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An Independence Day challenge to Nigeria’s youth

By Tabia Princewill

Nigeria we hail thee, our own dear native land, though tribe and tongue may differ, in brotherhood we stand”—do these discarded words mean anything to anyone today?

A large number of young people have come of age with only the unprincipled acts and manipulations of a dysfunctional political elite to guide them. How disappointed those who fought for our independence would be if they could see us now, fighting each other on the basis of religion or ethnicity, rather than banding together to fight our oppressors, like they did. Democracy has not made enough of a difference to our common development.

P&ID

Fifty-nine years later, we still struggle to provide for ourselves and to give our people even the most basic amenities, all due to the selfishness and greed of a few. I have said many times in this column that bad leadership (and corruption, its twin) are the principle issues holding Nigeria back. If young people do not begin to take hold of political processes, pay more attention and get involved, we might be having the same fruitless debates in yet another generation. Social media is powerful. This quick and easy flow of information could be used by young people to re-direct conversations and to shape the political agenda.

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After all, in a country of nearly 200 million people, where more than half are under the age of 25, young people are the largest demographic and hold the true power to create change should they wish to do so. Yet, most young Nigerians have been content with tokenism, many are all too happy to represent a lone “youth voice” on the board of a political party, or whatever other organisation, where they pretend to advocate for social issues while doing their masters’ bidding. None so far have been able to credibly discuss a new agenda for Nigeria in the public space (without accusations of them being sponsored by certain interests) or galvanise their peers to form real pressure groups to hold governments accountable and think tanks which can create convincing policies. Young people in Nigeria are waiting to be given a chance to join government, they wait to be invited to sit at the table where decisions are taken.

The truth is that opportunity will never come unless they take it. Many aren’t even interested in politics. There are some (not all) whose brains have been deadened by fashion and lifestyle, encouraged by the media which treats women and young people like perpetual infants, offering them only basic, unintelligent entertainment and convincing them that is all they have to aspire to or can ever be interested in.

There are others (perhaps the majority) who believe that politics simply isn’t for them, that things will get done by some other people, some other time. In this group, you find many who despite their fancy education in foreign schools think of Nigeria in a purely utilitarian manner, much like their parents, the wheelers and dealers who ally with any government in power and have taught their children that the only loyalty that exists is to oneself. This self-interested group dominates the social conversation, while everyone else in Nigeria struggles to mimic their foreign accents and is desperate to match their bank accounts by whatever means.

Some members of this group criticise Nigeria, look down on ordinary Nigerians who haven’t had the same opportunities as them to advance themselves, they mock everyone who isn’t like them, relentlessly never stopping to ask themselves who they would be if they hadn’t been fortunate enough to gain so much simply by virtue of their birth. Some hate Nigeria despite the many opportunities afforded them because of their social standing and familial connections. To fit in with this minority group, or rather, because they were never taught to be critical thinkers, solution-oriented or self-reliant (not by an educational system which keeps lowering standards and promoting mediocre thinking), the majority of young Nigerians, who have lived all their lives in Nigeria, who don’t benefit from “man know man” and the Nigerian aversion to competence and meritocracy, should care what happens to Nigeria because unlike the first category whose parents have planned escape options for them if Nigeria “doesn’t work out”, they have nowhere to go and must make Nigeria work.

Curiously, this second group feeds into the negativity about Nigeria without realising the role it could play, the force for change it could represent if it got organised around a real agenda and campaigned amongst its peers on impactful issues, not empty debates on “islamisation” or political restructuring to benefit politicians. By watching and moaning without ever participating in the political process or the discourse that shapes the issues, young Nigerians convince themselves that they too hate Nigeria, that it is only natural to do so because backwardness is a constant, a fixture they can’t cope with.

I am always puzzled by the fact that young people are so quick to abandon their stake in Nigeria by adopting the flippant, dismissive attitude of those who can afford not to care because they benefit from the system’s dysfunction. Nigerians generally turn everything into a joke, aided by politicians who are all too happy to sing and dance on camera, videos of which go viral on social media, further adding to the impression that everything in Nigeria is to be joked about. Young people don’t realise their power. They have the numbers needed to shake up the political system during any election. Unfortunately, we are no longer breeding discerning individuals who are ready to put the common good first nor do we reward those willing to do so. Young people have no incentive in Nigeria to do the right thing, despite the many condescending admonitions for them to do so.

Our society is one of the most unjust in the world, no matter how offended we get about being called “fantastically corrupt” or the world’s “poverty capital”. Young people can offer something other than the run of the mill divisive politics we’ve all grown accustomed to, just a few could get an entire generation thinking again. When young people wake up to their own potential and believe that there is something buried deep within which is tougher, greater than any circumstance, then we will have a country again, free from those currently holding it hostage.

Independence poll

A former governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria, CBN, Charles Soludo, described in an interview, the moment a friend advised him to reject his new appointment on President Buhari’s economic advisory council because “there’s no money there…it’s just a committee”. The mindset revealed by such a comment shows that amongst the elite in Nigeria there are very few men (and women) who can’t be bought or who view public office as anything other than a means to make money. We blame the poor for poverty and dysfunction in this country, yet the mindset of the rich says a lot about why things don’t seem to work in Nigeria. Here’s hoping Mr Soludo and others like him are able to deliver an economy (and society) which works for all, to silence those commentators who see government work as the preserve of those who would use it for selfish purposes.

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