President Buhari’s latest comments on Nigerian youth have sparked much controversy. The reactions have been different from various quarters. Some suggest that his meaning was lost in translation and the whole thing is being blown out of proportion. They do have a point, because he did not use the word “lazy” in the video, but the hashtag #LazyNigerianYouths has been trending, a clear example of putting words in the president’s mouth despite there being no historical precedent. Another group, however, believes that it shows a disconnect between the president and the realities in the lives of Nigerian youth. They also have a point because to suggest that Nigerian youth have a desire to “sit and do nothing” because of the nation’s oil wealth is to ignore the energy, passion and industry that Nigerian  youth display on a daily basis despite the odds.

But I have a slightly different take on it.

As we go along I will be continually picking bits from the American Senator Robert F. Kennedy’s acclaimed “Day of Affirmation” speech given at South Africa’s University of Cape Town back in 1966. I encourage everyone to read the transcript or, if you’re so inclined, just read this short article about the speech. It’s considered by many historians to be his greatest ever speech so well worth the read.

The Disinherited

To begin with, I find myself immensely tickled. I can only imagine how the president’s handlers and media team must be scrambling to figure out ways to salvage something from this situation. It must be intensely infuriating for them, watching the video and wondering why, oh why, couldn’t he just answer any of the questions presented to him, the last one being on Nigeria’s withdrawal from the African continental free trade accord, which could easily have flown under the radar. Those who have seen the Jerry springer show will also find it a nice touch that the hostess asked our president for a “final thought.” Boy, did he deliver.

Their attempt to spin it has turned out to be hilariously simple and trivial; focused on semantics rather than content. It’s why their argument basically consists of analyzing the difference between “a lot” and “all.” Boring. But it’s amusing because, during his 2015 campaign, I was personally excited to find out that Mr Buhari had hired a social media team lead by a young Nigerian. A lady, no less (sorry, can’t find the link). I thought it was a sign of things to come. It appears, however, that since his election he has jettisoned the youth and returned to the old guard. I hardly think it coincidental that President Buhari rarely (if ever) grants interviews to Nigerian media houses, except when he speaks to the News Agency of Nigeria which is pretty much a government agency anyway. However, when the president travels, as he often does, he sometimes has interactions with foreign media, allowing us to get these little gems from time to time. I suppose it is partly why his image has suffered such a calamitous fall during his 3 years in office; perhaps the carefully managed campaign image could not be sustained in the long term?

The elections of 2015 were historical not only because the opposition won for the first time in our democratic history, but also because it signaled a change in attitude from the “teeming youth” of Nigeria who had previously shown little interest in politics. I recall a friend who back then urged us all to vote then-President Goodluck Jonathan back into office. When asked why, he replied that previously none of us cared much for politics but 4 years of Mr Jonathan and there we were, intensely analyzing presidential candidates. He was therefore arguing that another 4 years of Mr Jonathan’s administration would galvanize us even further. I daresay his premise was only partially wrong because 4 years of Mr Buhari appears to have galvanised the youth population to realize the answer is a bit more complex than simply picking up a voter’s card and heading to the polling station. No, this time we are going to have to be much more active than that in deciding the future of this nation. And make no mistake; it was, for a good part, the active participation of the youth that decided the last elections. It is also a good part of the reason why it was too close to call until it was called; the youth, who had been misunderstood and ignored for so long, could not easily be predicted by the powers that were.
Another point worth considering is that directing disdain toward the youth population, who have been used, abused, lied to, cheated, humiliated and had their human dignity repeatedly stolen from them through no fault of theirs is, in my view, being rather harsh.

“For there are millions of Negroes untrained for the simplest of jobs, and thousands every day denied their full equal rights under the law; and the violence of the disinherited, the insulted and injured, looms over the streets of Harlem and Watts and South Side Chicago.” – Robert Kennedy

If you replace “Negroes” with Nigerian youth and the American locales with Nigerian ones like Ikorodu, Bama and Gboko, the premise still holds true. The disinherited, the insulted and injured and, if I may add, the disenchanted, are often prone to violence, particularly in a land where it has been proven time and again that violence is a more certain way to achieve goals and receive compensation. Think about the amnesty programs for Niger Delta militants, Boko Haram terrorists and the like. Now, regular readers will know that I am not against forgiveness, nor am I of the belief that winning against insurgents is best achieved by killing them all. However, blanket amnesties and the country’s seeming inability to hold anyone accountable for any crime whatsoever has a tendency to encourage more acts of criminality. But I digress.

