Youth In Politics And The Struggle For A Democratic Electoral Process
There is a renewed clamor in the country for a young President. There is little doubt that concerns over the health condition of President Buhari fueled the resurgence of this agitation. The recent election of a 39-year old-Macron as President of France must have presented these agitators with a symbol in the example of Macron youthfulness. This agitation has its progressive benefits as it would enrich debates over the restrictive principles and content of our electoral laws. But the suggestions flowing from this debate – almost elevated to the realm of fanaticism – that a youthful politician is somehow bound by virtue of his age to turn things around is misplaced, and a record low in the annals of wishful thinking that fraught this country.
In Nigeria today, the age of candidacy requirement to stand as a presidential candidate is 40 years old. Candidates are required to be 35 years or above before they can be qualified to stand in governorship or senatorial elections. This is not a country known for having jurisprudential debates, so we cannot be certain about the motivation of the lawgivers. Two major conjectures come to mind if one considers what the justifications could have been for such a legal restriction to be placed on our major democratic process. One, it is possible that our law-givers believed experience is important to statesmanship, and somehow concluded that age is a precondition for being experienced. Two, it is possible they simply adopted the “age of candidacy” requirement from practices in so-called advanced democratic countries like the United States.
But the Nigerian experimentation has surely shown that old age does not necessarily endow a politician with the capacity to implement programs that would utilize this country’s enormous resources to eradicate poverty and improve on life expectancy. The United Kingdom has not collapsed since it liberalized the “age of candidacy” requirement and made the legally required age to stand for elective position equivalent to the legally required age to vote in an election (in the year 2006), which is 18 years old in England and Wales, and 16 years old in Scotland. We would further contradict democracy by restricting the choice of the people. And we have more to gain by choosing freely from the arrays of talents, creativity and resoluteness that cut across different age groups of adulthood. The United States is not an absolute archetype of a sound democratic system or institution, and should not be emulated uncritically. After all, not long ago, most Americans believed strongly that the female folks do not constitute the electorate as much as Negroes and Indians; they are no less wrong now on the principle of “age of candidacy” requirement than they were on similar matters of sentiments as exampled by racial and sexual discrimination.
But the “age of candidacy” restriction placed on the Nigeria’s democratic process is just a tip of the iceberg as undemocratic practices seem to pivot our democratic process in general. The electoral laws have dangerously predicated electoral success on money, rather than the sovereignty of the people. The dangerous implication of this is that electoral contest is skewed against poor and average people who constitute the mass majority of our country’s population. Furthermore, patronage is encouraged, because the billionaire who sponsors a candidate or a political party expects a sort of return on, or benefit from this investment. So it seems the people are left with the power to ratify any of the candidates that must have received the backing of the wealthy elites of Nigeria. Our current electoral practices have placed democracy and governance at the mercy of the privileged few billionaires and multinationals, instead of placing it at the mercy of the people.
By the way, the mechanics of Nigeria’s politics indicate that the logic of elitism permeating our electoral laws equally pivot the programs of successive governments, irrespective of their political affiliation. Every government since as recently as 1999 is indebted to some groups of privileged elites than they are indebted to the people for their electoral victory. But could paying back this indebtedness generate a conflict of interest? The activities of government, irrespective of political coloration, shows that this question can be answered affirmatively. For example, the contract system of implementing government’s programs brings to bare a manipulative tradition of enriching cronies than propelling social growth of society in general. It still confounds common sense when one tries to understand why the Nigerian government, for example, cannot train and equip the personnel of its Department of Works to construct or maintain roads that have become a constant source of livelihood for multinationals who give little back to the economy as beneficiaries of casual labour would be expected to give back in the first instance! But this issue becomes clearer if one considers it from the background of patronage and elitist politics that underscore our national politics. The little the people get back is only an accidental effect of the more conscious effort to enrich loyalists or “Godfathers”.
For the government to be responsible to the people, the people must practically own their government. But as it stands, the people have little claim over a politician that won the election on the basis of ‘billion-naira’ contest, instead of a contest of ideas. Unfortunately, our laws have not only established this completely undemocratic practice; it perpetuates it. Therefore it would be uncritical of young people to isolate the menace of “age of candidacy”. In a democratic system, the process of constituting the core of political leadership must ensure that the whole adult population have the equal amount of advantages. It must equally be opened to arrays of ideas, without official discrimination. Because at the end of the day, it is the people and experience that would be the judge of correct and superior ideas. No particular group of persons, or person(s), should be conferred with so much power as to screen out the ideas or programs that society should be left to debate, and choose from. At times, the self-appointed Police of thoughts and political ideas are only selfish creatures that would go to any length to skew social and political institutions in favor of perpetuating their source of livelihood.
It should be added that agitation to liberalize Nigeria’s electoral laws must be organized and rooted in the masses population before it can be certain of winning concessions or victory. The matter at hand is not only about changing this or that clause of the electoral Act to accommodate for a youthful President. The fundamental issue is to change the logic of electoral principles and contest and subject it to the will, wish, and even whims, of the mass majority – rather than that of their chronically selfish elites. The Nigeria’s crisis is deeper than what youthful energy or their sheer optimism alone can resolve. Right now, it is first and foremost necessary for the masses population to rise up and make their elected leaders do their wish, rather than capitulating to the business demands of the billionaires. Yes, the energy of the youth is needful to, for example, commence mobilization of Nigerian people to recall members of the National Assembly that would refuse to vote for a bill to liberalize the Nigeria’s electoral process. But we must be wary of giving false hope as usual!
Wole Olubanji is a serving Corp member in Edo-State, and a member of the Education Rights Campaign (ERC).
Emmanuel Macron waves to supporters next to his wife, Brigitte, after casting his ballot. Photograph: Philippe Huguen/AFP/Getty Images