“Youths are the life blood of any nation.”
― Ifeanyi Enoch Onuoha
When we think of a nation’s future and possibilities, we always look to its next generation of leaders. The next 50 years of the world's current democracies will not be directed by those currently in power but by the generation below them. Future advancements in technology, medicine, and the arts will come from the millennials.
For Nigeria, it's the millennial generation that many hope will finally lift Nigeria out of the darkness of poverty and into the light of prosperity.
But political protests such as the latest #endsars movement, and the terrible bloodshed that followed, has got me questioning if the job of saving Nigeria is too big for Nigeria’s youth to accomplish given Nigeria’s history and the mentality of Nigeria’s political body.
A nation governed by leaders who are at odds with its youth
Violence in Nigeria is not unique to Nigeria.
All democratic nations on this Earth went through a history of civil war before they became the functioning societies they are today. You could say it’s democracy going through puberty. Take America, for example. It is considered the greatest democracy on Earth – ignoring a particular blonde-haired president - and was once bitterly divided between the northern and southern states. It wasn’t until the end of the civil war in 1865 that it became a unified America. Even today, the George Floyd protests reminded us that America is not as unified and advanced as Hollywood movies would like us to think.
Nigeria, being a relatively new democracy compared to America, has gone through its periods of violence. Assassinations, coups, and bloody military rule dominate every chapter of Nigeria’s 60-year history as a democracy.
Yet Nigeria still doesn't feel like a democracy that has come out of its puberty phase. The powers that be who govern the country were all involved, in one way or another, in the previous violent and corrupt governments of Nigeria’s past - this is a significant problem for Nigeria's youthful population. Muhammadu Buhari, Nigeria’s president since 2015, was the ringleader in the military coup d’etat of 1983 where he became Head of State. He was also involved in the Biafran War as a soldier.
Men of war often dominate Nigeria's political class. These men come from a generation where Nigeria was a bitterly divided nation with long-established tribal and religious divisions. Due to globalisation and a more pronounced western influence, Nigeria's educated youth do not have this same appetite for tribal hostility and iron-fisted governance that those in power still clearly have in their heads. Also, young Nigerians are pursuing careers which are more creative but also they are more tech-savvy than the previous generations. They are also more open to giving women more opportunities in the workforce – again, a western influence.
But Nigeria's leaders are not swayed by any westernised thinking which puts them at odds with Nigeria's youth. The youth-led protest against Nigeria’s now-defunct Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) is not just a protest against a brutal government organisation but a repudiation of the government’s old-school ways of brutal governing.
In western democracies, its leaders will overhaul entire policies if the youth cry out in protest. Just look at the British Conservative government’s U-turn around free-school meals when 23-year old footballer Marcus Rashford publicly criticised the government’s policy. It could never happen in Nigeria. Cries from the youth are falling on deaf ears as Nigeria's leaders show blatant contempt for the youth and their westernised mindset.
A nation with too many identities and fractions
Dealing with a government ruled by heads of state who do not share its youth's vision for the nation is just one issue. In Nigeria, you have many who are educated. You also have many who are educated to poor standards or not even at all. And this is against a backdrop of tribal underrepresentation in government and religious conflicts which create a north and south divide.
Nigeria has one of the largest populations in the world. Yet a staggering 10.5 million children are out of education. Even if you are educated to a degree level, you face grim prospects. 2.9 million Nigerian graduates and post-graduates are unemployed and 13.9 million people aged between 15 and 34 years are unemployed.
Poor education and an economy unable to meet the demands for jobs are compounded even further by the religious divide still present in Nigeria, particularly between the south and north of Nigeria, and the dominance of mainly three tribes in Nigeria – the Yoruba, Igbo and Hausa-Fulani.
There are over 400 languages in Nigeria, but only these three tribes are represented in government and given a higher status than any of the other minor tribes. In the background, the north is still dominated by fundamentalist Muslims who oppose any western ideologies, feeding the growth of militant Muslims such as the Boko Haram that the Nigeria government has struggled to eradicate. I doubt Nigeria's youth would be able to sort out this myriad of problems.
Corruption is a Nigerian state of mind
Corruption has become synonymous with Nigeria. Putting aside the 419 jokes, everyone universally acknowledges that Nigeria has a serious problem with corruption. In 2018, Transparency International ranked Nigeria 148 in a list of 180 countries considered corrupt.
The duplicity in Nigeria is not just a disease that lives in the minds of those that govern Nigeria but is part of the nation’s mentality. Fraud, extortion, coercion and abuse of power – these are practices carried out in every class, from the poor to the rich. Nigeria's young are trying to carve out legitimate businesses, but how can they be successful entrepreneurs in a land where contracts can be ignored, and regulations are only enforced if you have deep pockets. In Nigeria, the law can be bought.
It is this state of affairs that discourages many young Nigerians in the diaspora, myself included, from returning to our motherland to build businesses over there. While western democracies also deal with corruption to some extent, it pales in comparison to the rampant criminality that bleeds into every aspect of Nigerian society.
The long game
Nigeria's youth are caught in Nigeria's violent sea of deep-rooted problems and have a long time to wait until the sea has calmed. How will we know when that has happened? Only when the older generations of Nigerians have become too old to govern the country and the millennial generation can now take their positions in government.
But even when that happens, governing Nigeria will still be such a gargantuan task.
With a population of well over 190 million, almost six times larger than Ghana's population, Nigeria is almost like several countries forced to become one nation. All Nigerians can hope for is that, over the next few decades, the various tribal divisions and religious differences will become less important as the national identity of Nigeria becomes the dominant mental state of the population. You cannot govern 195 million people if they only identify themselves by their tribe and religion with their nationality as an afterthought.
The most important job of Nigeria's youth will be to unite all the tribal and religious factions under the Nigerian nationality, so everyone in Nigeria views themselves as Nigerians with every tribe feeling they have a real stake in the direction of the country. I would be lying if I said it would be easy, and perhaps only the passage of time will make it a reality.
Right now, Nigeria's youth can only wait. But that doesn’t mean waiting in silence. They must continue to protest and call out injustice, corruption and the brutality that blights the nation. Even if the job of saving Nigeria is not necessarily one in which they can carry out right now, it doesn’t mean they cannot start preparing themselves for it.