(Lecture delivered at a colloquium convened by the Nigerian Advancement Institute, Edmonton, Alberta, April 2, 2011)
None of you in this audience should have any problem doing injustice to this song along with me. Pardon my being so presumptuous. I say injustice because I assume that, like me, you are not great singers and the owner of the song would be screaming blue murder by the time we are done with this verse:
We’re the most incredible
Out of Naija, straight from Naija
Street credibility, we get am
Check my fans, walahi aya e a ja
No be lie, hear am
No be lie, hear am
No be lie, eyin mu j"abe lo
No be lie, kiniun l"oba eran
I’m impressed. We didn’t do too badly! The musician’s name is 9ice. I’m sure you are also familiar with “Gongo Aso”, “Pamu Pamu” and “Loni Ni”. But today, we shall stick with “Street Credibility”, the philosophical mandate through which this young musician sought to redefine the social contract for half the population of Nigeria. The conventional figure regularly bandied around in development discourse circuits stipulates that half the population of our beleaguered country is below the age of twenty-five. Some more generous demographers have asked us to put that vital half of Nigeria’s population at below the age of thirty-five. Twenty-five or thirty-five, the choice is yours, so long as you understand the serious implications for just one country in Africa to have about seventy-five million people somewhere between the age of twenty-five and thirty-five.
That, in essence, is the generation of 9ice, the fine fellow whose lyrics ask us to understand the social contract as a one-way lane in which his generation must snatch success, citizenship, subjecthood, and the very ability to be human in the most minimal sense, from the jaws of an adversarial social and political environment that has denied that generation even the right to be young. Denial of everything a state owes to its young population – role models, the right to dream of a future, guaranteeing the wherewithal to pursue that dream, the right to pursue happiness on a level playing field – is what places every Nigerian below the age of thirty-five in what I suggest we call the impala generation.
Impala generation? I am sure you have watched those Animal Planet or Discovery Channel documentaries about animal life in the plains of southern and eastern Africa. Watch out for the impala at parturition. Lions, hyenas, leopards, and cheetahs are always around to deny the new-born impala the right to youth. Baby impala has seconds, literally seconds, after birth to be up and running or be consumed by the catritude of the plains. Too much dilly-dallying by any late-developing baby impala after birth and mother impala adopts what we call the OYO disposition in Nigeria – you are On Your Own. That is why scholars often state that nature and creation have endowed the human child with the longest stretch of time to grow and develop. No other animal species, not even elephants, enjoy the privileges of the human child. The snake child doesn’t even see its mother – who must crawl away before they hatch.
That universal privilege of the human child is what has been so brutally denied half of Nigeria’s population. Here in the West, somewhere between the guarantees provided by the state and all things being as equal as they usually are, the human child can at least reasonably expect a normal course or path of development and progression in the nature of things from birth till the age of eighteen when they become legally-liable citizens. But if you come from a country where half the population’s age must be denominated in impala years – and not human years – because of the consequences of decades of irresponsible and visionless rulership, the human age of eighteen is already your advanced senior years, for you must remember that Nigeria is a grim reaper that reaps even the best and most accomplished among your generation in their twenties.
Think of the rapper, Da Grin of the Alapomeji fame. Think of the comedian, C.D. John who enriched our lives with sister Nkechi Ikemefuna. Think of kokolette Chidinma Mbalaso. I am yet to overcome my personal grief over these three losses. Although he was older than the aforementioned three, we also recently lost Ishola Durojaiye of the Iroko Oluweri fame. You know how they died. You know that they didn’t have to die. You know that you heard of their deaths only because they were famous. You know that Nigeria reaps thousands daily from that generation. I lost two cousins, Victor Dele Oyelude and Tope Anjorin, both in their very early thirties, to Nigerian roads in 2010 alone! These were my cousins in the oyibo and not the infinitely elastic African sense of that word. You know that Da Grin, C.D. John, and Chidinma, all gone in their twenties, were not too far from the life expectancy of the impala generation in Nigeria. To die in your twenties is actually to die in your old age if you belong in Nigeria’s impala generation.
But the impala generation has other peculiarities in the overall context of the Nigerian tragedy. As far as I know, it is the first generation whose existential vicissitudes have reinvented the biblical aphorism: to whom much is given, much is required or expected. Nothing has ever been given to Nigeria’s impala generation but everything has been required or expected of them. Yes, you heard me correctly, the impala generation is the first to be given nothing by Nigeria in our short postcolonial history. If you belong in the generation whose age bracket stretches roughly from President Jonathan to President Obasanjo, the foundational generation of nationalists and statesmen gave you a rich and prosperous postcolonial state which they had yanked out of the hands of the greedy hands of British colonialists.
They gave you education, moral fibre, and a nation-space that tossed every opportunity for human development at you and, in fact, required almost nothing in return. After your education, a job and a car were waiting for you. The only thing that Nigeria didn’t do for you was find you a wife and sponsor your wedding.
