On a Saturday afternoon, a few dozen people gathered in a hotel in Kafanchan, a town in Nigeria’s Kaduna state.
Something unprecedented was happening there: A 28-year-old woman named Ndi Kato was declaring her intent to represent her community at state parliament.
“I came to run for an election. I came to win an election,” Kato told the crowd, responding to a question about the seriousness of her political campaign. The crowd responded with boisterous applause.
Kato has been active in community projects, humanitarian work, youth and women empowerment, and she hopes she’s built enough clout to give her a win in this year’s primaries.
But there’s a problem.
She’s too young. Candidates vying for state parliaments in Nigeria have to be at least 30.
Kato is part of a new generation of Nigerian activists under the banner “Not Too Young To Run,” striving to take their place in the halls of power.
“I’m part of a group of young troublemakers that are creating change in the nation as we speak,” Kato told VOA.
Recent university graduate Ehi Enabulele said she was captivated by Kato’s interview on a local TV channel.
“The way she was talking, and how passionate she was, and what she was saying — she just resonated with me as a person,” Enabulele told VOA. “Ndi represents an idea that young people are not burdened by their age. It’s an advantage, if you ask me.”
A few days ago, Enabulele packed her bags and left the commercial hub of Lagos to volunteer in Kato’s political campaign.
It’s this recent wave of youthful enthusiasm that is driving Nigeria’s largest social movement to engage young people in politics.
More than 180 million people live in Nigeria, and more than half of them are below the age of 30. Yet, they are barely represented in political offices.
The Not Too Young To Run campaign has generated thousands of impressions on social media with its hashtag. Street demonstrations attended by prominent activists have given the movement the push it needed to gain widespread acceptance, though it was initially viewed with suspicion among elected officials.
“They felt threatened that young people would take over their seats, particularly parliamentarians,” said 28-year-old Hamzat Lawal, one of the founders of Not Too Young To Run.
“My generation has been malnourished politically. Over the years, we’ve been promised a lot but nothing has been given, so our generation is a generation of broken promises. And I felt that is our responsibility as activists and campaigners to bring that voice to the front burner.”
The campaign was able to gain parliament passage of a bill to reduce the age qualification for president from 40 years to 30, governor from 35 to 30, senator from 35 to 30, and House of Representative member from 30 to 25 years.
Having been passed by federal lawmakers and 35 out of Nigeria’s 36 states, the bill — sponsored by the Honorable Tony Nwulu in the Nigerian parliament’s lower house — is now waiting to be sent to Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari.
“I’m very confident that Mr. President will assent to the bill,” Nwulu, one of the bill’s sponsors, told VOA. “One, it addresses the injustice against the young people. Two, it reinforces or reemphasizes his commitment or his belief in the youth of this country. Thirdly, it is nothing but a compensation also for the young people who trooped out to support him in 2015.”
Backlash against Buhari
But many Nigerians are questioning Buhari’s commitment to empower youth. Speaking at a business forum in London earlier this month, Buhari said that a lot of Nigerians below the age of 30 have not been to school and “are claiming that Nigeria is an oil producing country, therefore, they should sit and do nothing, and get housing, health care, education, free.”
The comment spurred backlash and the #NigeriansAreNotLazy hashtag was generated a few weeks ago in response to Buhari’s comments and has been heavily used on Twitter. The 75-year-old president announced his bid for a second term, but he is losing support among the young.
Hamza Haruna was among the millions of young people who campaigned for Buhari in 2015 but said Buhari would not get his vote in 2019.
“Actually, he’s not encouraging the youth. Even if a lot of the youth did not go to school, what has the presidency done with regards to the education of the youth?” Haruna, a student leader at a university in northern Nigeria, said.
Nigeria has the largest number of school-aged children out of school — at least 10 million, according to UNICEF.
“He has failed in his fight against corruption. He has failed in regards to security. And he has failed the youth,” former Buhari-supporter and political analyst Murtala Abubakar told VOA.
Buhari has been accused of not fulfilling his promise to pay a monthly stipend to unemployed university graduates. The administration adamantly claims that Buhari never made such a promise.
Poverty is increasing across Nigeria, and many blame Buhari for the country’s economic woes. Kato believes she can help solve some of these problems.
“If the president does not sign this bill, everything we are building, everything everybody is leaning on right now, is going to go to flames,” she said.
What began in Nigeria is now spreading. Other African countries – namely Zimbabwe, Gambia and Kenya – are looking at their own age requirements for political offices. The Office of the U.N. Secretary-General’s Envoy on Youth, in partnership with the European Youth Forum, UNDP, and other organizations, initiated the global campaign, crediting Nigeria.
Lawal said he plans to re-visit the matter to advocate reducing the age requirement further to 18 years across the board.
“If you can vote at 18, then you should also be allowed to contest for the highest office in the land at 18,” he said.