Jide Akintunde, Managing Editor/CEO, Financial Nigeria International Limited

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Can the youth own future Nigeria? 01 Nov 2021

Ayemojubar, the Twitter pseudonym of one of Nigeria’s online activists, tweeted this on the 20th of October 2021: “Isn't it going to be a wise decision for Soro Soke youths to rally round and join forces with @MoghaluKingsley? We all know where he stands and he needs us and our specialties. How I wish we have someone that could initiate that move. @SavvyRinu what can we do? #EndSARSMemorial.”

This is a loaded message. “Soro Soke youths” are activist Nigerian youths. In October 2020, they decided to raise their voices, not primarily against the government, but the Nigeria Police Force, an institution that perennially malfunctions, seemingly sworn to regime protection while denying ordinary citizens their fundamental human rights. The police had extended that unofficial mandate to brutalising and dispossessing Nigerians. In a feat of bravery, the youth got into the streets and on Twitter to demand an end to “police brutality” in the country.

EndSARS, as the protest movement was dubbed, ended in more brutality as the military was called in to quell it at the Lekki Toll Gate, Lagos, where some of the young citizens were converged. A year later, the protest has remained a watershed event, one that references the power – if not responsibility – of the youth to bring about change in the country. Still, the horrific sounds of gun shots at the toll gate that evening of October 20, 2020, remains a chilling memory and a stain in the conscience of the current administration and the political establishment.

One thing has definitely changed since then: the fear of the youth is now in the government. But its response – and inability to do so competently – follow a familiar pattern. Thus, the authorities decided to not allow the youth to hold their memorial events to mark the first anniversary of EndSARS. Instead of ensuring the memorial event was peaceful, the police opted to deny the youth their constitutional freedom of association.

Was it judicious of the youth to have targeted a disorientated state agency for their protest, instead of the government that has made the institution unfit for purpose? Probably. Nigeria is a constitutional democracy. A protest movement may seek to force the government to reform an institution of the state – or like in the case of EndSARS, demand a dysfunctional arm of a state institution (Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) of the police) be abolished. But the government, which is no less malfunctioning at a more general level, can only be legally removed through the ballot or by the elected representatives of the people.

Kingsley Moghalu and Nigerian youth leaders
Kingsley Moghalu (centre) and some youth leaders in 2019

It is a pointer to how Nigerians generally have come to accept the country’s constitutional democracy, despite many years of military dictatorships in the annal of Nigeria’s public governance. Nigerians that have newly reached the age of suffrage in the last four years have lived in a democratic system their entire lives. The youth probably saw police brutality as a problem they didn’t want to cope with anymore, while targeting the 2023 general election for sweeping the current political establishment out of power through the ballot.

This view may be quite optimistic, though. About 15 months to the next general election, it remains unclear if the youth will mobilise in unison to support and vote for a leader that has the capacity and orientation to deliver on the aspiration of the youth for good governance. Ayemojubar recognises that one aspirant to the presidency with these important qualities and more is Kingsley Moghalu, who has declared his interest to run for President again in 2023. The charismatic, new-breed politician is a former United Nations official and had served as deputy governor of Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN). As citizens are disillusioned about Nigeria that is mired in acute political and economic crises, Moghalu points to how his work at the UN had entailed helping countries including Rwanda, Croatia, Cambodia, and Tanzania to rebuild after major political crises. He also easily refers to his record at the CBN, where he led the implementation of reform that saved the Nigerian banking system after the 2008-9 Global Financial Crisis, ensuring “no depositor lost a kobo”, as he is fond of pointing out.

Moghalu comes across as likeable. He is armed with practical solutions underpinned by intellectual grasp of the root-causes and symptoms (which he says should not be confused) of Nigeria’s nation-building and economic challenges. The political economist, who obtained his doctorate from London School of Economics, has also shown affinity for the youth as he thinks of the two opposite possibilities of future Nigeria: one that rises in the 21st century or the other that continues on the current trajectory to an unmitigated tragedy. But it is everyone’s guess if the youth would back him in their numbers.

Youth political activism is complicated in Nigeria. Their leaders have to avow partisan neutrality. This is required for the international donors that fund their NGOs and activism to avoid being seen t0 be meddling in the country’s politics. The activist leaders and their colleagues in the Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) are invariably lost when it comes to partisan political organising to address the most debilitating issue bedevilling the country, which is incompetent leadership, and everyone knows it. To underscore how little policy advocacy only helps in improving the real situation, in the 2019 electoral cycle during which the Not Too Young To Run bill became law, septuagenarian President Muhammadu Buhari got himself re-elected in an election that local and international observers deemed to be deeply flawed.

EndSARS was a re-enactment of the successes that Nigerian youth have recorded in street protests, dating as far back as the 1980s and 90s when they confronted the country’s brutal military dictators. But success on the street has yet to translate into their having the rein of government or catalysing good governance. Lack of savvy to politically organise themselves has meant that the youth, when not in the trenches of civil protests, serve essentially as foot-soldiers for the same kind of politicians they love to hate. While the youth agonise, the incompetent career politicians organise – and use the youth as a tool for gaining power without making them even token beneficiaries of same.

Even most challenging for political organising by the youth is their polarisation across the country’s ethnic and religious divides. The term ‘Nigerian youth’ has, therefore, been somewhat a myth. We have northern or southern youths, and Christian and Muslim youths. Whereas cultural division of the youth is undeniable, with part of the diversity being actual or potential strength, political exploitation of ethnic and religious differences in the country is at its apogee and the youth have so far not resisted inclinations towards it enough.

But the youth will definitely own the future. According to Worldometer, the median age of the Nigerian population in 2021 is 18.1 years. What that future would be is the real question. That the youth can shape or reshape the future is also not in doubt. They have the overwhelming number in a democratic culture they have embraced. The youth account for over 60 percent of the electorate. If they rightly use their number strength and form a united front, they can, as a bloc, single-handedly elect the next president of Nigeria. Their influence has hitherto been neutralised by their political apathy, misunderstanding of the critical political intervention they need to make, and willingness to be used, instead of calling the shots.

The acute economic and security challenges that the political establishment has wittingly unwittingly created, and allowed to fester, indiscriminately affect the youth. A future Nigeria that is fulfilling its potentials would be one that creates economic opportunities for the youth, allows them to unleash their creative power and be an integral part of public policymaking. But they need to educate themselves and rise above the temptation of sentimental electoral choices. Good governance requires a meritorious government. This entails the election of the most competent candidates for offices. In particular the presidency, is not a reward for activism: it has responsibilities that requires technical and managerial competences.

The future belongs to the youth. To make it a good one, they must back the best candidate for president in 2023. If the challenges the country is facing were brought about by incompetent leadership, leadership choices that are based on ethnic affiliation, religious sentiment, prejudice, or cowardice will not solve the problem.

Jide Akintunde is the Managing Editor, Financial Nigeria magazine and Director, Nigeria Development and Finance Forum.