If your age stretches roughly from thirty-five to President Jonathan’s age in the mid-fifties, you may have inherited the mess that the Obasanjo age bracket made of all that they got from our founding fathers but you still got something, no matter how measly, from Nigeria. I belong in this intermediate generation. In one of my public lectures last year, I told the story of one of my primary school teachers called “Baba E Wi Hun Hun” and declared that the greatest gift that my generation got from Nigeria is the training we received from that generation of colonial-missionary school teachers. If you are aged thirty-five to your mid-fifties, think of your teachers back in primary and secondary school. Think of how they trained you. Think of the work ethic, moral fibre, and ethical capital that they laboured to give to you That is Nigeria’s gift to you – the gift of role models. Those teachers, who are being punished in pension queues today by Nigeria’s irresponsible rulers, were impeccable role models that Nigeria gave to my generation.
What did my generation do with those gifts? Here is what Kadaria Ahmed, our editor when my co-speaker here, Okey Ndibe, and I were weekly columnists for NEXT, has to say recently on her Facebook page: “Look at our peers that are in government, what have they really done? Not much except to join the gravy train.” I agree with Kadaria. We threw the training that our role models gave us out of the window and gave Nigeria a generous supply of scurrilous Senators, reprobate Reps, useless Governors, coconut headed Local Government Chairmen, and insatiable treasury plunderers in the civil service. Our supply of nation wreckers is even worse than the looters and nation wreckers in the generation that stretches from Jonathan to Obasanjo.
If you belong in the impala generation which I have placed roughly at thirty five years and below, that generation which, like baby impala in the plains, must run from birth because of the very real danger of being reaped meaninglessly in your twenties by Nigeria, then you are the first generation to receive nothing, absolutely zero from postcolonial Nigeria. Not even the gift of role models. On second thought, it is perhaps not true to claim that the impala generation got nothing. If you are thirty-five and below, you would have gotten all of the hyena years of military dictatorship stretching from General Buhari to General Abubakar and all of the locust years of irresponsible civilian rulership stretching from President Obasanjo to President Jonathan via President Yar’Adua. And the role modelship you would have gotten from these “elders” would be the tragic spectacle of President Obasanjo and President Jonathan hobnobbing and felicitating with a convicted thief, Bode George. Shior.
It is of course in the nature of things for older generations, especially the Jonathan-Obasanjo bracket, to think of the impala generation and grumble loudly about campus cultism, 419, and sundry forms of deviance and national embarrassment. I have often told members of the impala generation that anytime they hear older Nigerians, especially those in the Jonathan-Obasanjo generation, grumble about “the youth of nowadays”, their standard response should be: shut the heck up! Our so-called national stakeholders to whom much was given and who made such a thorough mess of everything should not have the mouth to talk. Pardon that English. Some things are better said in Naija English. Starting from Alli must go in the 1970s through Babangida’s war on the Universities in the 1980s, they were the ones who destroyed the universities and created the conditions of becoming for cultism and the consequent veneration of illiteracy and anti-intellectualism today. This, in no way, absolves the young and criminal cultists on our campuses of blame. It just puts things in perspective.
Out of the void of primordial nothingness and zero institutional support by the Nigerian state, the impala generation would give Nigeria its greatest cultural ambassador in the 21st century: Nollywood. You only need to watch “Welcome to Nollywood” or any of the documentaries out there for a first hand assessment of the conditions in which Nigeria’s impala generation is making one of the world’s most formidable cultural statements in the 21st century. Out of nothingness, the impala generation has given Nigeria a musical segment of culture with a cerebral underbelly. Think of the Banky W – Reuben Abati spat over the production of culture. If you overlook Abati’s cavalier misreading of the conditions of becoming of the impala generation and his consequent gerontocratic dismissal of their art while waxing nostalgic for the past, when was the last time you saw a Nigerian musician take on discourse and public intellection the way Banky W did in his impressive riposte?
Think of Eldee’s recent public intervention, “The Politics of Our Time”. When was the last time you witnessed the infusion of so much cerebral power into public discourse by a Nigerian musician? What is even more interesting for us is the political praxis of the musicians involved in the project, “Our Time”, as described by Eldee:
“During the voters’ registration campaign, I got together with a few friends and colleagues of mine to discuss ways to increase youth participation in the democratic process of our country using our music platform. During one of those discussions, we came up with the idea to have multiple concerts across the country, which would only be accessed by registered voters. It felt like a great idea because with this initiative, we could all join forces and get more attention from our intended demographic. Household names such as PSquare, D’banj, eLDee, Tuface, MI, Banky W, Naeto C, Sound Sultan, Timaya, Wizkid, Duncan Mighty and the likes, would easily fill up arenas in any city so why not have a free concert that people can only be a part of if they present their voters registration card. To the best of my knowledge, we came up with a tag called “Our time” for the concert series. In order to avoid the initiative being politicized, we agreed to raise funds through non-partisan means alone. We put little resources together and quickly shot TV commercials since there were only a few days left of the voter registration period. The commercials were immediately published on TV/Internet and it generated a good amount of attention. At the end of the voter registration period, there was overwhelming evidence of the success of the initiative and we all looked forward to entertaining our registered voter fans at the concert series.”
A group of politically conscientized Nigerian artists involved in an initiative to improve Nigeria’s democratic bona fides by sensitizing their peers in the impala generation to register! It seems so far away already from the mid-1990s when some yeye artists and musicians in an older generation put their art and talent in the service of military despotism by trooping to Abuja for a concert in support of General Sani Abacha’s dream of self perpetuation in power. These young musicians do not operate in a generational void. They are part of Nigeria’s huge army of netizens for democracy. