drive, marry and make a decision of who to vote for. If young people can vote at 18, they should be voted for”, she argued.
Rinsola Abiola disagreed that young people are not ready for governance. According to her, if youth restiveness must end in Nigeria, then young people must be given a shot at leadership.
Mr. Ubiri quickly interjected, saying that it is an indictment of young people to say the #NotTooYoungToRun will prevent youth restiveness. He maintained that existing laws in Nigeria do not exclude young people from political participation. He blamed the exclusion of young people from governance processes on political apathy.
“As young people, we do not have to be President to be heard. We need to speak to the right people and say the right things. Let’s think about systems that work such pupilage in law and apprenticeship in the informal sector.” Benjamin Ubiri ended his statement in the same philosophical manner he began by saying, ‘not every closed door is locked. Push”.
Nana Tim- Dudeifa, in a quick rebuttal, advised Benjamin Ubiri to desist from imposing his views as facts. She explained that pupilage in law is not compulsory as fresh graduates are free to practice on their own.
She mentioned that institutionalized corruption locks people out because older people are more comfortable to have young people as stooges.
“Young people have to use older people as the voices for their issues. We don’t judge all old people as corrupt, why do we use blanket statement for young people? Not every young person wants to run for office. All we are saying is that let those who want to, run”, she said passionately.
Ezenwa Nwagwu, who declared unflinching support for #NotTooYoungToRun said the conversation is not about age but about the right to participate.
“#NotTooYoungToRun is about removing constitutional bottlenecks that criminalize aspiration. If my vote can be taken at 18, there is no reason to criminalize my ambition to contest”.
Nwagwu challenged the proponents of the bill to brace up for the struggles ahead as struggle remains the more serious way to get freedom.
“It is not Twitter and Facebook that will give you #NotTooYoungToRun, it will be massive mobilization. You must get to work”, he said.
As the curtains came down on the first edition of the #NotTooYoungToRun public debate, it was clear that even though progress had been made in creating awareness of the bill and what it seeks to achieve, the success or failure of the bill ultimately lies in the hands of the over 70M young Nigerians for whom it is intended.