By Muyiwa Adetiba
It was the last day of the long weekend and the second day of the public holiday. This gave me a good reason to stay in bed—not that I needed one since every day is a holiday of sorts to a self-confessed retiree. It was also a grey, cold morning which served as an added bonus. Then the phone rang. It was to be fair, at a time when the person on the other side felt normal people including retirees, should have been up and about. It was from Bola, himself a retired military officer, who called to say he was back in the country after an extensive stay abroad.
We talked about the country he had just come back to and the mindless brinksmanship of its component ‘youths’ and ‘elders’ which could easily lead to war and disintegration. We also talked about aging—a common topic among my friends these days—and the frightening reality that the day of reckoning was drawing closer and closer. As a Military Officer, the issue of death was something he had come to terms with very early in his career. He had one on me in that respect. We had barely finished when Dayo, a classmate called to remind me of the funeral service of another classmate scheduled for the weekend. Then Kingsley, my medical doctor neighbour called to inform me of yet another death. This was not how to start a day and it made the morning colder and greyer. It also made me pensive. The previous day, Uncle Sam had told me about the death of Mr Paul Agboola, a fine gentleman if ever there was one, and one of his oldest friends which he said occurred while I was away.
So I stayed in bed; not to sleep but to think about life and the inevitability of death. Then the music of Lionel Ritchie waffled through the air. Now Ritchie, during and after the Commodores, was one of the favourite musicians of my youthful days. Normally I would just have hummed the song, but that morning, for some reasons I have not yet analysed—it could be the greyness of the weather, the greyness of my mood and the awareness of my mortality—memories of my youth came flooding in with the song. Along with the escapades and scrapes, I suddenly realised that the largest body of my literary work was done in my 20s. I am awed and wistful now when I think of the quantity—and quality—of the interviews I did back then which I took for granted because I thought they would keep coming. Or the places I went to which I have never been able to visit again. For example, when I interviewed Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe in 1978, it never occurred to me that it would be my last time of visiting that beautiful African country.
It is not peculiar to me. Most people are at their most productive in their youth. Youth is the time to dream, to idealise, to revolutionise, to change your environment and if possible, the world. It is the time of boundless energy; of possibilities. And when the song: ‘We are the world’ came out, I thought Richie and Jackson were talking directly to me and my generation. We were the youths and therefore the world. We were the ones who would make the world a better place.
Unfortunately, youthful energy can easily be misdirected. Youthful perception can easily be rose tinted. For many youths, it is either black or white. Yet most of life is about grey areas. It is the time mistakes are recklessly made because of the belief that there is time to make amends. Yet time goes by so quickly. I should know. Today, many of the stars of my generation—athletes, actors and musicians—are in a pathetic state. Many are broke and broken. Many are bankrupt and in oblivion. Coming nearer home, I am not too happy about the place many of those I partied with in the 70s are at today or some of the bright people I started journalism with. Yet, it usually boils down to the road taken or not taken and the quality of advice given.
In this regard I will say I have been lucky to have had people who took to me and gave advice that kept me grounded. Sam Amuka, Jibade Thomas, Eddie Aderinokun, Alhaji Jakande were some of the people who directly impacted my early professional life. And I will forever remember and appreciate the advice given by Sir Alex Akinyele and Alhaji Alade Odunewu when I first became Editor of a national newspaper. I was in my 20s with the world seemingly at my feet. But they told me in a nut shell, at different times by the way, that I should look beyond the moment to the time when the job and position would be given to someone else. That I should look at my predecessors and learn from them. All youths need people—‘especially those who have been there and done it’—to advise them, to mentor them and not to use them.
Unfortunately, many of our youths are being used and abused. They are being used as pawns in political chess games; as cards in religious poker games; as expendable chips in tribal casinos. They are being used, abused and dumped by politicians and elders. They are being used physically as foot soldiers and virtually as blackmail tools. The scars are there in their bodies and in their minds. Physically, they become the kidnappers and armed robbers; mentally, they are the ones who occupy the virtual space spewing venom and hatred on the internet. Many are so twisted that it would take a miracle to straighten them. Yet, straighten them we must if they are not going to spend their twilight years—if they make it that far—in regret and self-loathing. The world belongs to the youths; has always been, will always be. But it should be the time of dreams and not of nightmares. A time to build and not to destroy. Our politicians—whether military or civilian—should learn to be more responsible and less self-serving. It is wicked of these politicians to use the youths as cannon fodders in their wars without a thought to the long term effects.
The time has come to build their self-confidence and belief in the country. Otherwise, Nigeria might not survive their generation. Its apt I think, to end this piece with a Yoruba proverb. “Omo ti a ko, a gbe ile ti a ko ta.” It’s a play of words which simply means: ‘A child you have neglected to nurture will sell the inheritance you have laboured to build.’