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Young Nigerians Aim for Political Office as Alternative to Protests

FILE - Young people protest at the Lekki Toll Gate in Lagos, Nigeria, Oct. 21, 2020. The Lekki gate was the site where demonstrators were fired upon earlier in the week in an escalation that sparked global outrage.

Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari addressed the nation late Thursday in response to weeks of protests calling for greater youth inclusion in Nigerian politics and an end to police brutality. The president urged young Nigerians to stay out of trouble, but critics say his address failed to highlight vital issues that are driving the demonstrations.

Buhari's televised address came after nearly two weeks of widespread protests by thousands of youths in Nigeria.

But the broadcast which lasted about 12 minutes has been widely criticized by citizens and human rights activists who say it lacked empathy and did not address the shooting of protesters at the Lekki toll gate in Lagos Tuesday.

Human rights activist Aisha Yesufu has been part of the protests.

"It just shows you the kind of person that the president is, and the kind of government that he is running, and the reason why they never listen to the yearnings of the people. He seems not to care, that is why he will do a speech and will not even mention the people that were killed, he will not even mention their families," Yesufu said.

The protests to halt police brutality in Africa's most populous nation started out quickly and expanded to include a growing demand by Nigeria's younger citizens for better governance and inclusion in Nigerian politics.

In this photo released by the Nigeria State House, Nigeria's President Muhammadu Buhari addresses the nation in a live televised broadcast, Oct. 22, 2020.
In this photo released by the Nigeria State House, Nigeria's President Muhammadu Buhari addresses the nation in a live televised broadcast, Oct. 22, 2020.

But during his speech, Buhari said protesters may have misinterpreted his government's swift response to ban the SARS police unit as an avenue to make more demands and cause disruptions.

"Sadly, the promptness with which we have acted seemed to have been misconstrued as a sign of weakness and twisted by some for their selfish unpatriotic interests," Buhari said.

Nigeria's politics have been dominated by the country's older generation despite the country having a large youth population - more than 70% of Nigerians are below the age of 40.

Political analyst Ezenwa Nwagwu says many issues raised by protesters can only be fixed when citizens exercise their rights by voting during elections.

"You don't get political change from protests in a democracy. You can address a reform issue. But once you start saying bad governance, that is an election matter, when [time for] election comes you'll say this government is bad, and you present an alternative and people can vote. Ninety percent of the people who you see in the protests have no voter's card, they're not members of any political party,” Nwagwu said.

An escalation in violence during the recent protests has led to bans and curfews. But despite the president's warning for citizens to stay out of trouble, protesters will press ahead for the time being, says Yesufu.

"So, people are used to hearing the president of course saying something and not doing it and so his words don't mean anything. His words are not his bond and so the protesters, this was the reason why they kept saying that they will continue. They want to see action, they don't want mere words, mere rhetoric. No, they want to see the action on ground,” Yesufu said.

Buhari, a general in the Nigerian army before he become head of state, was elected in 2015 at the age of 72 and re-elected to a second term last year.

Nigerians pushing to have a younger or simply different leader occupying the nation’s highest political office will have to wait until the next general elections set for 2023.