Being a keynote address delivered by Senator John Owan Enoh, at an event organized to drum support for the Not-too-young-to-rule initiative
It is a pleasure to be here with you today and I thank the organizers for inviting me to speak on this platform. I believe that this noble initiative which is geared towards raising the consciousness of our youths in politics and governance is quite apt and desirable at this auspicious time in our chequered history as a people. On that note, I must applaud the thoughtfulness and timeous disposition of the initiators of this forum. This forum is in tandem with the prevailing and ever increasing advocacy for youths involvement in politics in our clime.
Recently, the Nigerian Senate acceded to the popular demand by passing the “Not Too Young to Run Bill 2017” to foster inclusiveness in the demography of political participation in the country. The bill has reduced the age for elective offices in the country. It stipulates that Nigerian youths can contest for President at 35, Governor and Senate at 30 while House of Representatives and State Assembly can be contested at the age of 25. At the moment, the bill is awaiting concurrence by the House of Representatives and two-third majority of the 36 State Houses of Assembly for it to become an Act. You would agree with me that the Senate has broadened the space for electoral contest and has bridged the gap of age disparity in political participation in Nigeria.
The clamour for youth's involvement in politics and governance in our country has never been more recursive. This apparently innocuous contention is reverberating across our landscape unabatedly lately.
However, a peep into our nation's history would reveal that the key actors and drivers of our political evolution were actually the youths. Shehu Shagari became a Federal Legislator at 30, Maitama Sule was a Minister at 29, and Anthony Enahoro moved the motion for independence in 1954 at the age of 27. All our founding fathers were in their 30s at independence except for Nnamdi Azikiwe who was in his early 40s. I am pleased to announce to you that at the inception of Nigeria's political journey, Cross River State youths at that time were well represented by Late Ambassador Mathew Tawo Mbu who became a Minister at only 25 and Nigeria's High Commissioner to the United Kingdom at 26 years old.
The young MT Mbu got into the fray at a very tender age and left a legacy that would bequeath posterity and dwarf the agitations of the present day youths in Cross River State in particular and Nigeria in general. The widely held view that youths have been shortchanged and relegated in our political space is rather doubtful if history is anything to go by.
Many of us have blamed the seeming inability of the present day youths to properly assert themselves in our political turf on the theory of conspiracy by the elite class. While this perception is not entirely incorrect, recent history is replete with examples of young people who stepped up to the plate and had resounding electoral victories against some well known members of the elite class in our society. In 1999, former Governor Donald Duke at only 37 contested the PDP primaries against the highly cerebral and very popular Senator Kanu Godwin Agabi, SAN who was over 50 at the time. The much younger Donald Duke won the primaries and went on to become our state's helmsman for 8 unbroken years. The immediate past governor of our state, Senator Liyel Imoke became a Senator in 1991 at the age of 30.
Perhaps the story of my political trajectory would also suffice here. I had 7 years stint in the academia in the Department of Sociology, University of Calabar where I built capacity and exposure as a lecturer. In 1998, during the botched transition program of the late Head of State, Gen. Sanni Abacha, I got involved in partisan politics and took a shot at electoral contest where I vied for a seat in the Cross River State House of Assembly to represent my State Constituency. I contested the election on the platform of an unknown and very unpopular political party at the time, Grassroots Democratic Movement (GDM). My party had no secretariat or office in my Local Government Area but I was able to mobilize the youth population and I eventually won the election against someone on the platform of a popular and a more visible political party. The sudden death of Gen. Abacha truncated that democratic experiment in the country and “the rest” as they say, “is now history”. I was only 32 years when I resigned my job in the university to vie for an elective office in the said year (i.e. 1998).
At the turn of this present 4th Republic in late 1998 after the demise of the then Head of State, I resumed my quest to serve. With focus and determination to offer a people-centered representation in parliament, in 1999 at barely 33 years old, I took another shot at electoral contest and won a seat in the State House of Assembly where I represented Etung State Constituency. My eyes were fixed on the ball and my vision was clear on what I wanted; I went for it with an effective youth mobilization strategy. We must admit that democracy is a game of numbers and the youths have the demographic majority – the youths control the majority of votes cast during elections across the country. It is therefore inexcusable for the youths to be complaining of marginalization from the sidelines.
The strength of any electoral victory is in the numbers and the youths hold all the aces with regards to their numbers and productive energy. In fact, I've always believed in the capacity of the youths to win elections. It is not so much about money as some of you may erroneously think as it is with good mobilization and coordination of yourselves to take the reins of political leadership. My testimony is a case in point. I didn't start with money because as a lecturer in the university, my salary was less than N20, 000 a month. So I couldn't have attained the feat of becoming a Senator of the Federal Republic of Nigeria if I had depended on money from the outset of my political career. However, the youths must first develop capacity for leadership. Leadership without the capacity to render service or the desired deliverables to the people is in itself a disaster. Political leadership or governance is a social contract; therefore no one should seek power for the sake of it.
