Professor Attahiru Jega, Bayero University, Kano Political Scientist and the immediate past Chairman of the Independent National Electoral Commission, (INEC) in Nigeria says it is time to shift the conversation on youth participation in politics from holding conferences to more practical action-oriented programming. He is, therefore, calling for greater concerted action to foster and increase youth participation in the political processes generally and in the electoral processes in particular.
Jega who was speaking at the 4th African Union Electoral Management Bodies Forum on “Harnessing Demographic Dividend Through Enhanced Youth Participation in the Electoral Processes” in Kigali in Rwanda yesterday commended the African Union Commission for organizing the forum but insisted it is time for the AU to initiate measures that would quickly result in the adoption of a “positive youth development approach” by member countries. Defining positive youth development approach as recognition and prioritization of youth as active participants in societal development in all its ramifications rather than as recipients of societal windfall, he is sure that such would go a long way to engender enhanced role of the youth in the electoral processes in particular and in the political processes in general.
Asserting how Africa’s youth bulge or the preponderance of people of 18 – 30 years and thereabout in the continent’s population embody a demographic dividend if carefully and purposefully harnessed, he, however, warned how the current levels of youth unemployment and other acute youth-related challenges in Africa could equally turn the youth bulge into a ticking time bomb if care is not taken.
“When/if, such a huge young population is characterized by unemployment or underemployment, inadequacy of educational opportunities and entrepreneurial skills and capabilities, afflicted by multifarious health challenges, in addition to marginalization, disenfranchisement and exclusion from the electoral and political processes, it becomes a potential source of socio-political and economic instability as well as acute crises and wide ranging conflicts”, Jega opined, adding that enhancing the active participation of the youths in the political and electoral processes had become tasks that must be vigorously pursued in Africa’s current circumstances. “The challenges to accomplishing these, which are many, must be systematically identified, analyzed and appropriately addressed”, he advised.
He disagreed with Kenya’s Professor Lumumba who has expressed concern that the predilections of young Africans with consumerism, crime and wrong role models may make them more corrupt in governance, than the older generations, saying instead that the youths could reposition Africa if given the opportunity of effective constructive engagement in politics. For him, “it is their exclusion and alienation from politics that frustrates them and makes them more aggressive in the pursuit unwholesome ventures, as coping strategies”.
Shifting his presentation to a number of leading questions, Jega asked of how and by whom might youth participation be enhanced; who bears the main burden in enhancement of roles; how, specifically, could youth themselves engage in the electoral processes?
While agreeing that the youth are not a homogeneous social category, he says they can in themselves enhance their participation in electoral process in different ways by working together, in youth-led groups and or in partnership with other youth-oriented or youth-friendly CSOs or by developing a common agenda. What is key for him is unity of purpose around a broad agenda for collective action. Youths should also not expect others to address and wage battles about their challenges for them while remaining indifferent. Rather, Jega, a political economist, would want youths to be on the forefront of advocacy and activism for the advancement of their collective interests, struggling for their rights.
This is in addition to forming broad based alliances and partnerships amongst a range of stakeholders working on youth political empowerment involving supranational, international and continental actors; national governments; credible civil society organizations and credible youth groups. This, he believes would catalyze enhanced participation of the youth. He is not ready to grant anything beyond the support and encouragement of youth-friendly, youth-oriented and youth-focused individuals, groups and organizations on this.
Arguing a crucial role for Election Management Bodies (EMBs) in catalyzing and enhancing the role of youth in the electoral processes, Jega recalled what he called the Nigerian experience since 2010 which he said shows clearly the extent and magnitude of constructive roles youth, youth-led and youth-focused CSOs played in bringing about electoral integrity, specifying such as the:
- Youth activists significantly contributed to INEC’s use of ICT in voter registration, in sensitization and public enlightenment, in the deployment of mobile and web-based platforms for verification of status of registration, for identifying which polling unit to go for voting, and in setting up and managing the highly impactful INEC Citizens’ Contact Center (CCC); a multi-media service for information dissemination, voter education and public enlightenment.
- Youth participating in the National Youth Service Corps Scheme (NYSC) and those in tertiary institutions performed generally commendable roles as voter registration officers and presiding officers during elections
- Youth role models, drawn from the music industry, Nollywood, Kannywood, sports and media, partnered with INEC and engaged in mobilization of youth for voter registration and for voting.
- Youth groups were very active in voter education and community mobilization, as well as in peace-building and conflict resolution.
- Youth groups created virtual communities for knowledge sharing, sensitization, enlightenment and empowerment
- Youth and youth-led groups were similarly very actively involved in election observation as well as in the networks of CSOs, with which INEC regularly held dialogues and consultative meetings for the conduct of elections with integrity.
He, therefore, expressed belief in how EMBs could pro-actively and carefully build mutual trust and confidence with stakeholders but said it requires them to be pro-active to sensitize, to mobilize, to enlighten and to engage youth and civil society organizations to expand the scope of youth involvement in the two fundamental ways he suggested earlier.