The Director of Programme, Yiaga Africa, Cynthia Mbamalu, shares with TOBI AWORINDE her journey as a public policy advocate..
What was your childhood like?
I was born on October 20, 1988, in Anambra State. At the time, my parents were living in Obosi, Anambra State. I believed I was born in Obosi. However, the other day, my mum mentioned that the hospital was actually in Ogidi. I attended Maria Ines Nursery and Primary School in Obosi. That was probably the first time I fell in love with education because it was run by reverend sisters from some parts of Africa and Latin America but I don’t remember what congregation they came from. I don’t know if the school still exists.
Because I was a kid, I don’t remember so much more. But I’ve always had a very good feeling whenever I think of my childhood because I think that was the school that set me on the path that I’m on because I was very active in school.
I was one of those who participated in speech-making competitions, dance, and drama. I have pictures from those events and, usually, I hear my mum teasing me whenever I go on television to talk. She says, ‘This thing started long ago.’ Back then, my dad would stay up with me at night, helping me cram my recitations and things like that. It was an educational system that wasn’t conventional, even at that little age and I just attended nursery school and the first term of Primary 1 there before we moved out of Anambra. But they were really involved in our lives and I was quite active in the school.
My parents, at the time, were science teachers at Obosi Girls Secondary School and the day we were leaving, the reverend sisters came to see us off. I still have vivid memories of them hugging me and running after the car, crying, because I was quite popular. I also remember hugging them back and crying as a kid.
What other schools did you attend?
After we moved out of Lagos for a short month, we moved again to Abuja. I attended Primary 1 in Wuse 1 Primary School, which is a Local Education Authority primary school in Wuse Zone 2, Abuja. From Primary 2 to Primary 5, I transferred to another LEA primary school called Wuse 3 Primary School located in Zone 6.
For my Primary 6, we moved and my parents wanted us to go to a school closer to the house, so I moved yet again to an LEA primary school called Pilot Science Primary School in Wuse Zone 5. I completed primary school and took the Common Entrance Exams in 1999 and I remember my score then was 545. I used to be smart when I was a kid.
Then I got admission into Federal Government Girls College, Bwari, Abuja and resumed in September 1999. Then I attended University of Jos, where I studied Law and my Master’s was in Central European University, Hungary.
When did you begin your university programme?
My (UNIJOS) matriculation number says ‘05’ but we did not resume immediately in 2005 because of the school system, so I think we officially resumed early 2006, but I am a member of the 2005 set. We graduated in 2011 because Law is a five-year course and there were strikes because, at the time, there was a long strike in 2009, we were out of school for more than six months and then there was also the Jos crisis and whenever there was a crisis, they shut down the school. I then went to the Nigerian Law School in the October batch of 2011 and was called to the Bar on November 20, 2012.
As an undergraduate, you were a member of several delegations to the National Assembly to campaign for the reduction of age to run for elective office as recognised by the constitution. How early on did you start to pay attention to issues involving the youth in society?
For one, I have always been very active wherever I’ve found myself. For instance, in university, I was a prefect. I remember that one of the reasons I studied Law was because I was interested in human rights and justice. At first, I wanted to go into acting and the other option (for me) was Law. I was so passionate about Law because of the human rights angle of that. In my second year in the university, we took a course on constitutional law; we also took a human rights course. I think those were very important courses that really informed a lot of the work I’m doing today.
I remember our professor of constitutional law then had given us this task: ‘Nigeria is a failed state. Discuss.’ It was basically to talk about why you agreed or disagreed. Just having that discussion, at the time, it seemed like there were lots of issues we needed to fix in the country. But within that conversation, as a young person, I thought: Will the government listen to me if I share my views? If I told them this is the problem with the system, would they listen to me? How many people in the government look like me? Do we have young people in the government?’ We didn’t seem to have that.
In terms of people’s rights, we talk about fundamental human rights, civil and political rights and socio-economic rights. We had a debate with classmates on the topic ‘Are people enjoying their human rights in Nigeria?’ For me, the interest in promoting (equal rights) for youth was about ensuring that in the conversations around national development, enforcement or protection of the fundamental human rights, young people were playing a central role and the youths’ voices would be represented in government.
I felt that ‘as a young person, I understand my problems better and if I have someone like me representing me in the government, then we will have policies that can address my problems.’ I think there was also a thing about fear: If this country has these issues and we think it’s a failing state at that level now that I’m a young person, what would happen when I’m older? So, it was a matter of ‘we need to do something today if we want to have a better tomorrow.’ It was about taking action at that point. All of these were major turning points in my life and it just got me interested in governance, issues about politics, the Constitution and how it can be the main tool to influence socio-political change.
Is that what led to the creation of Yiaga Africa?
Yes. We started Yiaga Africa in my second year at the university. Yiaga Africa’s programmes at the time were within the university, we used to have the Democracy Dialogues, where we would have 20 to 30 students talking about what democracy is. I remember the first meeting we had, we had written to the Nigerian Bar Association and it gave us copies of the Constitution. We distributed copies to students who came in. Most of our conversations were around democracy and the role of young persons in democracy. Subsequently, we started looking at the Constitution: ‘If young people want to contest, can they even run for office? What is the age for contesting an office?’
At first, there were five of us who started Yiaga Africa, then two others later joined. Some people were coming and going. It was first a student association before it became a non-governmental organisation. In 2009, we submitted a memo for the national review committee of the Senate at the National Assembly requesting for the reduction of age to contest for office, among other things.
