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Not too young to run: A solution in search of a problem

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Amending the constitution of any functioning democracy is extremely difficult, rare and nearly impossible both politically and procedurally. Politically; because it requires that a supermajority of the country acknowledge the flaws of its founders/ framers who are usually held in unassailably high esteem, and procedurally; because it usually requires a near consensus among all arms of government, which in a democracy is almost impossible. Yet, the “Not too Young to Run” movement in Nigeria – which had fought to decrease the minimum age for candidates participating in state and federal elections – is on the verge of doing just that.

They scaled what is thought to be the toughest hurdle – Getting two thirds of both houses of the National Assembly to read, vote and pass the bill. As the bill overwhelmingly passed the Nigerian Senate and House of Representatives and headed to the states for ratification, I wondered just how many qualified young people (defined as under 25 – 39 for this piece) were itching to run for office but were excluded by the constitutional age limit. The data suggests that the age threshold, which I concede is rather arbitrary, might not be the primary barrier to youth participation in the political process.

Section 131 of The Nigerian Constitution which was adopted in 1999, states that “a person shall be qualified for election to the office of the President if (a) he is a citizen of Nigeria by birth; (b) he has attained the age of 40 years; (c) he is a member of a political party and is sponsored by that political party; and (d) he has been educated up to at least School Certificate level or its equivalent”. Sections 65; which codifies the legislative branch, sets the age limit for the Senate and the House of Representatives at 35 and 30 respectively, and that of State Governors is set at 35 years according to Section 177(b).

The “Not too Young to Run” bill; which is part of a global effort to inspire and advocate for young people to run for elected office, seeks to reduce the age qualification for President to 30 years; Governor to 30, Senate to 30, House of Representatives to 25 and State House of Assembly from 30 to 25. They argue that reducing the age limit will help increase participation of the 60 percent of Nigeria’s population under 40 in the political process, reduce political violence and instability, harness the resourcefulness of young Nigerians for improved governance, increase competitiveness in the electoral process, promote adult-youth partnership in public governance, and facilitate the implementation of the fundamental right to political participation for young people.

All well meaning Nigerians would agree that the stated goals of the campaign, while lofty, are ideal, which is why the bill introduced in the Senate by Senator Abdul Aziz Nyako of Adamawa and Hon. Tony Nwulu of Lagos in the House of Reps, passed with overwhelming bipartisan support. The question is – how pressing is this problem? and will the amendment fix said problem. To answer these questions, I explored how many young candidates contested for elections within 5 years of eligibility for each pertinent office, with the assumption that if young people are participating at a very high rate, it might be an indicator of their appetite to participate at an even younger age. I also sought to explore how Nigeria stacked relative to other advanced democracies when it comes to youth participation.

According to The Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), in the 2015 elections about 1700 eligible candidates vied for the 325 seats in the House of Representatives that were up for elections. Of that number about 230 (13.5%) were between the ages 30 – 34, and 3 (0.9%) ended up being elected. In the Senatorial election where the minimum age to compete was 35, about 120 (17%) of the roughly 700 contestants were under 40, none (0%) of them made it into the senate. The youngest elected senators were now-embattled Dino Melaye from Kogi State, and Mustapha Sani of Niger, both 40 years (at time of declaration of candidacy).

The Gubernatorial elections, where the minimum age was also 35, saw about 65 (17%) candidates under 40 of the 381 that contested in the 34 states. None made it into the state house. The presidential elections were not much different, where none of the 14 candidates were under 45 and only 2 were under 50, none of them really viable. You could certainly make the case that ~ 15% participation rate of young candidates is a sign that there is an appetite for young politicians in government, although the less than 1% success rate tells a different story. Despite these lethargic numbers, the Centre for Public Policy Alternatives ranks Nigeria current senate as one of the youngest in the world at 56 years average age, ahead of the United States (63) and Canada (65) where the minimum age is 30 and France (65) where the minimum age is 18. These numbers cast doubts on the correlation between lowering the minimum age for contesting in elections and increasing competitiveness in the electoral process.

As a young person (at least under the narrow definition) who is a politics and policy junkie, I am in absolute awe of the “Not too young to Run” movement. Seeing young people not only politically engaged, but also leading the effort in getting a docile National Assembly to take on a landmark bill and being steadfast in seeing it through at least the first half of the process is a thing of beauty. But in a country that has effectively lost 2 of its last 3 presidents to health related ailments within the first half of their first term, I think amending Section 137 of the constitution to include passing a medical physical exam as a prerequisite to becoming President, campaign finance reform, or even getting the language in the constitution to be more gender inclusive, might be a more pressing need. So while I fully support the bills passage, I believe the solutions to the stated problems lie in building and supporting new and existing movements that help get young people to run and actually get elected.



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