[This conversation was originally published in part 1 of ‘Narrative Power & Collective Action’, a collaboration between Oxfam and On Think Tanks. All conversations were edited by Louise Ball. Download the publication.]
Chioma Agwuegbo and Ibrahim Faruk are part of the Not Too Young to Run movement leadership group in Nigeria, and involved in the spin-off Ready to Run group. Chioma leads a social enterprise called TechHer NG, with a background in mainstream national and international media and communications. Ibrahim works for YIAGA Africa – a non-governmental organisation working on human rights and political participation.
It’s almost like people had to unlearn the old narrative that young people aren’t capable and learn a new narrative: that young people are able to lead, can also hold public office, can run for office and win and do as well as anyone else.
The Not Too Young To Run movement
[Ibrahim]: Since 2008, the movement has tried three times (and failed twice) to get a constitutional amendment to enable young people to run for public office. We wanted more young people to be able to stand as candidates in elections and to be represented in politics.
Finally, in 2018, the constitution was amended to allow people aged 25 and above to stand as candidates in elections for the House of Representatives and other offices, except for the Presidency and Senate, which we had to concede to stay at 35 years.
The third attempt, which began in 2016, applied lessons learnt from the previous experiences. This was also when we coined the name Not Too Young To Run.
Changing the movement’s name
The name change was incredibly important for the movement. It was previously known as the Constitutional Review Campaign. But this was vague and not exactly exciting, making it harder to connect with young people who were our primary constituency.
Not Too Young To Run quickly became a slogan and a hashtag that didn’t need further explanation. Young people started having fun with it and using it in their campaign posters.
It also helped to build cohesion in the movement. One of our strengths was that our movement reflected Nigerian diversity – whether that’s ethnicity, language, geography, or political affiliation. There are a lot of potential divides. Not Too Young to Run united us as young people regardless of our differences.
[Chioma]: Our structure and way of working also helped. We had several layers of managing the campaign.
We had our 14-person strategy team that all stayed on message, no matter the platform. And we worked closely together to ensure that we weren’t upsetting religious and cultural sensitivities. Those things are critical in Nigeria.
But it wasn’t just us 14. For each of Nigeria’s 36 states we had state coordinators, and behind them committees of young people engaged and connected.
Whatever conversation or debate we were having nationally, they were also happening across 36 states. If you are hearing the same message from Abuja, from the North, South, East, and West, that’s not the kind of voice you want to ignore.
We had 200+ organisations spread across the country who aligned with the bill. When we shared content in English, we had people turning it into other Nigerian languages. This helped to build consensus and the groundswell of support.
[Ibrahim]: Collectively we defined the values we stood for as a movement. This helped us to be clear when entering into collaborations with other organisations.
We weren’t going to budge on our values. Instead we were intentional in what we stood for. This helped us to continue singing from the same hymn sheet.
It is also why we built Ready to Run and why we continue as a movement. The constitutional amendment passed, but we have still a long way to go to really change the way society sees young people’s participation in politics and to shift that narrative fully.
What kind of narratives are you up against?
[Ibrahim]: Young people are questioned on their capacity to do things. This is not just a Nigerian thing. It is part of our African culture, where age is equated to wisdom.
There’s a culture of ‘respect’, where you show respect for elders and you have to wait for your turn to lead. Leadership is seen as the responsibility and exclusive preserve of a group, usually an older group of men.
The story goes that young people are impulsive, irresponsible, rash, inexperienced and don’t have the capacity to hold leadership positions.
This means there is a huge amount of pressure on young people and they are held to a much higher standard than older people.
Turning attacks from weaknesses into strengths
[Chioma]: One of our biggest critics, who had a 300,000 strong following on social media, said we had our heads in the sand, that the bill wasn’t popular and that it wouldn’t pass.
So we asked him to do a twitter poll to prove us wrong. We really wanted to hear what people had to say against it.
He ran the poll and based on the results we re-aligned our message. It gave us a ton of ideas of what to say and how-to say it. We wouldn’t have known that otherwise.
During the campaign we were called out for being elites working from Abuja. But we didn’t just respond, we used this attack to strengthen ourselves.
We adjusted our messaging: this is for everyone – go and find your state coordinator – sharing their contact details via social media and in doing so also making the network more visible and affording the state coordinators the visibility and credibility they needed to engage their legislators.
Strategies to shift the narrative
[Ibrahim]: It’s almost like people had to unlearn the old narrative that young people aren’t capable and learn a new narrative: that young people are able to lead, can hold public office, can run for office, and can win.
We celebrated young people who were proving these old narratives wrong. Those in technology, entertainment, sports, and NGOs who had broken the myth. Their visibility helps change the narrative.
When we ran a debate, we heard the arguments levelled against young people. We asked ourselves: what do young people need to be exposed to, to put them on a level footing with their older counterparts?
That’s why we evolved into Ready to Run, a platform that seeks to help young aspiring candidates and leaders to strengthen their own capacities.
We ran television shows and radio shows where young people could come and talk about their plans if they got elected into office.
We ran labs that connected them to existing young political figures or leaders so they could learn about the political realities.
Gradually we started to see a shift; people started to engage on the issues rather than the candidate’s age.
Lessons for others
[Chioma]: Change is slow and tough and will require making difficult political decisions
We had to make the decision to concede in some areas, which is why the Senate and the Presidency age still stand at 35.
Don’t try to go it alone
Nigeria is a country of 180 million people – you can’t do much just by yourself and succeed. Collaboration is key, engaging with people and building that support.
Something we learnt about accepting criticism is that it’s good, it gives you the data you need to realign your messaging.
Messaging is mad important
Defining what your message is, how to get your message out, ensuring your message is not distorted. Staying on message together is so critical.
[Ibrahim]: Learning from your mistakes makes those mistakes worth making
Those two first attempts did not meet our expectations but we learnt from them and it made us stronger.
Value the skills and networks that partners bring
We succeeded because everyone brought everything they had to the collaboration table.