By Fisayo Soyombo
This is a story of two popular but dissimilar Cynthias. One recently earned her fame, the other has been around for a while. One is a politician, the other a musician. One symbolizes intellect and strength of character, the other is unmistakably a sex symbol. One is Kenyan, the other Nigerian. One is Cynthia Muge, the other Cynthia Morgan. Each name could possibly be mistaken for the other, but surely not their stories.
Cynthia Morgan, 25, burst onto the Nigerian musical scene in 2010, aged just 19, after featuring in Jhybo’s Ejo le fe ro. The daughter of an Edo-based gospel artiste, Morgan’s music is anything but gospel. Her music videos are x-rated, replete with raunchy acts, salacious dancing and nude bathtub scenes, and offering very little for moral, intellectual or societal regeneration. A vain mind like the majority of her music-industry peers, Morgan once boasted of owning a N12million wristwatch.
Unlike Morgan, Cynthia Muge does not have N12million in her bank account much less own a N12million item. But she shot to limelight last week all the same. The 24-year-old, running as an independent candidate because she lacked the funds to obtain the Jubilee Party’s nomination form, defeated five men to secure the Member of Country Assembly (MCA) seat in Kilibwoni Ward, Nandi County.
Muge’s chances looked so slim that even her own mother advised her against running. Without the funds, the University of Nairobi graduate devised a social media and house-to-house campaign strategy. She polled 8,760 votes, while her closest competitor, Wilson Kiptanui of Jubilee Party, garnered 8,354 votes. She joins five other women in taking six of the 30 assembly seats available in Nandi.
From Granary to Parliament
If Muge’s story is enthralling, another’s is simply intriguing. John John Paul Mwirigi, 23, ‘broke’, jobless and an orphan, ran without a party against veteran politicians boasting membership of established political parties. He emerged victor, polling 18, 867 against Jubilee Party’s Rufus Miriti, who had 15, 411 votes. Three other seasoned politicians —Mwenda Mzalendo (7,695 votes), Kubai Mutuma (6,331 votes) and Raphael Muriungi, a Deputy Governor, two-time ex-MP and former Assistant Minister (2,278 votes) — placed nowhere near him.
The sixth child of eight children from his parents, Mwirigi still lives in his family home — a local granary in the community! He printed no campaign posters, and prosecuted his door-to-door campaign on foot until his former colleagues bought him a motorcycle.
False hopes in Nigeria
Considering the recent passage of the ‘not too young to run bill’ by the National Assembly, Mwirigi and Morgan have raised hopes, particularly on the social media, that twenty-year-olds could soon be winning elections in Nigeria. Not only is that impossible, even the older youth can only dream of elective public office. For the youth, there is at least one more secondary obstacle and many primary ones.
The ‘not too young to run’ bill seeks to give the Nigerian youth the kind of opportunity available to Kenyans; it wants the Constitution to lower the age requirement for occupying the office of the President to 30 years from 40 years, Governor to 30 from 35, Senate to 30 from 35, House of Representatives to 25 from 30 and State House of Assembly to 25 from 30. The bill also seeks to allow independent candidature in the country’s electoral process. For the amendment to become final, 24 state houses of assembly must approve the bill and the President must assent to it.
Although the green chamber favored the bill from scratch, the red chamber despised it and indeed threw it out after in November 2016, following opposition from majority of its constitution review committee. Last month’s positive about-turn was triggered only by agitation from a coalition of youth groups, most prominent of which was Samson Itodo’s Youth Initiative for Advocacy Growth and Advancement (YIAGA). That initial resistance of 2016 is likely to be the true position of the legislature and possible indication that the state houses of assembly could pass up the bill. Should this happen, YIAGA and co have a real battle on their hands. One-stop protests at the National Assembly is hard enough, but travelling round a minimum of 24 states on a lobbying/protest mission is surely not the simplest of tasks.
Nigeria isn’t Kenya
Mwirigi and Muge didn’t win in Kenya simply because the young could run or because the poor did not necessarily need to join a political party. As confirmed by Fatu Ogwuche, an elections technology consultant who observed the Kenyan polls, both of them had integrated themselves into their communities. They had a deep connection to the grassroots. Mwirigi had particularly been dreaming of a legislative position since Form 3, the Nigerian equivalent of Primary 3. Gradually, for well over a decade, he crept into the minds of Igembe South people by sitting and dining with them, and “helping them whenever” he could. When he rose to contest, they saw him as the product of their struggles, an aggregation of their individual parts. His campaign was as good as theirs; if he won, they did. That’s why they all keyed in.
Here in Nigeria, politically conscious youth cannot lay claim to a physical connection to the grassroots. The leading lights are all Twitter superstars and “social-media influencers”. Unfortunately, Twitter superstardom won’t deliver votes. Kenya proved that already with the defeat of its Twitter god, Boniface Mwangi, at the polls. Mwangi, a popular activist, currently has 738,000 followers on Twitter but he had only secured 11,714 votes as of the time he conceded defeat, while a candidate had double his votes and another had almost quadruple. This is not to say Mwangi is not loved both home and abroad. For example, his recent book, Mwangi UnBounded, was endorsed by the biggest names in literature and international politics, from Ngugi wa Thiong’o to Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. Still, he lost.
If we managed to find a Nigerian youth with the grassroots appeal who could contest as a stand-alone candidate to circumvent the huge financial burden of party politicking, he may not be alive to witness the end of his door-to-door campaign. That’s a hyperbole, but Nigeria’s population is nearly four times that of Kenya; any candidate who springs up a door-to-door campaign on foot or with an Mwirigi-like motorcycle is on a suicide mission and will be bogged down in exhaustion.
In all, money will continue to dominate Nigerian politics for the foreseeable future. Youth who are without godfathers, and are not money bags, may run but will predictably lose. If Nigerian youth do not get off the social media and properly set about the process of connecting with the grassroots, the ‘not too young to run’ bill will yield not-too-young-to-lose and still-to-young-to-win results. It would be fantastic for the bill to become law; opening up the political space to youth is great progress but securing victories is distant prospect still.