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Opinion: Mobilizing youth for effective civic participation by Mayowa Olajide Akinleye

Yet, 95% of its youth population does not feel heard; at least three out of four young people believe the country is headed in the wrong direction and that they are powerless to stop it. Nobody, they believe, is listening.

Mobilizing youth for civic participation Credit: PROMAD

By Mayowa Olajide Akinleye, Impacts and Communications Assistant, PROMAD

Nigeria is a signatory to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. Article 12 of that document establishes that young people must be heard. They must be listened to and taken seriously. It is their right. This idea presupposes that there is a speaking; an expression that is present but ignorable. Articles 2 and 13 recognize this seeming powerlessness and, in seeking to protect the right to be heard, establish that young people have a right to not be discriminated against and can freely express themselves without fear. 

Yet, 95% of its youth population does not feel heard; at least three out of four young people believe the country is headed in the wrong direction and that they are powerless to stop it. Nobody, they believe, is listening. This is a breach of a basic human right. Reacting to the Lekki  shooting, one protester  said “we spoke up thinking our voices will matter, only to cruelly find out that even our lives didn’t”

Proving that rights, when not empowered by a commitment to duty, is useless. My right to life is worth something because I have a duty to not kill myself, and others have a duty to not kill me. Once a commitment to that duty becomes optional, my right to life is mere window dressing.

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In the longest run of our democracy, the best we have had is a tokenistic commitment to listening and accounting for the dreams, needs, and concerns of our youth population—mere window dressing. As a result, there are unequal opportunities for political participation and civic engagement, our educational systems are struggling, high youth unemployment and migration, heightened helplessness, and a lack of voice in making decisions that positively affect their lives and create social change. 

Nigeria and Nigerians have a duty to hear its young people and mobilise them to develop into active, responsive, and equal participants in the social, economic, and political fabric of her society. It is the onus of the state and its agents to enforce this duty and ensure an abiding commitment to its veracity. 

Why must the state do this, and how can it do it successfully? These are the questions to which this article will offer answers. 

The government’s overarching responsibility is to protect. The foundation of a state’s efficacy is steeped in how well it fares in its role as a protector. This burden of ensuring security is the primal justification for the social contract that is the cornerstone of state formation. Simply put, a government that fails to effectively secure its people is a blatant failure.  

Listening to and responding to its youth population is critical for any state seeking to secure its citizens. This approach impacts security on three fronts: physical security, economic security, and political security. 

Physical security is simply the protection of assets from physical disruption and events that could cause serious loss or damage for the owner. The rise of kidnapping, militancy, and oil bunkering in the south-south; insurgency in the northeast have deep-seated foundations in problems created by the feeling of powerlessness and neglect young people experience. 

The fallout from the shooting at the Lekki Tollgate saw massive destruction of property in the city as well as all around the country. 205 critical national security assets, corporate facilities, and private property were attacked, burned, or vandalised. An estimated 71 public warehouses and 248 private stores were looted across 13 states. The multi-billion-naira Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) infrastructure was crippled. Police stations and offices of political parties in Ondo, Okitipupa, and Ibadan were looted and burned. Private homes and businesses of public officials were looted, and a traditional ruler’s palace was desecrated. The Yoruba have a saying: “A child that you refuse to build will eventually sell off or destroy the other things you built instead.” 

When the youth population is heard, the result is increased trust in government institutions and systems, leading to better cooperation between them and the government. This increased cooperation can result in more effective law enforcement, crime prevention, and safety awareness; an increased sense of ownership and personal responsibility that enables community policing and reporting; and a lower predilection to violence because of strong mediation and negotiation frameworks. 

The International Committee of the Red Cross defines economic security as the ability of individuals, households, or communities to cover their essential needs sustainably and with dignity. Food, shelter, transportation, clothing, healthcare, education, and means of production are examples of such needs. Economically secure countries globally—the UK, Australia, Singapore, Germany, Japan, etc.—typically have institutions and systems that ensure at least any two of political, educational, and economic empowerment for their youth populations. 

This is evidenced by the quality education and skill-building institutions, open government processes, open media, open markets, adherence to the rule of law, and inclusive political mechanisms.  Nurtured by the push and pull effects of this reality, more young people become active, productive, and skilled, and gain more economic and anthropological power in that society. They become a smarter, and wealthier, gain influence, can start new industries, and contribute excellently to existing ones, ultimately increasing the quantity and quality of production, which in turn expands economic prosperity for everyone. 

Political security refers to how resilient, fair, and efficient the governance framework is in upholding the rule of law and representing the interests of its constituency. It usually sets the stage for physical and economic security. The 1994 Human Development Report defined it as the prevention of government repression, systematic violations of human rights, and threats from militarization. These values are enshrined through the sustained development of political systems oriented towards human rights, democracy, and good governance. 

