“It is not possible for civilization to flow backwards while there is youth in the world”. – Helen Keller.
It was the morning of Thursday, January 24 2013. I was co-guest speaker on Lagos This Morning show, a public affairs radio program broadcast on EKO FM Lagos. We were examining the role of youth in the destiny of a nation in a topic tagged Nigerian Youth: Catalysts of Nation Building or Destructive Elements?
Towards the end of the highly emotive session, a caller made reference to a damning assessment of the Nigerian youth by a friend of his, a non-Nigerian. In the reckoning of this foreign observer as it were, “Nigerian youths are fools!” I wondered thereafter what must have inspired such a merciless assessment of the Nigerian youth by a foreigner.
Upon examining the context of the discussion at the time the caller made this point, it became clear to me that his foreign friend had found it hard to reconcile the state of the nation with the fact of its youthful population. Apparently, this observer found it hard to comprehend the fact that there were young people in a nation that is so endowed yet so poor, full of potential yet so backward, teeming with population yet so badly governed, and, worse still, so badly governed, yet so docile, so submissive, so resilient and so phlegmatic. I cannot tell the nationality of this foreign commentator, but it suffices us to simply refer to him as the “foreigner” or, better still, “our foreign friend” for only a true friend would give it the way he did.
Perhaps, the foreigner made this statement after a mental juxtaposition of the state of the Nigerian nation with the countries of North Africa which had, not long ago, experienced the hurricane of youth-driven people’s movement termed the Arab-Spring, the hallmark of which was the revolutionary sweeping away of the long-standing repressive dictatorships of Tunisia’s Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak and Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi.
Perhaps, this non-Nigerian had seen the young army of the unemployed roam the streets of Lagos, files in hand, seeking jobs that do not exist; perhaps, he had watched with utmost dismay as young Nigerians, in the bid to be enterprising, risked their lives on the highways in middle-of-the-express-lane race after moving vehicles whose occupants they hoped would be buyers of their wares; perhaps our foreign friend had taken the pains to initiate discussions with one particularly determined hawker and was given the shocker of his life by his realization that the haggard-looking road-side hawker was a holder of a master’s degree from one of the nation’s universities.
Perhaps he had stumbled upon the popular TV programme, Crime Fighters, and had seen young robbery and kidnapping suspects paraded before the world and must have been heartbroken to hear the young men narrate how they had been forced into crime by an unbearable life of poverty; he might have all the more been shocked to hear them lay claims to university degrees and polytechnic diplomas.
Perhaps, he then paid a visit to one of the nation’s tertiary educational institutions and saw the dismal state of infrastructure and the poor learning conditions; upon interacting with the students, he might have been told how four-year courses are done inconclusively in five to eight years due to incessant strikes.
Perhaps it never crossed his mind to pay a visit to any of the Police Colleges, for then the shock might have been too much to bear and the findings too grave to be reserved for private consumption or for mere conversation between friends; the encounter would have caused him to wonder momentarily if civilization had traveled 70 years backwards and if history books had omitted the existence of Hitler’s concentration camp in West Africa! Consequently, he might have informed CNN or History Channel, for he would have considered Channels Television insufficient in reach for the broadcast of such an epoch making discovery!
I reason that our foreign friend might have seen, or at least been told: of the ten million school aged children roaming the streets without an education, hawking or begging; of the young Nigerian woman who dies during child-birth because she finds no help in our primary health system; of the shame-faced Nigerian prostitutes deported from Italy every now and then while many more struggle to get there in their quest for survival; of young Nigerians subjected to modern-day slavery in foreign owned factories in Nigeria, occasionally having their fingers chopped off by machines and getting no compensation, young Nigerian casual labourers subjected to all forms of maltreatment by foreigners in their own land; of the young Nigerian policeman or soldier who would risk his life in service to the fatherland, in headlong collision with armed robbers and die-hard criminals only to receive a meager paycheck which cannot sustain his growing family; of the young “corper” in the National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) scheme who was never told that posting in the name of service to the fatherland equates death sentence to be carried out in a remote violence-prone village where even the president fears to tread!
Seeing all of these, our foreign friend might have been bewildered by what might have appeared to him to be the conspiracy of the Nigerian youth in his own deprivation for, despite being deprived of his right to education, to healthcare, to employment and to a decent life, he makes himself readily available as a blind supporter of these same politicians who deny him these rights in the first place thereby working to perpetuate his own calamity; he might have been stunned by the naiveté of young Nigerians who line the route to welcome rogue politicians and corrupt government officials back home after a successful looting tenure; most likely, he must have been shocked at the sight of Ijaw youths and Urhobo youths on the streets of Yenagoa and Warri, protesting the prosecution of Diepreye Alamieyeseigha and James Ibori respectively.
