Brief remarks by Hassan Taiwo Soweto, National coordinator of the Education Rights Campaign (ERC) at #InspireLagos 2.0 organized by Activista Lagos on Thursday 1st October 2015.
All protocols duly observed,
Exactly a year ago, I was opportune to speak on the topic: “Promoting Youth Participation in Governance and Elections” at the first edition of #InspireLagos. So you can therefore imagine my delight at another opportunity given to me to be here today to speak on the topic: Post-2015: Promoting Youth Participation in Leadership and Governance”. I thank Activista Lagos for counting me worthy.
Since I expect this to be an interactive session, I shall simply give a few brief remarks on the topic.
According to Nigeria’s constitution, a youth is someone between the age of 18 and 35. Different accounts put the youth population of Nigeria at about 60 percent of the total population. The oft-quoted figure is 53 million. Whichever we go with, what is uncontestable is that the youth population is the largest sub-group in Nigeria. And this feature is not unique to Nigeria. With an estimated median age below 19, Africa has more people aged 20 than anywhere in the world and the continent’s population is set to double to two billion by 2050 (BBC, 29/1/14).
As the rest of the world gets older, Africa is getting younger. Naturally this should be good news but not everyone is happy. Certainly, the capitalists, imperialists and Africa’s corrupt leaders who have looted the continent’s resources dry are scared of the “risk” of a young, jobless, frustrated but combative youth population - especially a youth population that has suddenly found the social media as a powerful tool. No less a person than Africa’s richest billionaire, Aliko Dangote, pointed out that “our entire society is in danger of destruction” unless we pay attention to this huge segment of our young and jobless global population” (Vanguard 26 January 2015). In Tunisia, Egypt and more recently in Burkina Faso, the youth were to the fore of revolutionary uprisings and movements that toppled dictators and stopped a coup in its track. The downside of course is that when struggles and revolutions fail to show a clear way out of the crisis of capitalism, Africa’s youthful population could also swell the ranks of Boko Haram, Al Shabaab and dangerous rightwing movements.
Against this background therefore, how do you promote youth participation in leadership and then in governance? I have spent some time thinking about this question. But to be honest, each time I think about it, I have been confronted by the depressing reality that while in the past Nigerian youth played progressive role in shaping the destiny of the nation, it is not the same situation today.
In the past, through radical students’ activism, Nigerian youth at key junctures of our country’s history put their stamp on the course of events. Nigerian students organized in the West African Students Union (WASU) played a crucial role in the struggle for independence of Nigeria and other West African countries. “In 1962, for example, the National Union of Nigerian Students (NUNS) protested and mobilized against the then proposed the Anglo-Nigerian Defense Pact which was intended to make Nigerian a military satellite of Britain, her erstwhile colonial master. The then Prime Minister Abubakar Tafawa Balewa’s civilian regime would have possibly signed the pact but for the protests of Nigerian students which echoed at home and abroad” (The Continuing Quest to Rebuild NANS and the Students Movement by Lanre Arogundade). In 1978, the Segun Okeowo-led National Union of Nigerian Students (NUNS) led in 1978 the famous “Ali must go” nationwide protests against government anti-poor education policies. In 1984, the Lanre Arogundade-led National Association of Nigerian Students (NANS) organized nationwide boycotts and protests against education commercialization. In the early 90s, NANS also led many struggles to defend the university system and demand adequate funding of public education. Equally NANS and students played crucial roles in the anti-military struggles of the 90s which eventually ushered in civilian “democracy” in 1999.
But today, what roles are students playing? Two weeks ago, a NANS president threatened to lead a protest against what he described as the persecution of the Senate president, Bukola Saraki, who is being tried at the Code of Conduct Tribunal (CCT) for false declaration of assets. In a similar vein, about a month ago, the social media was agog with the news that the OAU Students Union budgeted a sum of N1.8 million for phone calls. These two examples suffice to demonstrate the character of students and youth today and most importantly the degeneration that youth leadership has suffered over the years. To make matters worse, the National Youth Council of Nigeria (NYCN) which is supposed to be an umbrella body for the entire youths in the country rarely speaks for or advocate for the best interests of the youth.
Meanwhile the condition of the youth continue to worsen in pace with the worsening condition of other strata of the oppressed masses. Youth unemployment is as high as 50%. This is a social time bomb ticking to explode. Public education has so much collapsed that as much as half of Nigeria’s population is said to be illiterate. Early in the year, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) declared that Nigeria has one of the worst education systems in the world and the highest number of out-of-school children. There are 10.5 million school-age children out of school and of the 36million girls out of school worldwide, 6 million are Nigerians.
In the midst of the enormous social and economic crises facing the youth, none of the platforms for youth activism and engagement are prepared to challenge this situation. The only time you hear from the National Youth Council is when they are asking for youth representation in the cabinet or some other privilege that has no impact on the lives of ordinary youth. Rather than lead a nationwide movement against rising tuition and cost of education, NANS would rather organize a rally to protest an alleged persecution of the Senate President.
The few genuine student activists and leaders who remain within the students’ movement have an historical task of reclaiming NANS and the leadership of Nigerian students from careerists and pro-government agents. I think if our discourse this afternoon is able to resolve on this single task, we would have taken a crucial step to begin to rebuild one of the key pillars of youth leadership in Nigeria.
I am totally convinced that unless the leadership of the youth in Nigeria is reconstructed and revamped to begin to actively advocate and defend the genuine economic and political interests of the youth and other oppressed people, it is not certain that we can expect the youth to play any positive role in governance. This is because if the youth cannot defend their economic and political rights outside of governance, then it is preposterous to expect any stellar performance from them in governance. Just imagine the current NANS president as, let’s say, the Minister of Petroleum Resources and you will get my point.
Permit me to repeat in quote what I said last year at the first edition of this event about the role of youth in governance.
“I believe that youth can only participate "in governance and elections" as change agents. It is very clear that change is needed to save this country and its people. For that change to be possible, the youth have a very important role to play. As the young generation, it is our future that these capitalist vampires in power are mortgaging through their rabid greed and corruption! When today, the government underfunds education and healthcare, that government is creating a legacy of crisis which our generation will suffer from until old age. All the crises that this government has created are like debts which our generation will have to pay for in tears. So it is legitimate for us to be concerned and to want to be at the forefront of the process of making change”.
However “We need to understand that change will not come simply by a generational shift in leadership or by putting a 100 youth in the National Assembly for instance. This is because it is not the age of our politicians that has made them to rule so badly, rather it is their belief in pro-capitalist anti-poor policies as the only way to run society. The youth will only be able to play a meaningful role in the task of changing Nigeria if they embrace a democratic socialist ideology that seeks to ensure that Nigeria’s wealth is utilized for the needs of all instead of the greed of a few”
Thank you for listening.