Cogent youth engagement will improve the skills of and opportunities for young people to interact with and navigate the political system, encourage informed civic participation that will hold officeholders accountable, and hence deepen our democracy. The ability for a political party to consistently identify, attract, and project credible and promising young talents within its ranks will, in time, strengthen the party’s influence, ensure the identity, values, and ideologies of the party stay relevant within the mainstream of national conversations, and will have trained and empowered new generations to carry the baton. This type of inclusive handover is crucial for political sustainability. 

Civic participation among young people is usually more of a response than a duty, as they have more pressing priorities and don’t understand the burden enough to care. Therefore, they must be catalysed. When the government is committed to their growth, they respond with patriotism and pride; when a society is hostile to them, they respond with anger and distrust, as is the case with Nigerian youth.

There are three preconditions that are indicative of this. First, Inspiration: Do young people feel inspired? What are their sources of inspiration? Secondly, motivation: What are the barriers to their participation? How strong are they? Are they willing to cross them? Why? And lastly, empowerment: What are their competencies? Can they afford the financial, physical, and intellectual costs of crossing them? Honest responses to these questions provide a detailed synopsis of the level of civic engagement we can expect from our young people.

Government and stakeholders must begin to prioritise activities that positively contribute to the identified indicators. These activities are grouped into five categories: 

Activities that promote legislation, policies, and budget allocations for youth empowerment and engagement: Despite some progress in this regard with the formulation of a national youth policy, the signing of the “Not Too Young to Run” law, the establishment of youth parliaments and councils, and the 75 billion naira Nigeria Youth Investment Fund. Implementation is still a sore spot. 

The Ekiti State Youth Parliament, for example, has been unable to access its budget provision for over three years, summarily stunting the efficacy of its operations. More work needs to be done to sidestep bad faith actors and earth legislation, policies, and financing so that they reflect and respond to niggling peculiarities. 

Secondly, activities that support, create, and sustain structures for young people’s participation and civic engagement. The private sector, civil society, trade unions, advisory councils, student councils and unions, youth parliaments, clubs, political parties, community development or peer group associations, trade unions, and advisory councils are major nests of engagement where young people can get involved and develop the skills and network they need for a more extensive involvement in community development, politics, and governance.

The perverse stranglehold that cronyism, cultism, and thuggery have on these spaces limits young people’s interest and participation and is also to blame for the adversarial stance of stakeholders. It is therefore necessary to mobilise a network of interventions that strengthen the operation and independence of these structures and weaken the politically empowered grip of the identified ills.   

Thirdly, activities that institute and deepen citizenship education across all levels of the curriculum. Young people must learn about the country’s values and history, all of it, in the most comprehensive way possible through history, civic education, and cultural and community exchanges. 

The stronger sense of identity that young people develop when they have this knowledge is important for fueling patriotism and pride and, in some ways, incites a responsibility to uphold the values of their heroes or to do better by avoiding or correcting identified misdeeds.

Furthermore, activities that invest in young people’s capacities, networks, and partnerships. Education, industry, political empowerment, fellowships, scholarship, and sports are key pillars that automatically enable this. It is critical to provide funding and governance that will strengthen and continuously expand the capacities of these sectors.

Finally, activities that maximise the value of volunteerism and community service. Setting quality examples of public service and rewarding these values help create heroes. Our leaders must be prime examples of community-driven service and work to instill that consciousness in every Nigerian. We must encourage a community-first approach to development.

This is how to mobilise. For this mobilisation to be effective, the 2013 resolution of the United Nations General Assembly provides a thorough guideline: “… in consultation with youth-led organisations, to explore avenues to promote full, precise, structured, and sustainable participation of young people and youth-led organisations in decision-making processes.” 

Four markers must be met. The design and execution of these activities must be full and not merely consultative, as is currently the case; they must be precise and specific to the challenges and context; they must be measurable, time-bound, process-led, and have identified actors and anchors; and finally, they must have the ability to generate support and momentum to continuously replicate.

When these are achieved, young people will gain more influence in society. This influence will give them more space to thrive. More space will strengthen their voice. A stronger voice will deepen their influence, and the cycle keeps reinforcing itself. 

Echoing the words of the chairman, Conference of State Youth Speakers in Nigeria,  Rt. Hon. Toba Fatunla, “If you have not built us, you have no right to blame us.”

The burden of building falls first on the government; every other form of mobilisation can only be effective when built on this foundation. This is particularly important in light of the socio-political shifts happening nationally. If you are the head of a government at any level, a lawmaker, or a public servant, and desire to create #TheNigeriaWeWant—one that ensures security for every citizen—prioritising the above activities is a good place to start. 

This article is an excerpt from the fourth in a six-part series of public conversations on youth civic participation under  “Accelerating Youth Civic Participation in the FCT.” A PROMAD Foundation project supported by LEAP Africa and funded by the Ford and MacArthur Foundations.

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