Youth inclusion in democratic processes has gained global attention, buoyed largely by the emergence of young leaders in Canada, France, and North Macedonia. Youth representation and inclusion in democratic processes and institutions constitutes a major campaign issue in Nigeria’s 2019 general elections. The success of the mainstreaming of the youth agenda in the 2019 general elections is due to vigorous advocacy by the “Not Too Young To Run” Movement, a youth-focused civil society organization working to reduce the age for eligibility to seek and hold elected public office in Nigeria. They successfully mobilized youth culminating in President Muhammadu Buhari signing the Not Too Young To Run bill into law in May 2018. However, despite the landmark legislation aimed at increasing the political participation of youth, early indications regarding youth political empowerment are not very encouraging.

The Dilemma of “youth-hood” in Nigeria

The definition of youth in Nigeria partly depends on socio-cultural and economic factors. “Youth-hood” could be delayed or imagined when men of a certain age are unable to fulfill certain roles of people of their age, for example, being able to live on their own and assume family responsibilities. Known as “youth-men” in some societies, it is not surprising that some people over the internationally recognized age of youth are laying claim to political opportunities meant for the youth. This is particularly obvious with regard to some leading presidential candidates who are portraying themselves as representing youth interests but are themselves above the age of forty-five years. These include Omoyele Sowore (forty-seven) of the African Alliance Congress (AAC); Fela Durotoye (forty-seven) of the Alliance for New Nigeria (ANN); Tope Fasua (forty-seven) of the Abundant Nigeria Renewal Party (ANRP); Kingsley Moghalu (fifty-six) of the Young Progressives Party (YPP); Donald Duke (fifty-seven) of the Social Democratic Party (SDP); and Oby Ezekwesili (fifty-five) of the Allied Congress Party of Nigeria (ACPN) who later withdrew from the presidential race. What this suggests is that older individuals have hijacked the presidential slots meant for youth candidates in these parties.

A Crisis of Youth Leadership?

Despite growing evidence of youth activism and mobilization for political inclusion, Nigerian youth have yet to achieve the level of organization required to gain inclusion into mainstream democratic politics. While some progress has been recorded in articulating their demands and making their voices heard, the youth constituency is weak, fragmented, short of resources, and it suffers from a leadership deficit. Although the youth advocate for a transfer of power from gerontocrats, they are yet to formulate a strategic political agenda for taking over the mantle of political leadership in the country. Paradoxically, some youth are among the most vociferous supporters of presidential candidates like President Muhammadu Buhari (seventy-six) of the All Progressives Congress (APC) and Atiku Abubakar (seventy-two) of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP). A recent research project (although based on a small sample size) gives cause for concern about political apathy among some Nigerian youth. Only 6 of 17 participants in a Focus Group Discussion indicated that they had Permanent Voter Cards (PVC) for the elections. Many PVC holders said they only acquired them for identification rather than voting purposes. Many youths still consider politics a no-go area, preferring instead to direct their energies towards various forms of entertainment or income-generating activities.

As the 2019 general election approaches, Nigerians will have the opportunity to test the efficacy of the Not Too Young To Run Act in facilitating youth inclusion in democratic politics. Whatever the outcome, lessons from the election will inform the strategies of democratic youth movements as they seek to extend the frontiers of youth participation in Nigerian politics and governance.