Men who had robbed these same young people of what is rightfully theirs and left them looking like the earth’s rejects; upon seeing the ranka dede culture in the north where young people troop after corrupt government officials in adulation and relentless salutation for their success at stealing their states dry and leaving the people in penury, this foreigner might have come close to concluding that Nigerians were sub-human species bereft of the all-important characteristic of living things called irritability or response to stimuli!
Almost certainly, he might have seen the brutal repression of young Nigerians as they try to adapt to the harsh socio-economic conditions to eke out a living – he might have seen the Okada rider whose motorbike was seized and converted for private use by opportunistic law enforcement agents, themselves merely trying to survive deprivation.
He might have seen the road-side seller bundled into a “Black Maria” and his wares confiscated and converted by a bunch of undisciplined recruits, themselves victims of poverty, purporting to kick against indiscipline.
At that point, he might have been amazed at the longsuffering of the Nigerian youth, the quality that has earned him the description, “resilient”. He might have compared this situation to the experience of Mohammed Bouazizi of Tunisia, the harassment of whom and the confiscation of whose goods by municipal officers had ignited the Tunisian revolution that spread to other Arab countries. Mohammed Bouazzizi had set himself on fire in protest! Our foreign friend might have expected a near-similar response from Nigerians.
Disappointed, he consoled himself by postulating that the Nigerian youth belongs to a special category of human beings – one whose sense of judgment and self-worth is hopelessly distorted, one whose cowardice has attained monumental proportions and whose priorities are muddled up in base absurdities, simply put, a fool!
Not even this foreigner’s likely encounter with the few relatively comfortable and achieving young Nigerians could relieve his bewilderment at the complacency of the Nigerian youth in the midst of suffering. He was not impressed by the bourgeoning middle class comprised of the young corporate executives of Lagos, Abuja and Port Harcourt who, rising up the corporate ladder, seem to have a comfortable life and a secure future ahead of them. He might have observed that they are just cruising around an under-water volcano whose eruption is merely being delayed as theirs are isolated islands of material prosperity in the midst of a boiling ocean of poverty.
He was not impressed by the growing number of young social entrepreneurs trying at least to augment the efforts of government in poverty alleviation, youth development, sustainable development and so on, for he probably deduced that many of these were mere government-sponsored non-governmental cash-cows feeding an elite squad of compromised propagandists while the few sincere ones could only do so much and nothing more.
He was not moved by our passion for sports, by our fanatical following after the leading European football clubs or by our ability to intelligently analyze the game and its trends; perhaps to him, this was a mere confirmation of our foolishness as our local football teams which could have spiraled socio-economic benefits lay comatose due to mismanagement; not even the track-record of our youth-dominated national football teams could spare us this indictment; perhaps, he reasoned that their successes have only fattened the bank accounts of the players and officials and have not translated into better life for the young people on the streets who rush to viewing centres to view matches and to share in short-lived moments of an abstract and immaterial sense of patriotism.
He was not impressed by the glitz and glamour of our entertainment industry which gets our young people on the groove and keeps us on the race to keep up with the Kardashians; perhaps he likened its effect to that of cocaine which keeps the user high and out of touch with reality; nor was he turned on by our amazing sex drives which earned us the top rank among the most sexually active in the world in a global survey conducted last year by Durex, a condom manufacturing company; perhaps to him these ecstatic trips were mere proof of a regrettable loss of social stimuli and an overwhelming animalistic inclination to biological instinct, or at least, a momentary soporific and self-delusive escape from reality, which might then have erased any doubts from his mind that Nigeria is populated by young fools who do not realize that they deserve a better life!
As I reminisced on my experience at the radio show, then came the news that President Goodluck Jonathan was to be on CNN later that evening as a guest of Christine Amanpour’s. Immediately, I developed an ironic sense of excitement; ironic, because I am neither a fan of the president nor was I ignorant of his past record of lacklustre public appearances on local as well as international TV. Despite my disappointment at the state of the nation and my awareness of President Jonathan’s reputation as an unimpressive public speaker, I was excited about my president being heard on an international platform, call it naiveté, the kind that has earned us our description as fools, I did not care! However, despite all the efforts I made to watch it live, power outage put a final blow to my attempts. I then resolved to obtain secondary reports from the various media platforms, particularly social media and to watch a recorded version on Youtube; that was exactly what I did and, was I disappointed!
