Occasionally we see glimpses of enlightened leadership but it remains clear that the elite is dominated by those who are ill-equipped for the positions they occupy.
With such uncertainty and mistrust in our leadership and political parties, where can young people in Nigeria turn to for fair leadership?
Since Nigeria’s independence in 1960 many things have changed, but poor governance has remained a constant. The military listed embezzlement, corruption, and mismanagement of public funds as reasons for taking power through the Coup d’etat between 1966 and 1999. However, we are still waiting for these issues to be dealt with- distrust, insecurity, nepotism, political instability and irresponsible leadership are the issues young people continue to cite as the key problems we face.
Leadership is undoubtedly a very big challenge in Nigeria and across Africa at large. The state of a nation is a reflection of the competence and efficiency of its leadership. In a 2009 TEDx talk in London, the current Governor of Kaduna State, Mallam Nasir El-Rufai, speaking on transformational leadership, joked that from the beginning of time other countries were jealous of the abundance of natural resources with which God has blessed Nigeria. He explained that God responded: “Wait and see the leaders I give them." Occasionally we see glimpses of enlightened leadership but it remains clear that the elite is dominated by those who are ill-equipped for the positions they occupy.
Young people are central to this challenge for a variety of reasons. First demographics. An independent British Council research report stated that by 2030, “youths, not oil, will be Nigeria’s greatest asset. This population is so huge that if Nigeria’s young people were to be a nation, it would probably be the 4th largest country in Africa”. Young Nigerians are simply too numerous to ignore; and when they bring their voices together to demand the same things, they can shift power- think of the Not Too Young To Run movement for example. The challenge is that Nigerian youths have demographic strength that has not yet been properly translated to participatory democratic power because of exclusionary political processes and policies and the absence of a sustainable process to ensure exemplary intergenerational leadership.
Second, young people in Nigeria are more connected and more creative than ever before. Nigeria has an incredible wealth of young, talented people. Think about the #EndSARS protests of October 2020. For example, when our youths crowdfunded and disbursed funds to protesters through bitcoin for social services such as food, shelter, healthcare, physical security, and legal aid. Nigerians have the numbers, the skills, technological savvy, and values to coordinate sophisticated, sustainable campaigns. They can overcome traditional and bureaucratic limitations and organize distributed network-driven reform movements. While the ‘leaderless’ nature of the #EndSARS protests might have been problematic for some, equally, it points to a political sophistication that recognizes Nigerian realities.
Third, young people are more inclusive than existing elites, which means they can draw on more energy for their ideas; and make systems more equal by avoiding the ethnoreligious tensions that plague Nigeria’s governance structures at a larger level. Over the years, elected leaders have represented their own interests- around everything from pensions to the exclusion of women. This has only expanded the inequality gaps in our society. Young people are far better at building inclusive processes to address challenges- whether those are political, economic or security-related. Think about the Occupy Nigeria and Light Up Naija movement for example, during which young Christians and Muslims, police and protestors, and business interests and labour groups came together. But there is more to do- young people need better access to training, funding and places and spaces where policy debates and decisions take place.
Young Nigerians should stop aspiring to be like our current leaders and look inwards for guidance, ideas and inspiration- because they already embody much of what is hopeful about Nigeria. Values-based leadership comes from who we collectively want ourselves to be; not through aspirations about the need to drive luxury cars or live in the biggest houses.
Young Nigerians are not the future, they are the present- and Nigeria requires a level playing field to ensure the inclusive governance and responsible leadership they need. The Nigerian President recently set the tone by signing the Electoral Amendment Bill which indirectly links to his commitment from his speech at the Summit for Democracy organized by President Joe Biden, in which he committed to strengthening Nigerian democracy; but there is much more to do. Our youths will demand their rights- and either these demands are channelled through constructive, inter-generational political dialogue and through an openness to change from the elite; or these demands will again spill onto the streets.
Programme and Learning Manager
Accountability Lab Nigeria