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I was recently part of a group of 19 Africans selected from various countries by the United States (US) Department of State to participate in its prestigious International Visitors Leadership Programme (IVLP). The elite programme which started 75 years ago boasts of more than 300 alumni from around the world who have gone ahead to occupy high profile positions in politics, business, arts, media, academia including as heads of state and governments across the World.
At one of the sessions of the programme hosted at the U.S State Department to familiarize participants with the United States foreign policy establishment; including its engagement on security issues in Africa, discussions centered on two key issues peace stabilization efforts in Africa and migration concerns. This piece seeks to reflect on what I consider a more profound observation from the meeting.
Of the three State Department staff who briefed us on the department’s activities, two were female and they were less than 33 years of age!
For those who are not familiar with the US government lingo, the United States’ Department of State is the equivalent of our Ministry of Foreign Affairs in many African countries. It is the Department responsible for the conception and implementation of America’s foreign policy across the World. How then could such important organization entrust the articulation of its foreign policy of the United States in the hands of young staffers? Do such young staff have the requisite knowledge, experience and most importantly, emotional maturity to handle such issues? These are questions that are likely to evoke mixed reactions including those of negative types if asked in many countries including United States. However, for an average African civil servant, however, these are very appropriate questions to ask; indeed, timely. This is because if it were an African public institution, we are sure to be met with some older public officials.
The participation of youth in governance processes is the crux of this article; so much for the 55 countries in Africa where the demographic bulge is in favour of young people below the age of 30. This piece is even more important coming on the heels of the outcry in Nigeria on the obvious absence of young people (below the age of 35) in the cabinet of the new Nigerian Government under President Muhammadu Buhari. Indeed, it is estimated that the average of the 36 ministers is right above 50, none even in their 40s.
To put this outcry in better context, it is necessary to acknowledge the pivotal role played by a large number of young people in campaigning and voting for the Buhari-led government in the March 2015 elections. While a lot of credit is ascribed to a ‘mature opposition’ who, irrespective of their divergent interests, agreed to a delicate merger under the umbrella of the All Progressives Congress (APC), the widespread frustrations amongst an increasingly vocal, sophisticated and social media savvy youth population was a key factor in the trouncing of the ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP) that had boasted loudly of its intention to rule for 60years. In fact, a youthful political and governance communication firm; StateCraft packaged and managed what arguably became, the most sophisticated political campaign in the history of Nigeria, if not throughout Africa.
Fast forward, four months after the election, the same youth population is grumbling loud about how so quickly the new government have forgotten them as evident in the non-inclusion of any young person in the appointment so far announced. As far as the youths are concerned, appointments into various offices; including the highly coveted ministerial posts, have sidelined them. For them, this amounts to betrayal of trust from a government whose campaign centered on the slogan of change. The popular expectation with such a slogan was among others, that young people under the age of 35 would be ‘rewarded’ in political appointments as key to a seamless generational shift central to the awakening of the country’s immense human potentials of the country.
While the argument being put forward cannot be wished away, it is not difficult to reckon the attempt at oversimplifying the issue of youth inclusion, and how it might be addressed. Let me state first and foremost, that a symbolic appointment of less than 50 young people into various offices at the Federal level will not necessarily amount to youth inclusion across the country. Indeed, any form of inclusion in which youth appointees are not carefully selected will at best, be another token placating of young people without any real lasting impact on governance processes in Nigeria.
Over the last 16 years of democratic governance in Nigeria, for instance, much emphasis have been on knee-jerk appointment of young people into offices rather than putting in place structural programmes to liberalise the public service for young people to enter and pursue their careers.
In my view, what is at stake is at two different levels; creating access as well as space in public service and in political parties for young people. This is because we need the public service to guarantee institutional attitude change and to ensure that policy changes are durable enough to become a part of our national psyche; from local to the national levels while in political parties, the objective will be more ideological and largely based on a widely expressed notion that a generational change might be a silver bullet to achieving rapid transformation in Nigeria and indeed, Africa.
The danger, unfortunately, is that hinging the clamour by youth for adequate political representation to mere appointment of a dozen young people into government positions at the state or federal level will ignore the structural challenges to their full participation in public service or political parties and reduce it to a game of numbers.
Might I add that my argument is not that appointing young people into public office is a misnomer. In fact, if undertaken side by side with wider institutional reforms within the public service, it can easily demonstrate the political will on the part of the government in favour of meaningful youth engagement. Just as well, by galvanisning a large segment of the youth population to participate in political process under political parties, they are better able to extract commitment and guarantee for greater strategic and sustainable involvement.
What exactly is my argument?
Youth inclusion in governance processes must be seen from a plethora of perspectives. While deliberate appointment of young people into government positions through quota systems are key in increasing their numbers, my sense is that the best approach is to create and entrench an organic system for young people to enter, socialize and grow their political and administrative careers. In other words, it is about ensuring that sizeable and qualitative numbers of young people are given the opportunity to enter into a public and political life to contribute their quota.
Invariably then, youth inclusion in public service requires a much wider and friendlier policy and institutional template that seek to mainstream young people into every facet of national life – not one that sees them as is currently the case – as a set of incapables! The point to be made is that the general public attitude towards youths in many countries across Africa is that inclined towards them lacking the presence of mind, wisdom and maturity to handle leadership. These cultural attitudes, in turn condition how formal state institutions react when the question of youth engagement is broached.
Through deliberate capacity development programmes such as internships, fellowships and exchange programmes, young people are able to practically learn and contribute to governance processes in a more productive way. Such programmes must be action /learning oriented and not the typical tea-making or bag carrying for principals. The latter, unfortunately is the trend that eventually impugns on their self-esteem and negatively impact on their ability to take risks and forge ahead.
