October 3, 2023

Ode to the much-abused youth of Nigeria on Independence Day


By Pat Utomi

IF there is a clear victim of Nigeria’s failing experience, it is young people. They have been denied the promise of becoming the source of the demographic dividend we need, called lazy by those who epitomise laziness, brutalised by law enforcement officers and killed as if they were stool pigeons for target practice when they protest abuse; and still they erect pillars of soft power for Nigeria with industry like the music, movie and fashion ventures they built with no support. On this Independence Day in 2023 I celebrate them and wish them freedom from the forces that strip off their freedom every which way you look. Viva. Your liberation is near at hand.

Atedo Peterside was recently quite profound with the opportunities Nigeria gave young people when he was in his 20s and 30s and how those open doors have been shut on today’s young and the streams of opportunity are made dry for people of that age today.

To found a bank and be its CEO at 33 was phenomenal but not so unusual back then. General Yakubu Gowon was Head of State at that age, Alfred Diette Spiff had been Governor at 27 just as I had reached a Presidential Advisory position at that same age of 27 with the only godfather at the back being two Masters degrees and a PhD and a perception of capacity by leaders who saw virtue in meritocracy.

Why have the people who benefitted from so liberal a culture pulled the rug from beneath today’s young who are generally better educated at the same age? Are these now aging men more shortsighted than selfish and greedy, as they are often imagined to be?

The naked truth is that the generation of Nigerians now in their 70s and 80s have constricted the freedom of younger people to act in a manner that brutalises, dehumanises and criminalises the youth and makes them lose self-confidence.

I am told bizarre stories of what happens to young people at police check points. I   had assumed that after the EndSARS protests the police will have found it so bad a report they would seek a makeover  in conduct. It would seem the street terror rained on  young people at checkpoints remains.

The youth must be able to exhale and find freedom in a time of Idependence. Like Donna Summer sang they should find their state of Independence.

Through history most societies that have lost their girth have turned to their young to get them back on the saddle. But we poison the purity of youth with the injection of ethnic hatred into their consciousness in a way that gives the day to emotion and not reason. The youth suffer the double whammy of turning on one another rather than those who shut them out.

Consider a video going viral which is ostensibly of a young girl being violently flogged by several men for going to take her books to go to school after she had been informed that she had been pledged in marriage at such an early age.

In many ways, that captures the violent repression of a generation that has deepened misery in this land. Yet few politicians have made such their mission or cause celebrè.

The youth need champions who can sing with them the chant of a new Nigeria and dance along like the Osun State Governor gyrating to Gbedu. We need to give light to the dream of the next generation.

In story telling mood I like to recall how in 1975 as a student leader I argued it was our right and duty to affect how the dominant policy issue of the day, foreign policy regarding the liberation struggle brought me to the office of the Foreign Minister, the then Colonel Joseph Nanven Garba in a dramatic break of protocol. He accepted my invitation to come to Nsukka to debate us and felt strongly enough to come while an abortive coup d’etat, in which the Head of State was killed, was still in progress in February 1976.

Why should a generation I know is smarter and better exposed than I was at 19 when these things happened not get their day in the sun before the passion finds calm.

So I pay tribute to a generation that has persevered in spite of being bullied; a generation of hustle that has kept going in a time of job drought when in our time many had three job offers to choose from before going for NYSC; lives in subhuman conditions in campus dorms today crowded eight into rooms where two of us woke up and went to class knowing our bed would be made and clothes laundered, not find justice.

This is a hero generation. They cry for freedom and their day of Independence shall come.

*Utomi, Political Economist and Professor of Entrepreneurship, is founder of the Centre for Values in Leadership.