Demographic realities in Nigeria, the most populous country in Africa, would predict a high representation of the country’s youth in public life, specifically political leadership. After all, those between the ages of 0 and 24 years account for more than 62 per cent of the country’s population of approximately 200 million people. Those between 25-54 years represent an additional 30.44 per cent of the population. Yet, despite their decisive demographic advantage, Nigeria’s youth are remarkably marginal in the country’s political affairs.
At the national, state and local government levels, Nigeria’s key political players tend to come predominantly from the 55-64 and 65 and over age sets that represent 4.04 per cent and 3.26 per cent of the population respectively.
From 1999 to the present, to take one example, Nigeria’s presidency has been held by Olusegun Obasanjo (who became president at 62), Umaru Musa Yar’Adua (president at 56), Goodluck Jonathan (president at 53), and Muhammadu Buhari (who was 73 when he began his first-term in 2015).
The two highest vote-getters in the 2019 presidential election were Buhari (15.1 million votes) and the 72-year-old Atiku Abubakar (11.2 million votes). By contrast, numerous substantially younger and far more educated presidential candidates hardly made electoral imprints. In the election, Kingsley Moghalu (56 years old), Fela Durotoye, ‘Tope Fasua, and Omoyele Sowore (all approximately 48 years old at the time), received 21,886; 16,779; 4,340; and 33,953 respectively.
In a country so weighted in favour of young people, how do we explain the over-representation of older people in public office? What factors shape this anomaly? Are there prospects for changing the demographic dynamics in Nigeria’s political arena? What would it take to achieve a shift in the patterns of youth participation in politics?
I recently designed a questionnaire that sought to explore these questions. 220 Nigerians aged between 18 and 35 years responded to 14 questions in the questionnaire. Of the pool of respondents, 52.7% were female, with males making up 47.3%. 55.9% of respondents had graduated from polytechnics or universities; 32.7% were current undergraduates in tertiary institutions; 8.6% were current postgraduate students, and 2.7% had attained postgraduate degrees.
The breakdown of responses to my questionnaire was both illuminating and disturbing. Let us summarize some of the key data.
The first question invited respondents to rate their level of interest in Nigerian politics. They were offered four response options: “very high”, “high”, “low”, and “zero”. Only 27 (12.3% of respondents) selected “very high”. 65 respondents, representing 29.5%, rated their interest as “high”. In a telling finding, 103 respondents, 46.8% of the group, rated their interest “low”. In addition, 25 respondents—11.4%—declared “zero” interest in politics.
The second question required that respondents choose one of four options that best described their view of Nigerian politics: “highly positive”, “positive”, “negative”, and “highly negative”. In order of ranking, the choices were: “negative” (48.2%), “highly negative” (34.5%), “positive” (13.2%), and “highly positive” (4.1%).
In another question respondents selected from a menu of four options the statement that most approximated their view of Nigeria’s political leaders. An overwhelming majority, 62.7%, chose that Nigerian leaders “are always in politics to corruptly enrich themselves.” An additional 67 respondents (30.5%) selected the option that “they are sometimes in politics to corruptly enrich themselves.” Only 15 (6.8%) respondents thought that Nigerian politicians were “sometimes in politics to serve the public.” No respondent picked the option that Nigerian politicians “are always in politics to serve the public”.
A successive question required respondents to identify the central motivation that might inform their own venture into politics. Here, they were asked to pick from five options: to “make a lot of money”, “acquire chieftaincy titles and fame”, “help my friends and relatives to become richer”, “help reduce poverty in society”, and “other” (which enabled respondents to enter their unique motivation if not listed in the foregoing five options). A significant majority, 71.8%, selected poverty reduction as their main impetus. Remarkably, 13 respondents (5.8%) indicated that their motivation would be to “make a lot of money.” A fairly insignificant number of respondents (1.4%) said they would work to make their relatives and friends richer. The slew of “other” choices included such goals as “to help reduce poverty and corruption,” to move Nigeria from “an underdeveloped country to a developed country,” “to enlighten the public on the importance of leadership,” “to foster economic growth that would benefit the country internally and externally,” and “to make my country a better place for the next generation to enjoy”).