Our educational institutions have a critical role to play in recalibrating and repositioning of our youths. Halfway into the IVLP, it was not difficult to observe the centrality of education and educational systems in trying to link knowledge, policy and practice. If we are serious about creating a natural entry point for young people in our public service there is a need to rethink the linkage between their educational exposures and the practical experiences they are exposed to in terms of internships, exchanges and fellowships.
The centrality of educational systems to the transformation of society and economy is what we admire and appreciate in the developed countries. Key countries like the United States, United Kingdom, China, France and Germany are examples that place high premium on their educational systems as the foundation for inculcating national philosophies in their citizens. Citizens, in turn, are socialized into the appreciation of these philosophies and are able to develop innovative, value added ideas that stand the test of time.
Imagine, for instance, the kinds of system that throws up a Justin Trudeau (43) as party leader and now Prime Minster of Canada, or David Cameron who was 39 years old when he became leader of the Conservative Party in 2005, and 44 years old when he became Prime Minister in 2010? No one asked to see Scottish National Party MP, 20-year-old Mhairi Black’s primary school certificate when she contested and defeated a major Labour Party leader Douglas Alexander, to become the second youngest parliamentarian in the United Kingdom.
These are all cases that exemplify the best in terms of the evolution of a national ideology that places premium on the potential value addition an individual puts forward rather than primordial considerations hinged on age, sex, ethnic and religious affiliation. In most of these societies, a clear articulation of how such ideas can be implemented are the selling points for prospective office holder.
In these countries too, fully formed party systems are in place with a level playing field that allows young people to learn by leading within their various constituencies of their parties or even in the mainstream of their parties at the national level. In many African countries including Nigeria, party youth wings are almost nonexistent and if they exist are merely tools in the hand of older politicians to achieve selfish ends. Until preparations for Nigeria’s 2015 elections peaked, not even the then ruling People’s Democratic Party could boast of an effective youth wing. Yet without a deliberate effort to create or open –up structures within political parties for young people, we will continue to face the kind of challenge rampant in many parts of Africa. Indeed, young people will only be good for canvassing votes but not for office!
For a fact, Africa does not lack best practices to learn from. Despite its own inadequacies, South Africa is a clear example of what is possible given awareness and the right environment for young people to participate. The emergence of the youthful Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) would almost have been impossible without the space provided within the ruling African National Congress (ANC) for a vibrant youth league. It was almost the smartest thing to do that the opposition Democratic Alliance (DA) ensured that its party leadership included youthful members, including blacks, in order to court young black South Africans who are virtually frustrated with the older members of the ANC.
Earlier this year, 41-year-old January Makamba almost became the flag bearer of Tanzania’s ruling party, Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM) in the just concluded 2015 general elections. Makamba had been a member of the party since he was in Primary Six, and a Parliamentarian since 2010 (at the age of 36). He is the immediate past Deputy Minister of Communication, Science and Technology! While a number of CCM bigwigs lost their seat in the parliament after this last election, January has just been re-elected for another term representing Bumbuli constituency.
The Youth wings of political parties offers the best entry point for the seamless inclusion of young people in political and governance processes in Africa. Complaining that their interests are overlooked or not given adequate attention beyond elections can easily be addressed if young people work from within political parties and not outside to influence policy-formation. Party membership also guarantees that youth wings are able to equally invest in the electioneering process through working and campaigning for the party and candidates in the build up to election.
In a democratic setting, political parties remain the access route to holding elective office. When young people work for political parties from outside for example as did most of the young people who are not card carrying members of the party, that campaigned for and secured victory for APC during the last elections, it becomes easy to feel frustrated. How then, beyond tokenistic appointments, will the party give them priority before loyal and experienced party members who supposedly toiled day and night (and for many years too) for the party’s ascension to power on May 29, 2015.
In the final analysis, Nigeria – and indeed most Africa countries – still has a long way to go in ensuring that young people play a pivotal role in its governance processes. Doing so is however a shared responsibility for all stakeholders in the country’s governance project. All hands must be on deck in ensuring that a deliberate, structured and forward looking process is put in place to engender early, sustained and robust youth participation in governance processes. The approach must be holistic and focused on attracting willing and capable young people; male and female, into formal structures in all public spheres. Exposing them to great public responsibility and adequate leadership development programmes means their talents are harnessed and channeled early enough.
On political parties, this is probably the easiest – yet the most tricky – undertaking. The nature of political power and power dynamics within which political parties operate is such that any form of sub grouping with the potential of wielding any degree of influence will almost always be resisted. Nonetheless, these are the kinds of battle African youths (and Nigeria’s, in particular) must be prepared to take on. For both the ruling party and the opposition in Nigeria, there is a big opportunity for young people to come together, negotiate a space and bring value added opportunities.
The prospects of achieving this is quite high for both the APC and PDP. The obvious need for the defeated PDP, to rebrand itself provides an opportunity for its younger members to push for a comprehensive reform and reorganization of the party. Such reorganization must focus on a phased development programme which aims at building a vibrant youth wing from the ward to national levels. In fact, the party can start with some pilot states, measure progress and scale up incrementally. In any case, the only chance of survival for the party or even the return to power in any foreseeable future would depend on the role of young people, both on and offline.
The young members of the APC on the other hand, could take advantage of the vantage positions of leading party members, including their founding fathers, to strengthening its youth wing. Already, the party has made a strategic move by the inclusion of two young people in its Board of Trustees. This is a commendable step and hopefully the young people will justify their inclusion through effective representation by providing the basis for a more robust engagement of young people in the party at all levels.
Ibraheem ‘Bukunle Sanusi tweets via @ibsanusi
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