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HARNESSING YOUTH POWER FOR EFFECTIVE NATION BUILDING

Mayowa Akinleye

In this piecewritten by Mayowa Akinleye, the Impacts and Communications Officer of PROMAD with contributions from the Founder Daisi Omokungbe, the author highlights the importance of the role of youths in nation- building,  citing some classical examples of youth contributions in time past as a basis for challenging and supporting them to participate in the current efforts. Please read on.

At 33, Zik was at the forefront of anti-colonial nationalism. At the age of 30, Anthony Enahoro initiated the motion for self-government that set the stage for Nigeria’s independence. Matthew Mbu was a foreign minister at 24, and Gen. Yakubu Gowon was head of state at age 32. Olusegun Obasanjo heralded the second republic as head of state at 39. 

The pro-democracy activism that toppled the military junta rode on several self-organised student union protests and the influences of young, vibrant Nigerians too numerous to mention. Across Nigeria’s history, young people have actively driven and contributed to the rocky metamorphosis of the country from pre-colonial times to an independent and democratic nation state. 

To be entirely analytical, this reality is an accident of history and not because of conscious efforts at youth empowerment or development activity at the time. Arguably, it was rather a consequence of the impressive education and functional governance framework present in the colonial era, as well as the numerous opportunities for socioeconomic mobility that the oil boom enabled.

This was eviscerated by the 1970s oil crash and the devastating impact on Nigeria’s socio-political and economic framework caused by the Structural Adjustment Policy (SAP) that followed. In the absence of a conducive context, the indices for building a strong, viable, productive, empowered, and active young population steadily weakened up to the point of distress that is our reality today. Kofi Annan was correct to say, “A society that cuts itself off from its youth severs its lifeline, and that society would definitely bleed to death.” Nigeria is definitely bleeding.

Why is a healthy nation an important outcome? What are the powers that make youth integral to building that reality? How can we build the systems that maximisethose powers? And who should be responsible? These are the key themes we will discuss in this article.

Power is aptly defined as the capacity to influence and induce change in a reality, whether positive or negative. Youth power, therefore, is the ability young people have to influence and force outcomes that suit their needs and expectations. This power can be observed from three main perspectives: characteristic, anthropological, and permitted. 

Characteristic power refers to the abilities that are naturally occurring among youth. Attributes such as curiosity, energy, creativity, and a high population density are the major points of leverage found in young people. 

Young people’s interactions with one another and with the larger society produce anthropological powers. It is a form of earned power that accrues from the application of their knowledge, skills, energy, and creativity within the limits and opportunities present in a society. This manifests as innovation, with Tech and Entertainment industries as obvious examples. Other forms are economic power, media influence, religious influence, expert influence, etc. This type of power varies across societies; young people will gain more anthropological power in developed first-world nations with strong functional democracies, e.g., the OECD countries, than in developing countries with weaker democracies, e.g., Nigeria. 

Permitted powers are abilities conferred on young people by society. It is derived statutorily from law, policies, culture, unspoken agreements, and responsibilities handed to young people by society. Traditional communities and cultures in Africa typically have a framework of roles, responsibilities, and enfranchisement that inculcates subservience and service in young people. This has had a thorough impact on the development of democracy. 

A shameful manifestation of permitted power that became common in the last decade is the patronage of political power brokers by young people in exchange for access and an opportunity to gain political power at the expense of dignity and verity. This is an indication of the bastardization of a critical tool for deliberate youth empowerment by the political elite, who strive to gatekeeppower and expand their personal influence by controlling the state, in a bid to dominate the public realm and use its resources to benefit themselves and their stooges while the commonality of civil society and all it stands to offer rots. 

Youth empowerment is not a carrot for rewarding blind loyalty, quelling protests, or sowing division among youth groups, as is now customary in Nigeria’s post-1999 democracy. It is a rather potent tool to find, mobilise, and expand the powers young people have. The three forms youth empowerment can take are; individual, organisational, and communal.