That brings me effectively to the topic I was given which is, “Political Leadership: A Call to Serve”. This is most central and topical to the discourse on why anyone should aspire to a political office whether elective or appointive. Service is at the root of any political engagement and it should form the fulcrum of an individual's aspiration to lead at any level. In a society such as ours that is plagued by a catalogue of developmental challenges-a situation where so many things are out of sync, the ambition for political leadership must be centered on problem-solving. It goes without saying therefore that the first instinct that should bolster our passion for politics is the ability to engender creative solutions to societal adversities. The ability to rise to the occasion and propose credible antidotes to our festering malaise as a people should be the defining edge of political leadership.
Participating in government should not be seen as a luxury or status symbol by any standard but as an enormous responsibility to strive to meet the needs of the people. To all intents and purposes, government exist in the interest of the common good and the underlying reason for aspiring to a public office is to offer service that would enhance the living standard of the majority of the people. In our local parlance, politics is often said to be a game of interest. The question I find extremely galling is: Of whose interest is it? This is a rhetorical question that must agitate the minds of all of you here as young and emerging political leaders. Until this question is rightly answered and put in perspective, the quest for leadership in our polity will not only be wrong but it would also turn out to be a bewildering enterprise.
Political leadership is skewed against the people when personal interest in the power equation overrides the public interest. On the other hand, when public interest is at the heart of our pursuit for political leadership, then service delivery becomes the resultant outcome. Evidently, given the breadth and complexity of our heterogeneous formation, most people who go into politics are particularly attentive to the proverbial “national cake”. A metaphor that has haunted our nation's development over the years. That's the sobering reality because what we have seen often times is a promiscuous assemblage of people with diverse self-serving interest jostling to take up leadership positions at different levels of governance. It should not be the case. Service should underlie anyone's crave for leadership. For me, the reverse side of what leadership really means is service. You can therefore not lead without serving.
I understood early in life that the best way I can find myself is to lose myself in service to others. That is the guiding principle of my life and relationship with others. Even as a university teacher, I felt deeply obligated and duty-bound in serving my students. I must emphasize that service does not start at the point of your involvement in politics or when you hold a public office. You must recognize that every interaction you have is an opportunity to make positive impact on others. That is where service starts from. It starts from those things that appear somewhat insignificant. If you fail at that point, there is the likelihood that you won't succeed in leadership politically. Service is an attitude or the curriculum of life. It was late Dr Martin Luther King JR, the effante terrible of civil rights movement in the United States of America who put it quite succinctly when he said, “Life's most persistent and urgent question is, what are you doing for others?” This is another important question you must ruminate on before taking that plunge into politics. The legendary boxer Muhammed Ali once said, “Service to others is the rent you pay for your room here on earth”.
In the words of the all time genius, Albert Einstein, “Only a life lived in the service to others is worth living”. That's my motivation. As a politician and a lawmaker, I wake up every morning with the deep-seated conviction that my people entrusted me with their sacred mandate and I must be the reason why they should smile. To that end, in my representation in parliament I go the extra mile with the understanding that political leadership comes with an eternal debt of servitude. I get so inspired by the prayer of St Francis of Asisi who said, “It is in dying to self that we are born to life”. So over and above the titles, incentives, other paraphernalia and perks that go with political leadership, service to the people is the underlying factor.
Having examined some highly acclaimed political leaders and great heroes like Julius Nyerere, Nelson Mandela, Mahama Gandhi, Aminu Kano, Obafemi Awolowo, John F. Kennedy and others, I discovered that the driving force behind the fame they still enjoy years after their demise is actually the service they rendered to humanity when they had the privilege to lead. From my personal experience in politics and public office, for leadership to be impactful, it must start with an end in mind. That simply begs the question, what do you want to achieve and be remembered for after being entrusted with public office? According to Stephen R. Covey, success in leadership must” begin with an end in mind”.
Leaders by all parameters are change makers. When you are called to lead, you are called to advance and improve the situation you met. I hold the view that leaders become great, not because of the power and influence they wield, but because of their ability to empower others. I'm also persuaded that leaders must be close enough to relate with the people and feel their pulse. It is against this backdrop that I get a great sense of fulfillment and mental comfort for giving myself to service as much as I've always done. I daresay that there is no greater reward in political leadership than service to the masses of our people.
I wish you happy deliberations and God bless you.
Thank you all!