Admittedly, as I watched the video, I could not help laughing initially. The president’s weather-beaten chicken appearance, his mannerisms, his grammatical flops, his defensive demeanour before Amanpour, came across to my friends and I as rather comical. When, in response to the allegation of human rights violation by the Joint Tax Force in their crack down on Boko Haram, he retorted militantly and rather crudely “That-is-not-correct! That-is-not-correct!” we laughed uncontrollably. However, as the video played on, particularly when Christine Amanpour took to what I insist is concealed sarcasm, I felt insulted as a Nigerian. I felt that my president had been treated like a recalcitrant schoolboy and that this was not acceptable.
My feeling of shame came to a tipping point when the schoolboy, after some moments of defensive stubbornness, promised the school madam that he would conclude his assignment on the power sector by the end of the year! However, I could not blame Amanpour for this merciless treatment of the Nigerian president. My friends and I kept wondering why Jonathan would subject himself to such a grueling encounter after his first experience with the sharp-witted reporter in 2010 knowing that he was obviously not prepared for his job and that he is merely struggling to learn on the job. We wondered if he had forgotten that this was not one of his stage-managed media chats on local TV. We weighed his performance against that of Rwanda’s soft spoken but charismatic Paul Kagame who had dazzled the same reporter in 2010 and we felt further ashamed of our president. We felt that Nigeria deserved better than what Jonathan was offering to the world as “Nigerian”!
In this sober state, I scrutinized Jonathan’s responses to Amanpour and was suddenly hit by an even more worrisome realization, namely, that in most of his responses, the president had given the world a false account of the state of the nation; in other words, the president had lied! I suddenly realized that the president had sought to make a fool of Nigerians as is the manner of dictators who, despite oppressing their people, seek to curry the favour of a human-rights conscious international community by projecting a dressed-up version of the state of their nations, the likes of Mengistu Haile Mariam of Ethiopia who had subjected Ethiopians to a ravaging famine but deliberately deceived the world about the true plight of his people until a seven-minute film by Kenyan TV cameraman, Mohamed Amin brought the hidden horror to the view of the world, sparking a wave of international reactions including the song We are the World, written by Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie and done by an assemblage of US music artistes as a tool for fundraising for Ethiopia’s famine victims.
As this reality hit me, I felt betrayed by President Goodluck Jonathan. I did not bother much about the president’s oratorical deficiencies and grammatical flaws because one could argue that even the most fluent speakers could make mistakes. What I could not stand was his insincerity!
I could not stand the president’s baseless boast to Amanpour that his government was being praised on the streets of Lagos, Abuja and other cities for its supposed achievement in power supply when all around Lagos where I reside, at the very same time the president was making this statement, was the sound of generators, from the small ‘I better pass my neighbour’ to the bigger and noisier sets. When I considered the expenditure on fuel and diesel for powering generators at home and at the office respectively, I could see no reduction in spending on these essential commodities. All I could observe was that we use generators most of the time, particularly in the daytime and in the early hours of the night. When, in righteous indignation, I set out to write this piece, there was no electricity to power my laptop so I had to leave my residence to go to the office. As I walked down the street on which my office is located, I could hear generator sounds all over the place and I wondered which Nigeria Goodluck Jonathan was referring to!
I could not stand the president lying to the world that there was no connection between misrule and violence or between poverty and insecurity in relation to Boko Haram. Commentators have concluded that the president is not well informed on the matter but I have cause to think that the president deliberately set out to deceive the world and make a fool of Nigerians. When General Obasanjo introduced Goodluck Jonathan to Nigerians, particularly to the Niger Deltans, as running mate to Yaradua in the 2007 presidential elections, Obasanjo said of Jonathan, “he was born in the creeks, he grew up in the creeks, he schooled in the creeks … so, he will not steal your money and bolt to another country”.
By this statement, Obasanjo was stating clearly that the violence in the Niger Delta, the militancy in the creeks was a reaction to corruption and that the people were revolting against the corrupt politicians and officials who were stealing and bleeding them dry. Prior to that time everyone had limited militancy in the Niger Delta to the clamour for resource control but here was the then president insinuating that it was a reaction to misrule and corruption! Goodluck Jonathan never objected to this connection but most likely beamed gracefully in agreement. When he became president, he acted in accordance with this philosophy by carrying out the amnesty programme which sought to improve standard of living for ex-militants even though it has failed to develop the region.
