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The soldier, slippered pantaloon, Nigerian youth and political participation

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PHOTO: MeloGist

National conversations are never too many. Indeed, they are part and parcel of nation-building and a compass for pathfinding. I speak to the broad theme of the summit: The role of the youth in the past, present and future of Nigerian politics within a scope that I have titled Between the Soldier and the Slippered Pantaloon: Nigerian Youth and Political participation. Youth is a central element of our discussion and I borrowed the comparative analogy from William Shakespeare’s As You Like It. Shakespeare captures the seven ages of man, namely, infant, schoolboy, lover, soldier, justice, pantaloon and old age. And I have isolated two contending variables, namely the soldier and the pantaloon. Shakespeare describes the soldier as: “… Full of strange oaths, / and bearded like the pard, / Jealous in honour, /sudden and quick in quarrel, /Seeking the bubble reputation/Even in the cannon’s mouth.” In contrast, he then captures “the lean and slippered pantaloon, /With spectacles on nose and pouch on side, / His youthful hose well saved, /a world too wide/ For his shrunk shank;/and his big manly voice, / Turning again towards childish treble, pipes/ And whistles in his sound. / Last scene of all, /That ends this strange eventful history, / Is second childishness and mere oblivion, / Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.

There is a prevailing assumption that the old people and not the youth have dominated the political scenes in the continent. Some studies have affirmed and transformed this assumption. Danielle Resnick and Daniela Casale (2011) have argued that the youth have not demonstrated partisanship to opposition parties any more than the incumbents. This study which covers activities within the third wave of democratisation did not go far in time for a wholistic analysis of youth and participation in the political process. The less honourable role of the youth in the past in which they function as enforcers for political gladiators is referenced. You have the Nkrumah’s ‘Veranda Boys’; Hasting Banda’s ‘Young Pioneers; Mutharika’s ‘Young Democrats’; Moi’s Mungiki; Gbagbo’s ‘Young Patriots’ and ANC’s ‘Youth League’ in South Africa. Also, their definition of political participation is also somewhat limited. For Resnick and Casale, “Political participation typically refers to activities by citizens that are aimed at influencing the selection and decisions of government personnel, such as voting in elections, as well as more informal modes of engagement, such as meeting with community members, contacting political representatives, or involvement in collective action.”

For me, the renewed interest in youth participation supersedes the above limited definition of participation. Political participation is in today’s idiom in Nigeria more about the youth assuming political leadership in the country. For too long the youth in Nigeria have been excluded from participation and left at the margins of the political process as thugs bearing arms for political gladiators who dominate the political turf and seek to perpetuate themselves. Therefore, we have witnessed not-too-young-to-run movement which triumphed early this year with the enactment of an Act which empowers the youth in terms of moderated age bracket for vying for political offices in the country. The drivers for this new consciousness is the failure of governance which has resulted in the alienation of the youth underlined by what Robert Kaplan (1996) has characterised as “out of school, unemployed, loose molecules in an unstable social fluid that threatened to ignite.”

I would argue here that the assumption on exclusion of the youth is a historical and could hardly stand any rigorous scrutiny. The youth have led the political process in the country since independence. The general assumption of being shut out flows from our discontentment with the state of the nation characterised by social anomie and the consequent disempowerment or what Naomi Chazan (1982) has called departicipation. This is understandable. By a World Bank estimate, about 72 per cent of Africa’s youth live on less than two dollars per day.

A quick overview of those who have run the affairs of Nigeria will reveal that they were not septuagenarians, octogenarians and nonagenarians. I know the definitional bar for youth is controversial, and UNESCO underlined that for effect when it noted that “Youth is a more fluid category than a fixed age-group.” The United Nations chose the age bar of 15 and 24. Let us adopt a liberal threshold of 50 as the cut-off point. The preeminent Nigerians, namely, Nnamdi Azikiwe, Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, Obafemi Awolowo, Ahmadu Bello and Anthony Enahoro involved in the independence movement were within the 50-age bar at independence. The mean age was 48.2.

As Frantz Fanon said in his Wretched of the Earth, “Each generation out of relative obscurity must discover its mission, fulfill it or betray it.” The goal of these youth was clear: decolonisation. Win independence from colonial rule. Recall the evergreen words of Enahoro: ‘Let my people go.’

The independence constitution gave autonomy to the regions to develop, the centralising currents at the centre led to the collapse of the first republic. Between 1950 and 1966 when Nigerians took control of government business, there is a prevailing consensus that there was development in terms of wellbeing and infrastructure in the country in then dominant three regions, namely, West, East and North.

Those who led the coup and seized the reins of power under the toga of the military, namely, Kaduna Nzeogwu, Aguiyi Ironsi and Yakubu Gowon were at the lower rung of the youth ladder. They were unable to manage the country’s contradictions and led it into a civil war.