The current practice of youth empowerment in the country is targeted at the individual and is, at best, tokenistic. Interventions that single out specific young people, though useful, have dangerous ramifications when used alone. It creates a mindset of scarcity in young people that increases despondency and restiveness among the population.

Popular political leaders tout this activity as a magic pill and are too proud to announce the individuals they have helped rise to justify their election into office. This exemplifies the culture of dependency and patronage on which political influence is leveraged. This practice is harmful to effective nation-building as it rips the fabric of unity and cooperation by fueling division and strife. No people can truly grow under these conditions. It is also immoral to use an individual’s right to self-determination and a good life to bargain for political influence.

In today’s Nigeria, the power of youth in nation-building is undervalued. Young people can be agents of change and social progress. They can be a force for good if they are given the right tools and opportunities to participate in their communities. Harnessing youth power is essential for effective nation-building. Youth can play an important role in developing new ideas, addressing social issues, and creating a more equitable society. By engaging young people in meaningful dialogue and activities, we can create an environment that enables civic participation and encourages them to become active citizens. By investing in all and not some of its youth, nations will be able to build strong foundations for long-term progress and success.

The popular “Not Too Young to Run” law is a form of communal empowerment that confers permitted power on young people. Though not a silver bullet, it is a prime example of the whole-scale perspective that can effectively empower young people. Systemic interventions like this across sectors in education, health , industry, politics, and finance must be prioritised and thoroughly executed.

We must create opportunities for young people to get involved in civic participation, such as through volunteering, mentoring programs, or even running for office. We must also equip them with the skills they need to be effective citizens by providing access to quality education, resources, and support networks. With these tools, we can ensure that our youth grow into powerful agents of positive change in our communities and country.

Some factors, despite best efforts, impede this mission. Chief among them, aside from the gross selfishness of the current elite class and the lack of visionary leadership, is the rise of self-help. Derived as a consequence of the first two, young people have taken matters into their own hands and are reacting, not responding, to the current realities. This reaction is expressed in forms such as:

• Mindless pursuit of money (Cybercrime, kidnapping, rituals etc.)

• Violence ( Terrorism, Cultism, ethnic clashes, militancy & banditry)

• Physical escape – Japa (irregular & regular)

• Social escape – Drug use, Rebellious behavior, 

• Civic apathy 

These reactions create new problems, making it more arduous to integrate our people and forge a new path for youth empowerment and nation-building. Regardless, we must begin somewhere. It is necessary that the Nigerian youth see their quest for power and political voice not as a form of intergenerational “tussle,” but as a step toward expanding the democratic space in the country. The paradigm that views young people as a liability, not an asset, as a weed to prune, and not as a seed to nourish, must immediately change. 

Nigeria’s youth population is projected to be north of 100 million by 2030.  This offers substantial opportunities and associated risks. There is an immense opportunity for economic and social development if the talents of this increasing reservoir of human capital are productively harnessed and channelled. They could also pose a significant risk and threat to social cohesion and political stability if the country fails to create sufficient economic and employment opportunities to support decent living conditions

Stakeholders (government at all levels, philanthropists, parents, civil society, religious, political, and community institutions, and the private sector) must work together assiduously to ensure that; young people become aware of their capabilities and the opportunities available to them; they believe in their power to achieve their goals; they gain competence and become self-confident; they have power and control over resources; they have access to decision-making processes and structures; and a conducive context for sustainability is created.

Finally, the quality of permitted power that is allowed young people has a direct impact on the anthropological powers that youth can derive from that society. The anthropological power that youth possess is the nerve of effective and sustainable nations. Effective people build effective nations. Duriapiah sums it up succinctly.

 “Only through large-scale, inclusive participation, followed by concrete proposals by decision makers, can the voices of young people become truly representative of their generation. If young people do not participate in civic society and public policy debates from the beginning, this will affect their ability to become responsible leaders in the future.”

Build the youth! Build the nation!. Destroy the youth! Destroy the nation!

This article is an excerpt from the second of 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 Ford and MacArthur Foundations.

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