Change Begins With Me

I also see this as an opportunity and a challenge. It is not uncommon to see youth arguing over candidates for the 2019 elections; some backing President Buhari, others extolling the virtues of ex-Vice President Atiku Abubakar and so on. The entire thing reminds me of this article from just before the 2015 elections that gave the position of Nigerians as being between the devil and the deep blue sea. I am of the belief that we are now between a rock and a hard place, not entirely of our making but certainly within our ability to control.

“If you do not change direction, you may end up where you were heading.” – Lao Tzu

Here’s what I mean. With more than 60% of the country’s population comprised of people under 30 years of age, I think we have to accept that it is not only the old generation that have failed Nigeria, but us as well. Before you shoot, hear me out.

If we, the youth, were truly and sincerely disgusted by the way the country is being run and we really gave a damn about the lives being lost, we would realize that we have both the numbers and the energy to demand, enact and enforce a real change. If the youth of Nigeria decided that enough is enough, I would venture to argue that nothing could stop us, except maybe divine intervention (and that’s a serious maybe, because we have been praying for decades). It is from amongst our number that solutions have to be found and, as I never tire to remind friends, nobody will ever give you power – you have to stand up and take it.

If we continue to wait for faceless old men who meet in the dead of night to give us their preferred options, we will continue to live in a #BrokenCountry and have none but ourselves to blame for it. As Mandela once said, “even if you are not interested in politics, politics is interested in you.” Shying away from the “dirty game” is of no help whatsoever; I once read somewhere that if you’re truly offended by another country, don’t burn their flag – wash it. In the same vein, if we are truly disgusted by the dirty politics of Nigeria then we have to sanitize it. It’s a bit like having a room full of rats and cockroaches, shutting the door and thinking they won’t invade the rest of the house.

Interestingly, we do have support from many members of the previous generation. Former military head of state, Gen. Ibrahim Babangida alluded to this when he put out a statement advising President Buhari to shun a re-election campaign and saying Nigeria needs a “digital” national leader. And while former President Olusegun Obasanjo’s “special press statement” has been viewed with much suspicion and derided as coming with ulterior motives, a good portion of the content is well worth paying attention to particularly because he spoke of forming a group of concerned Nigerians who come together for the sake of Nigeria and are not burdened by minor details like tribe, religion, etc. He also described the group as non-partisan and open to all Nigerians, with special focus on youth and women. Indeed he said if the group ever becomes a political party, he would leave it. Where I would fault the former president is at the point he tried to establish some kind of control by naming the group; in my view he should not be attempting to exercise any control, but to remain in a strictly advisory capacity. In truth, such groups are already being formed all over the country (the wily old general has always had his finger on the country’s pulse). Everywhere you go, there are collections of young Nigerians who come together to discuss the fate of the country and to figure out solutions to our myriad problems. Unfortunately, these groups are not, as far as I can tell, reaching out to each other, which could be beneficial in bringing about unity of purpose. Last, but certainly not least, is the statement by Prof Wole Soyinka where he advised Nigerian youth to search amongst themselves for a candidate and that even they, the old guard, would lend their support. Yet, we have continually failed to do so. Who then can we blame?

Robert Kennedy again:

“Our answer is the world’s hope; it is to rely on youth. The cruelties and obstacles of this swiftly changing planet will not yield to obsolete dogmas and outworn slogans. It cannot be moved by those who cling to a present which is already dying, who prefer the illusion of security to the excitement and danger which comes with even the most peaceful progress.
This world demands the qualities of youth; not a time of life but a state of mind, a temper of the will, a quality of the imagination, a predominance of courage over timidity, of the appetite for adventure over the love of ease. It is a revolutionary world we live in, and thus, as I have said in Latin America and Asia, in Europe and in the United States, it is young people who must take the lead. Thus you, and your young compatriots everywhere, have had thrust upon you a greater burden of responsibility than any generation that has ever lived.”