Only the voices of the youth will set Nigeria free- Ayisha Osori
There is little that is news worthy that does not trigger reflection about the state of Nigeria or some aspects of Nigeria. Today, it is the unnatural silence that should be filled with the voices of young Nigerians dissatisfied with the way things are. A few days ago, students all over the United States and some parts of the world staged #NationalWalkOutDay in support of stricter gun control policy in the country. Many joined the protests despite threats of suspension and other forms of punishment — taking the knee (something President Donald Trump has railed against), lying in and marching to Capitol Hill and leaving 7,000 shoes on the ground in honour of those who have died from school shootings since December 2012.
Young people are typically the conscience of their societies — they are more idealistic, less accepting of structural injustice and thus, driven to influence and improve the space they inhabit. As I listen to people, the same age as my children, take on the US gun lobby and campaign financing, I cannot help wondering — where are Nigeria’s young people? Is there nothing they care about enough? Is there nothing that inspires them or ignites their indignation?
In Nigeria, young people get a bad rap. They are on the receiving end of blanket condemnation and are often accused of being “no better” when it comes to politics; ill-prepared to govern; poorly educated and lazy. Unfair. Nigeria is a hard place. The culture of patriarchy, elder worship and abuse of power means there is a dearth of worthy role models and an increasingly pervasive sense that nothing we do can fundamentally improve things but…it was not always this quiet. What happened to silence our young voices?
The military happened.
Nigerian universities used to be vibrant spaces for lofty ideals, alternative thinking and challenging the status quo but the military knew (and its civilian successors know too), that education is a dangerous shield against oppression and group think and systematically weakened not just education, but student activism. The opening assault was in 1978 when students, under the National Union of Nigerian Students decided to boycott lectures until a decision to increase fees was reversed and the military government met other demands including ‘democratization, genuine independence and enhancement of the quality of life of the masses. At least six students, one in Lagos and five in Zaria lost their lives.
In those days, there was an ideological chemistry between students and lecturers where radical, leftist academics particularly those in the humanities and social sciences provided inspiration to students and were in turn inspired to support students when they took a stand on social issues. Parties such as the Movement for Progressive Nigeria formed around issues and while far from perfect, the spirit of fighting for a better society was strong. But as Nigeria passed between military men, the relationship between students amongst themselves and students and lecturers became systematically weakened.
No one is credited with doing more to silence the conscience of students than military dictator Ibrahim Babangida. A favourite weapon was to keep schools closed and when schools were open, to infiltrate the student unions with security agents who acted as agent provocateurs. Soon, the students and schools were infected with cults and money was introduced into student union politics. Students who could not be bribed or intimidated found themselves arrested and/or expelled. Students’ activism has still not recovered.
Over the last 19 years since the military officially returned to the barracks, too many unconscionable things have happened. Thousands of innocent lives have been lost not only to terrorists and bandits but to state security agents paid to protect us while inhumane government policies keep the majority in penury. If nothing else hurts, rising public debt and the pain that climate change and environmental degradation are bringing our way should worry the youths more because they will bear the brunt of these years of neglect.
The fact that there are many young people leading big and small reforms in various aspects of daily life could make it seem like protest activism is a thing of the past. After all, young people are driving legal reform on gender and youth inclusion in politics with the Gender and Equal Opportunity and Not Too Young to Run bills or promoting entrepreneurs and leading technological advancements in business and governance like BudgIT — organising around sexual violence and mass evictions and ensuring issues stay in the media. For these and other reasons, it might seem unfair to ask the youths to do more but there are a few reasons why their voices should be loudest about what needs to improve.
The first is that they are naturals — or should be. They are insulated by their innocence of the things their eyes have not yet seen. This should make them more fearless than the rest of us. The second is that the their voices might guilt more of us into recognising our complicity in what Nigeria currently is and into making the right, but difficult decisions that need to be made. And finally, it is precisely youth activism and organising to influence policy and societal norms that will help young people prepare for leadership and gain the confidence they need to push for the reforms that are needed to move Nigeria forward.
We are all worse off for the silence of the youths and as a society, at home, schools, work and through civil society we need to encourage young people to speak up and support them when they do. We must equip them with the tools they need to organise effectively and help build their confidence and trust in one another. Finally, it is our duty to ensure that the history of the country is never forgotten and the role of those who have brought us where we are today is never glossed over or romanticised. Some are hankering for the good old days, forgetting that for temporary ease, we bought a lasting pain and only the selfless voices of the young will set us free.
Ms Osori, a lawyer and author, wrote in from Abuja