Though he did nothing to prosecute the executive thieves behind the impoverishment of the Niger Delta, his government at least aided the prosecution of James Ibori in a London court even if merely for political reasons. By this, Goodluck Jonathan has shown clearly that he understands that there is a connection between corruption and violence. Therefore, his denial of this connection on CNN comes across as deceitful and mischievous for he could have highlighted the terrorist and criminal component of Boko Haram without denying that that army of destitute children in the north who have no food talk less of shoes, who are denied education and healthcare, and who go bowl-in-hand, begging for daily bread, not because the land lacks resources but because leadership has chosen personal aggrandizement over service, would be vulnerable to religious and political manipulation. I refuse to believe that Goodluck Jonathan is not intelligent enough to see this obvious link.
I could not stand the president’s denial of the excesses of the security agencies in the crackdown on Boko Haram. Nigerians do not need to have access to the information available to the president or to be resident in the environment of the crackdown to know that our armed forces are prone to such excesses. Nigerians who have suffered unjustly in the hands of security agents even in peacetime operations do not need intelligence reports to know what a critical security intervention force like the Joint Tax Force dealing with a guerilla-like group of insurgents among a civilian population could do.
The president’s shameful failure to visit Maiduguri, the heart of the insurgency, is not a sufficient alibi for him to deny knowledge of these excesses. Aside the intelligence reports he would most likely be fed with, it is inconceivable that this same president who has a large following on social media, a following that has become highly critical of him, is unaware of the various reports on these platforms of civilians saying they do not know who to fear anymore between Boko Haram and the security forces. Undoubtedly, the JTF is faced with the rather complex task of combating a seemingly faceless insurgency and the success of their operations would depend on the cooperation of the civilians among whom the insurgents dwell, but the civilians, understandably, due to threats on their own lives by the insurgents, would be unwilling to offer such cooperation to the security agents.
To be fair to the JTF, this is a task that is frustrating and unnerving and under such conditions, it is not unexpected that the security agents would come hard on the civilians. What the force needs is confidence, not false representation. Yet Goodluck Jonathan, in a style typical of dictators like Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran, Bashar al-Assad of Syria and Omar al-Bashir of Sudan, all of whom have been linked to crimes against humanity, debunked the reports of a credible agency like Human Rights Watch! When I expressed my disappointment at the president’s CNN interview on social media, I was harshly criticized by a supporter of the president. My simple response was that this “Jonathanian” should pay a visit to Maiduguri, to one of those Nigerian mothers who have lost children in these operations and tell her that her tears are fake; if he comes out alive with only curses and nothing more, then he should thank his God! When I was told that the weather in Davos, Switzerland from where the president granted the interview was responsible for the outcome of the interview, I replied that I was never taught in Physics or Geography that the colder the weather, the hotter the lies that proceed from the mouth!
Rather than blatant and open lies, would it have done the president any harm to acknowledge “collateral damage” in these operations without denying the complex environment the Joint Tax Force has to operate in? If he had performed his role as Commander–in-Chief of the Armed Forces in the first place by paying a visit to Maiduguri to see the situation for himself, would he not by so doing, have given succour to the civilians while restoring spirit, confidence and order to the JTF such that he could boldly tell the world that he has the situation under control rather than lie to the world that “that-is-not-correct”? Does he realize that if his denial is later proven to be false he would have set himself and our dutiful soldiers up for culpability under the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, Article 28 of which could indict the Commander-in-Chief himself in such criminal cases, and that the statute affords him no immunity?
As I pondered these things, I expected a youth-led action against presidential falsehood. I expected young people to rise up and demand an apology from the president. I expected that, as young people, we would organize ourselves and get the millions of young people who have been betrayed by the president to do something, anything within the law. I expected young radical reporters to take up the president’s challenge by going to the streets of Lagos, Abuja and other cities and asking people to testify of the miracle the president claims to have performed in the power sector and collating the people’s disillusioned responses in various media formats in preparation for a showdown.
I expected IT savvy young people to create a platform online to protest the president’s betrayal, to get fellow young people to sign it until a critical mass is raised; to give the president an ultimatum to justify his utterances or admit that he lied and to apologize to Nigerians for the betrayal, failing which, this critical mass would take to the streets in a protest that cannot be squashed until he is impeached! Instead, all we did was make disapproving comments on social media and then turn to the next trending issue on twitter and then to the African Cup of Nations for relief! When that is over, and hopefully, we win, we will go high on the excitement for a while and then return to our normal lives of wining and dining, “bumping and grinding” with occasional sighing and crying over the state of the nation particularly when it hits us directly and personally. “Fools!” I can almost hear our foreign friend exclaim!