One question was to rate the statement: “Nigerian politicians are usually the most well qualified people I know to hold public office.” 121 respondents (55%) “strongly disagreed” with the statement. 84 of them (38.2%) “disagreed.” Nine (4.1%) “agreed” with the statement, and six of them (2.7%) “strongly agreed.”
Respondents were asked to select at least “two good qualities” they admire in a political leader. The options and the results were as follows: “a desire to amass a lot of wealth” (9.5%); “a desire to help his relatives and friends to acquire wealth” (8.6%); “excellent educational qualifications” (85.5%); “a clear program/vision for the improvement of society” (90.5%); “a willingness to dole out cash to voters” (2.3%); “a willingness to rig elections” (3.2%); and “a willingness to be obedient to a political godfather” (8.6%).
My survey sought to measure the level of youth interest in politics. It asked respondents to rate the statement, “Young people around my age are very interested in politics.” 97 respondents (44.1%) rated it as “a little true”; 61 (27.7%) selected “very true”; 41 (18.6%) saw the statement as “a little untrue” while 21 respondents (9.5%) judged it “very untrue”.
A follow-up question attempted to deploy a slightly different metric to evaluate youth engagement in politics. Respondents chose one of three statements that mirrored their perception of youth political interest. The first statement was: “Young people my age are always interested in voting in elections”. Only 33 respondents (15%) deemed the statement true. The next statement, “Young people my age are sometimes interested in voting in elections”, earned the highest number at 149 (67.7%). 38 respondents (17.3%) agreed with the third statement: “Young people my age are never interested in voting in elections”.
53.6% of respondents felt that most young people their age “are not interested in becoming politicians,” with 102 (46.4%) deciding that most of their peers were interested in political careers.
To a different question, 112 respondents (50.9%) thought that the main reason their cohorts desired political roles was “to create a better society for all”. 108 respondents (49.1%) chose the option that most of their age mates looked to political careers in order to “amass a lot of wealth quickly”.
One of my salient goals was to gauge Nigerian youth’s perception of access to participation in the political arena. The result indicated a discouraging outlook. 190 respondents (86.4%) agreed with the statement that it is “extremely hard for any young person to run for political office”. Only 10 respondents (4.5%) thought it was “very easy for a young person to run for political office.” 20 (9.1%) thought running for political office was “a little easy” for young aspirants.
One survey question invited respondents to choose from a menu ALL the factors they consider “the greatest obstacle facing young people who are interested in politics”. The results were as follows: “lack of money” (60.9%); “lack of adequate education” (12.7%); “lack of access to political godfathers” (41.8%); “lack of interest on the part of young people” (27.3%); “lack of interest by voters in young politicians” (71.8%).
Survey participants rated their attitude to politics and politicians. 88 of them (40%) said they viewed politics and politicians “very negatively/with a lot of contempt”, 61 (27.7%) chose “a little positively”, 56 (25.5%) selected “a little negatively”, and 15 (6.8%) regarded politics and politicians “very positively/with great admiration”.
The ultimate question on the survey sought to determine how ethnic and religious affiliations shape youth’s political attitudes. It asked respondents to rate the following statement as true or false: “It is important to me that a politician from my ethnic group or religion occupies an important leadership position”. 119 (54.1%) of respondents said the statement was false, with 101 (49.1%) agreeing with the statement.
Some of the survey’s key findings paint a desultory and deeply dispiriting portrait. In demographic terms, the youth of Nigeria would seem to be the best story their country has to tell. Yet, the youth’s demographic dominance is hardly reflected in their country’s political space. A great deal of the reason lies in the nature of Nigerian politics itself, including perceptual negativity, the outsize role of money, political deployment of violence, and a mindset that minimizes moral considerations and wholesome principles in the public space. Some cultural factors are in play as well. One such element is the tendency in most, if not all, Nigerian cultures to defer to “elders”.
Even so, there are grounds to be optimistic about transforming Nigerian politics through dramatic expansion of youth participation and the infusion of a visionary ethos and ethical capital. This optimism is partly founded on recent political developments, specifically the nationwide #EndSARS protests, and based, in part, on some promising findings from my survey. The path toward realizing an enhanced political role for Nigerian youth will be the subject of a subsequent essay.