Was there a requirement for members to join the group?
At the time, we were just a couple of friends talking. But interestingly, probably 85 per cent of us had done some work together before, so there used to be a Youth Friendly Centre in UNIJOS and it was basically focused on reproductive health. I had joined for a couple of months as a student. I was one of those who would go for campaigns in the hostels talking about safe sex and reproductive health among students. The Youth Friendly Centre was an initiative of the National Agency for the Control of AIDS. Some of us met there and started talking, the others were also classmates.
There were also those who were connected because of the work, but subsequently, it was more about people that were passionate about governance. So, if you wanted to join, we who were the foundation members would always ask, ‘What do you think about Nigeria? Do you care about the country? What are your thoughts about change?’ Our main criteria were more about passion for the country, people committed to development and wanting to do things differently as young people, not just looking for money, because we were very clear – we didn’t want to be those student groups that would give awards to people and get money. We didn’t want to become politicians. We knew what we wanted, so for any young student whose interest was ‘who are we going to meet,’ we just knew that ‘this is not where you belong.’ We actually set up a human rights club in the university, which was called Youth Action Initiative and it later became Youth Action Initiative Africa.
How were you able to push through the setbacks of getting the #NotTooYoungToRun Bill enacted?
Like I mentioned, the push for the reduction of age dates back to 2009. It was not considered at the time. When the constitutional review process started again in 2012 under (former President Goodluck) Jonathan, I remember we worked with several youth organisations under the Youth Alliance on Constitution Review and Electoral Reform. It was a national coalition of youth groups promoting inclusion and we had put together a memo. Then, they had zonal public hearings, so we had members of the coalition representing our team. The proposal for age reduction, which was just one of it (our demands), was recognised by the House of Representatives in its report from the zonal hearing. The Senate didn’t, so we didn’t achieve that success at the time.
In 2015, post-election, we had done a youth candidacy analysis to ascertain how many young persons were candidates. One of the findings from that report was that we had a reasonable number of young people contesting but we knew that we also had people who, even if they had won, their elections would have been overturned by the courts because they were below the minimum age of 30 for members of the House of Representatives and state assemblies, 35 for the senators and governorship and 40 for President. That report revealed that some of these young people were not qualified by age. Using all of that and learning from the previous engagement, we decided to do something different in 2015/16.
First, we started doing some work with legislators in the National Assembly. Under them, we had the Young Legislators Accountability Project supported by the Open Society Initiative for West Africa. One of the things the project did was it also created that opportunity to build relationships with some lawmakers because we needed some lawmakers who would sponsor this as a private member’s bill, which was what informed Tony Nwulu, who sponsored the bill in the House of Representatives. Senator AbdulAziz Nyako sponsored it in the Senate.
The bill actually had the proposal for age and independent candidacy, but in the end, only that of age scaled through. Because we had learnt from previous engagements, we decided to build a movement around this, not make a coalition or Yiaga thing, but make it a Nigerian youth thing, so that young people were leading it across the board. So, if you look at the #NotTooYoungToRun structure, we had this strategy team at the centre made up of young people from different fields with different capacities, strengths and resources, who made decisions. By the time the bills were presented in the Senate and at the House, and it had passed first reading, we also started anticipating that this would go to the state level, apart from being passed at the national level. We didn’t want to wait for the national (legislature) to pass it before engaging them at the state level.
What role did the strategy team play?
One of the things we decided to do at the strategy team level was to get state coordinators who would build leadership teams at the state level to begin the advocacy there. By the first quarter of 2017, we had started capacity-building for state coordinators and the training was around organising for policy and legislative reform. The state coordinators had the duty to go back and set up a leadership team of young people from different fields, interests —women, persons with disabilities, and so on. They also set up their state-level teams and the goal was whatever we were doing, we would communicate and be working as a unit but taking different actions at the same time so that we’re putting the right pressure.
But before that, we looked at the name and did not want to make it boring by calling it a ‘constitution amendment,’ we wanted to give it a name that would trend, hence the hashtag, #NotTooYoungToRun. So, a lot of young people may not even know the details of the bill that was signed because it is actually titled, ‘The Age Reduction Bill.’ However, a lot of people know it as the #NotTooYoungToRun Bill because, by the time the name was trending online, everything we were doing was building a movement. It is a name that young people connected with at the time and still connect with nationally.
Do you have any plans of starting a family soon?
Yes. There is a plan for that. Family is key to me and I think family plays an important role in society. I look forward to having more sons than daughters. I don’t know how many – it could be one boy and one girl. I feel we need to raise more men that are feminists and understand the importance of seeing the female gender as equal partners. And I think it begins from the home. It is one thing I look forward to about having kids; it is raising my sons and daughters to be the best versions of themselves.
I also believe in adoption, so I know I will adopt at some point because I think it is a culture that we need to promote in this part of the world. There are lots of children that need that structure of a family and love from homes, and I always advise people that ‘if you can, adopt a child, adopt two.’ Or if you don’t want to adopt personally, you could start taking care of one in one of the orphanages or homes for (underprivileged) kids. But I really believe in that because we need to make it a culture here. That is one of the things I look forward to when I’m starting a family. And when I finally find the right man to be the father of my kids, we will say, ‘I do.’
Source: The Punch