Many called Chike Ukaegbu’s bluff when he announced he was running for the highest office in Nigeria at the age of 35. The New York-based tech entrepreneur was entering a world largely dominated by older politicians with deep pockets. Popular wisdom suggested he stood no chance at the polls.
A year ago, he would not have been able to put up his candidacy.
Politics in Nigeria was closed to younger candidates up until the Not Too Young To Run bill – championed by a youth movement – succeeded last year in lowering the ages for elected offices.
Ukaegbu is part of the new cohort of young aspirants taking advantage of the eligibility law to demand their seats at the table.
Nigeria has recycled the same crop of older leaders for decades.
President Muhammadu Buhari first ruled Nigeria in 1983 as a military head of state. He returned as a democratically elected president in 2015.
The 76-year-old president is standing for re-election in February 16, and his main challenger is Atiku Abubakar, 72, Nigeria’s former vice president, who has also been long in the corridors of power.
Nigeria 2019 election coverage
“What I am doing is not unprecedented in Nigeria. It was 31-year-old Yakubu Gowon that led the country out of a civil war,” Ukaegbu said.
“The only problem is that our generation of millennials has not seen any young dynamic leader in Nigeria, and it’s now an anomaly for us when we see a young person going into politics, and it should not be.”
The old guard
Millennials make up more than 60% of Nigeria’s 190 million people, yet older leaders preside over its affairs.
The dominance of the old guard is deeply rooted in corruption, Leonard Raphael, Nigerian political commentator and research fellow at the University of Sussex, told CNN.
Only candidates with deep pockets and wealth amassed from the nation’s resources have emerged victorious in past elections, Raphael said, shutting out younger aspirants and newcomers without a “war chest” to finance their campaigns.
To rattle the older order, young contestants need to “sell themselves to the populace” and those building their political presence from scratch often do not have the resources.
“Electoral violence and rigging, vote buying and money politics have been the negative trend since 1999 and by previous leaders. The ‘do or die’ attitude to elections has been the bane of our politics and this has yet to change,” Raphael said.
The situation in Nigeria mirrors that in many other countries across the continent.
Despite its young population, Africa has been under the grip of older leaders, widening the gap and disconnect between the leadership and the electorate.
In the Horn of Africa, Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed is sparking hope for a new reform.
At 42, Abiy is the youngest head of government in Africa and has since championed radical changes since he came into power in 2018.
His performance has triggered calls for youthful government across Africa, but older leaders remain elsewhere.
Cameroon’s 85-year-old president Paul Biya was elected for a seventh term last October, extending his 36-year rule in the country. More than