By Mayowa Olajide Akinleye
On that day in October 2020, there were grim images of blood, wailing, and anguish on the faces of young people at the Lekki toll gate, images that showed no regard for ethnicity, religion, political access, or status—the common fault lines traditionally manipulated by the political elite to divide, discourage, and weaken the resolve for self-determination in young people.
Twenty-one-year-old Oke was not even at the crime scene; he was in his house when stray bullets killed him, three hours after tweeting, “Nigeria will not end me.”
The Endsars shooting was the ultimate declaration of disregard: it clearly said to young people, “I don’t care about you; I am not willing to hear what you have to say; and you are not important to me.”
One might argue that this perspective is wrong or that the incident was an exception and not the norm, but a survey conducted by researchers on 800 randomly selected young people in the country indicated that 95 per cent of the respondents believed that Nigeria does not value its youth. 87.9 per cent agreed that Nigerian youths are alienated from the Nigerian project, while 85.9 per cent reported that the youths are not seen as developmental agents.
The Mandela Institute for Development Studies (MINDS) 2016 report stated that 75 per cent of young people think the country is headed in the wrong direction. This is 2023; those numbers haven’t changed at all; if anything, they’ll be much worse.
If it were two regular individuals who thought so little of each other, we might not worry. It is their business, we would conclude. Rather, this bad blood is between our government and the majority of its productive and economically active citizens. We are all victims. This is our business.
For the context of this article, we would adopt the MINDS report’s definition of youth as persons between the ages of 18 and 45. This is culturally relevant to the socio-political realities in the country that inform this conversation.
Except for pockets of outrage like ENDARS, Nigerian youth have not really challenged or bucked the political hegemony that captured this nation in the fourth republic, despite our well-documented frustrations. Instead, we have interacted emotionally rather than systematically with these frustrations. This has contributed to the rise of the “self-help” culture, that is covered in more detail in the second article of this series.
Engaging systematically is to influence and interact with the power bases that determine the who, how, where, and when—which is the domain of governance. In a democracy, this practice can be referred to as “politics.”
Wikipedia defines it as the set of activities that are associated with making decisions in groups or other forms of power relations among individuals, such as the distribution of resources or status.
Politics is the substructure that dictates the movement of other institutions in a society.
Elections are a feedback mechanism created to regulate, check, and ensure that the activities of politics are representative of society and its stakeholders. Balancing all these is the burden of civic participation.
Civic participation enables citizens like us to recognise elements, individuals, and ideologies in the exercise of governance that are beneficial or detrimental to our aspirations and empowers us, through elections, to retain or banish them from our politics. It is an effective self-regulatory mechanism if everyone performs their function.
This is a missing piece in the unsolvable puzzle that is Nigeria’s democracy.
Everybody, especially the youth, does not perform their function; voter turnout in election cycles has steadily declined from a high of 69 per cent in the 2003 presidential election to between 30 – 40 per cent, despite a substantial increase in the number of registered voters. For context, 75 per cent of the 93 million voters registered to vote in the 2023 general election are between the ages of 18 and 49. If 50 per cent of them came out to vote, the country would record the highest voter turnout of any election since 1999.
If we further investigate other indicators of civic engagement aside from voting, such as engaging representatives and elected officials, participation in budgeting, paying taxes, participating in community development and peer group activities, volunteering, following the news and gathering civic knowledge, tracking government projects like what PROMAD is doing through its FollowTheProjects initiative, participating in public hearings, etc. The reality gets starker.
It is hypocrisy that we expect politics to represent us when we will not represent it and to account for us when we have refused to keep it accountable.
Moralisation does not work here; only interest does, as politics is amoral. It is important for youths to participate in elections and governance because we represent a significant portion of the population and have the potential to bargain for influence as we are both its biggest beneficiary and its biggest victim. The popular saying “those who will carry the burden of poor decisions should have a say in the load” is apt.
It is not enough to agonise, endure tears and deprivation, or stay angry at the older generation and failed politicians, but to also have a renewed faith in our democracy. The power of numbers would shift participation, engagement, and policy consideration in our favour; effectively wielding this power in setting the tone of national discourse will make us a stronger stakeholder and force in governance.
By participating in elections, we can vote for candidates who align with young people’s values and priorities and who are committed to addressing the issues that affect us.
Continuous civic engagement will broaden our influence and help to increase young people’s representation in decision-making positions, resulting in policies and programmes that are more responsive to the needs of the youth population on priority issues of education, employment, and economic opportunities, as well as on other social issues such as healthcare, affordable housing, and security.
Furthermore, youth participation in governance can help promote transparency, accountability, and good governance, as our voices and votes will hold elected officials accountable for their actions and ensure that they work in the population’s best interests.
It also allows us to have a say in the decision-making processes that affect our lives and the needs and aspirations of our communities. Young people can also develop important skills and gain valuable experience that will help us become leaders in our own right. We can learn about the democratic process, how to advocate for our interests, and how to work effectively with others to bring about change.
We will be naive if we do not recognise the harsh context, the attendant push factors, and their impact on young people’s participation. Despite this, we must always keep in mind that bad actors will always exist, undemocratic concentrations of power will always form and need dissolving, cliques and cabals will need challenging, and civil-service empires will need to be deconstructed.
The only tool that can effectively weaken their effect and sanitise our politics enough to continuously deliver good governance is a society with self-rule built on young people’s active citizenship and strengthened by political knowledge and civic dialogue, as opposed to a passive and resentful youth population. Nigeria’s democracy is emerging; it will not stay static but will either shrink when you abstain or expand as you actively participate.
There is a caveat: the practice of democracy can be excruciatingly slow and sometimes unfair; people can be messy, selfish, stubborn, and violent; reaching consensus can be impossible; things will not always go your way when you want them or how you want them. All of which is not a problem of democracy but of its actors.
These problems, regardless of their impact, can only be solved by even more democracy and civic participation, not less. Apathy, anger, frustration, and feelings of betrayal devoid of constructive civic participation will not serve the cause of development. Until we learn that “self-help” alone is not sustainable and, worse, useless, the painful sores that feed our outrage will continue to fester and never heal.
When we do not participate in elections and governance, our future will be decided by the people who do. If you are aware enough to fear that future, then you are aware enough to take the initiative to prevent it. Participating in elections and governance is a proven approach.
Civic participation is how young people can take the lead in building the Nigeria we want. It is how we can become tomorrow’s leaders right now.
*Akinleye is the Impacts and Communications Assistant, PROMAD
Contributors: Kingsley Agu, Director, Community Engagement, Connected Development (CODE); and Iyanuoluwa Bolarinwa, Assistant manager, Intl. Growth, BudgIT Foundation.
This article is an excerpt from the third in a six-part series of public conversations on youth civic participation under “Accelerating Youth Civic Participation in the FCT.”