Post-war governance had its own drawback and the military has always regarded its own incursion into politics as an aberration. The nature and context of military rule characterised by autocratic methods marked the death of civil society and the perpetual alienation of the population including the youth. This reality may have informed Nelson Kasfir’s assertion that “in most cases in post-independence Africa… the elimination of participatory structures has been so thorough.” Remarkably under military jackboot, the youth responded with series of protest to engender the democratisation of the polity. Remember that the decades of the 1970s to mid-1990s were the glorious years of the Nigerian students’ movement. Nigerian youth wanted unfettered transformation of Nigeria from the strictures of imperialism. We can recall such episodes as Alli-must-Go, Ango-Must-Go and the great Anti-SAP protests of the late 1980s.

After the war, between 1970-1979, the military carried out a transition programme and gave Nigeria a new constitution based on America’s presidential model that signalled the birth of the second republic. It could be argued that one major setback of the period was that power was given back to the leaders of the first republic. With the death of constitutionalism under military rule, the old breed politicians would appear to be the only group with the competence to run a civil government. But again, apart from the party leadership, those who emerged as state governor were largely youth. From Bola Ige of Oyo, Sam Mbakwe of Imo, Abubakar Rimi of Kano, Ambrose Alli of Bendel, Jim Nwobodo of Anambra, Abubakar Barde of Gongola, Aper Aku of Benue, Mohammed Goni of Borno, Melfold Okilo of Rivers to Auwal Ibrahim of Niger, were all within the youth bracket (mean age was 41-45). Even the first Executive President, Alhaji Shehu Shagari was 54. They function largely within the left-right ideological cleavage however defined at the time. If you were to beam your lens on the composition of the legislatures you will also find a preponderance of youth.

If you glance through the aborted third republic, from MKO Abiola, Babagana Kingibe to Iyorcha Ayu then Senate President they were 56, 48 and 41 respectively. It is to be noted that the military government of the period tried to impose new breed politicians and party ideologies. However, for the most part military rule closed the vent for the autonomous development of political parties. The parties’ role includes among others elite recruitment and a generation of youth leadership would have emerged therefrom seamlessly. When the third republic was cut short, the youth formed the bulk of resistance movement against renewed military autocracy. You could easily recall the likes of Beko Ransome-Kuti, Femi Falana, Chima Ubani, Olisa Agbakoba and my humble self in the Campaign for Democracy and United Action for Democracy. Also remember, the guerrilla journalists of the TELL, Tempo and The News magazines who built barricades were all Youth.

In the prevailing fourth republic, if you x-ray the demography in terms of age, across the three tiers of government, if you will also find a preponderance of youth. Notwithstanding the current age of the president, the average age of the governors is put at about 55.7. For me, it is difficult to argue that the youth have not been involved in the running of the affairs of the country. The assumption arises from the absence of a coherent narrative of the role of the youth. Therefore, it is pertinent to then talk about what I would like to call elite closure and youth alienation.

Military with its centralised regimen and undemocratic style of governance was a form of elite closure with the absence of vent by the civil society or what de Tocqueville has called associational life in the American context. It meant a restriction to non-institutional life in terms of participation. Military also de-ideologised our education system and openly accused the university teachers of teaching what they were paid not to teach. Elite misrule has consequently alienated the population manifesting all its variants, identified by Melvin Seeman (1959) as powerlessness, meaninglessness, normlessness, isolation and self-estrangement and has fostered what Paulo Freire has called ‘magical consciousness’ that makes men in the words of Robert K. Merton seek refuge in “mysticism: the workings of Fortune, Chance and Luck.” It is no surprising that we have a generation of youth that emphasises material acquirements in place of hard work—the 419 and yahoo generation.

Today, the condition of the youth demands some fundamental response and they want to take their destiny in their hands beyond a narrow conception of participation in which you are consigned to the roles of area boys, mere voters, disinterested observers to one of actual players by contesting for elective offices to drive the goal of transformation of the country from its pre-prehistory. This transition will not be achieved in one fell swoop, it requires education the type that Paulo Freire identified in the Brazilian contest that “would enable men to discuss courageously the problems of their context—and to intervene in the context; it would warn men of the dangers of the time and offer them the confidence and the strength to confront those dangers instead of surrendering their sense of self through submission to the decisions of others.”

The general elections are a few months away. The lie of the state is awful and the country dangles on the precipice. Good enough, many young men and women are putting themselves up for leadership position. The list includes Fela Durotoye, Kingsley Moghalu, Omoyele Sowore, Ahmed Buhari, Funmularo Adesanya Davis and so on. Today, the youth all over Africa constitute a critical portion of the demographic stats. The Nigerian youth are part of this reality. In 2019, it is only imperative that the youth employ their franchise, more precisely, voting power, to elect a youth to run the affairs of this country on a twenty-first century template.

Akhaine, an associate professor of Political Science, delivered this keynote address at the National Young Leaders Summit 2018 held at NECA House, Ikeja, Lagos.


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