I wondered why the young people of Nigeria could not see the link between the lie the president told about power and security and the countless army of the unemployed on the streets of Lagos. If power supply had improved the way the president says it has such that there is jubilation on the streets of Lagos and Abuja and civil society are praising his administration for the miraculous turn around in the power sector like the president claimed, then there would be hope for the unemployed.
I wondered why we could not see that as long as the president denies the link between corruption and misrule on the one hand and violence and insecurity on the other, he would find no urgent reason to take the anti-corruption war seriously, he would encourage it actively and passively, leading by example, thereby denying Nigerians the so called dividends of democracy as manifest in infrastructural development. Consequently, the cost of doing business would remain high, jobs would continue to be scarce, access to social amenities such as education and healthcare would remain inadequate, the army of unemployed youth will soar in geometric proportions, criminal inclinations would intensify, the security situation would worsen, violence would further engulf our nation, foreign and local investors would be scared away and the cycle would continue!
I wondered why my generation could not see the link between the lie told by the president about power and the fingers of that young Nigerian factory worker chopped off without compensation, for if the business environment were made conducive for foreign investors such that they did not need to power their factories by themselves or to pay bribes to get their contracts approved, they would treat the citizens of the country that has opened its doors to them with respect.
While some would say that the president has promised to do his homework on the power sector by December and they will insist that we give him a chance, let us not forget that he made the promise to Amanpour not to Nigerians! If, by December, Amanpour gives him a pass mark notwithstanding whether Nigerians are satisfied or not, President Jonathan will be fulfilled! After all, did he not wonder why Nigerians still criticized him even though President Obama had given him a pass mark? Even if he did make that promise to Nigerians, where is the catalogue of promises he made when he toured this nation campaigning from state to state in 2011, promises that he cannot even remember that he made? Are his promises not merely spur-of-the-moment evasions from the hot seat or what one may call opportunistic statements?
More importantly, let us not forget that promises and policies built on a foundation of falsehood never move past the formulation stage because the moral fibre needed for implementation has been consumed on the altar of deceit. Simply put, if a leader can lie blatantly before the international community which he perceives seeks to keep him in check, it means that that leader is either unwilling or lacking in capacity to deliver public goods to his people. This is the leadership tragedy that we are faced with as Nigerians, the more reason why we must take our destiny in our hands!
When in August 2011, Pastor Tunde Bakare preached on the role of youth in national transformation in a message titled It Takes Idiots to be Ruled by Fools and, in a style characteristic of prophets, referred to Nigerian youths as “idiots” in order to awaken us from our slumber to take our destiny in our hands, the Nigerian social media was awash with criticisms. Some accused him of brashness while others accused him of political vendetta supposedly for loosing elections. In response, the preacher took us to ancient Greece, to Athenian democracy, where the term idiot was used to describe one who was concerned with private, rather than pubic affairs. In other words, our preoccupation with individual survival and, consequently, our tendency to adapt to subhuman conditions engendered by bad governance rather than confronting and changing those conditions from the root cause by vigorous participation in public affairs, is the bane of the much needed national transformation.
Perhaps, by failing to heed that call, we have fulfilled the biblical maxim that a prophet is honoured except in his own home. And so, a foreigner is echoing the words of the prophet by being even more merciless in his description of us as fools! Yes, momentarily, we heeded that call when we trooped out to Freedom Square Ojota to demand that the government kills corruption and not Nigerians. But the fight for freedom is far from over.
It cannot be over for as long as corruption remains alive, feeding fat on the soul of our nation! It cannot be over for as long as misrule or bad governance continues to thrive! It cannot be over for as long as poverty remains the dividend of democracy! It cannot be over for as long as a lying president takes cluelessness and incompetence to its crescendo soaring unhindered on the two wings of the idiocy and foolishness of the Nigerian youth.
It is time for us young people to arise from our slumber, to make a mental U-turn from complacency to militancy, to beat our ploughshares into swords, to cut off those two wings of national retrogression – idiocy and foolishness, to bring down the monstrous bird of deceitful and clueless leadership, and to rebuild our nation on the foundation of integrity and excellence.
Omoaholo Omoakhalen writes from Lagos, Nigeria
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