There was much excitement among youngsters in Nigeria last week when both Senate and House of Representatives passed the “not too young to run” constitutional amendment bill, which reduced the age limit at which a citizen can seek high elective office. Senate passed the bill on Wednesday last week when 86 Senators voted for the bill, 10 voted against it while one senator abstained. The House of Representatives also passed the bill on Thursday with 261 votes for, 23 votes against while 2 members abstained.
The bill seeks to reduce the age limit at which Nigerians can contest for President from 40 at present to 35; reduce the age limit for governors and senators from 35 to 30 and reduce the age limit for seeking election to the House of Representatives or a state assembly from 30 to 25. However, 24 state houses of assembly must approve the bill and the president must assent to it before the amendment takes effect, so there is still time to say a few things that might dampen our youngsters’ euphoria over last week’s success. The most obvious one is that being eligible to contest is not the same thing as winning. You can contest as many times as you like but you may not win unless you get other factors right. I am not saying here that every youngster that contests an election is going to lose; far from it. I am only saying that if you are not too young to run, you are not too young to lose either. Most of the people who contest elections end up losing and I hope you are not too young to know that.
The not too young to run bill in Nigeria was reportedly initiated by 54 youth groups that called for more inclusion for Nigerian youths in the country’s politics and policy-making. This is a good call, not only because youths are the preponderant element in our population [our national average age is 18] but also because inclusion of many other groups including women, minorities, physically challenged etc in politics and decision making makes a lot of sense in the modern day. Whether reducing the age limit for elections is better than providing quality education and job opportunities for Nigerian youths, remains to be seen.
The debate begins from the definition of youth. The United Nations defines young people as those below 35 years of age but in as much as some Nigerians, women in rural areas especially, could be grandmothers by age 35, I wonder if they can be called youths. In the North some privileged rural boys get married while they are in their teens and are likely to have many children by the time they hit 30. I therefore doubt if lowering the age for contesting for president to 35 really accommodates the youths in Nigeria. Thirty five years of age is advanced even for developed nations; in 1938, Adolf Hitler asked the leader of Hitler Youth [the Nazi Party’s youth wing] to step down for a younger person because he had reached 35 years of age.
There are other contradictions in the Nigerian situation. The National Youth Service Corps Act stipulates that a graduate could be given an exemption from the scheme if he hits 30 years of age. This implies that such a person is no longer regarded as a youth since the scheme is for youths. Other agencies set the bar much lower. The military and police, for example, will not recruit anyone above 25 years of age. As far as they are concerned, a 25 year old is too old and too set in his ways to be re-socialised to his new calling.
In reducing the age at which persons can seek elective office there are certain unstated assumptions which we should better dissect here, because they make the Nigerian condition quite different from other places. The 1999 Constitution makes secondary school education the minimum level required to be eligible for elective office but many think this is not satisfactory. The constitution set a low educational qualification bar but it set a high age limit; the assumption is that potential leaders must use the time to seek higher educational qualifications. Ideally, a 25 year old should have graduated from a university or polytechnic and even finished NYSC, which is mandatory here. I was two months short of 22 when I finished my NYSC but that was in the days before ASUU embarked on a “warning strike” every year, usually followed by a “total” strike that lasts many months. Strikes in higher institutions have become less frequent since 2013 but other problems have replaced them, such as uncertain call to NYSC which is now done in several batches a year, followed by many years of graduate unemployment.
Now, for a person to be ready to run for governor at 30 or to run for president at 35, he ideally should have held other responsible positions. As Nigeria’s democracy matures, a time will come when no one can become a governor unless he has been a minister, senator, head of a major federal agency, head of a big business concern or at least the commissioner of an important ministry. Where is the time to do that and be ready to run for governor at 30? The same thing applies to the presidency. To be able to run for president at 35, a person should have become well known nationally and demonstrated special qualities in a major public or private sector assignment. That means we must start appointing ministers, ambassadors, service chiefs and major agency heads in their 20s if one of them is to become presidential material at 35.
In the previous paragraph I said one should “become known” before he can successfully aspire to a high position. Unless voters are fools, they will not vote for you if they do not know your character or what you represent. In fact, in matters much less serious than political power such as school admission and job employment, school authorities and employers first want to know more about a person. That is why they ask for a referee’s report, from a better known person. The equivalent of a referee’s report in politics is to be anointed by a kingmaker.
Now, opportunity to hold high offices in order to prepare for an even higher office is most often beyond a person’s control, but how about things which are within a person’s control? Such as, taking your education very seriously? The weakness of our schools is well known but with the internet’s advent, the opportunity for broad education is limited only by a youngster’s will. The internet’s opportunities for distraction however match its opportunities for education. Someone has already written that online chatting, games, porn, endless online socialising to which our youths devote too much time are not good preparations for early leadership. He also said the quality of discussion on “serious” sites, laden with insult, inter-tribal, inter-regional and inter-religious exchange of brickbats is not good preparation for early leadership.
Preparing for early leadership also calls for firming up one’s character. In 1999 when Alhaji Ibrahim Salisu Buhari was forced to resign as House of Representatives speaker, he wept on the speaker’s chair. A friend with whom I was watching the spectacle on television whispered, “It is because of youth.” Early last year when Alhaji Yahaya Bello was being sworn in as Governor of Kogi State, he paused twice in his inaugural speech and wept as he paid tribute to his departed mother and father. Maybe it was because he was 39 years old.
This article first appeared in Daily Trust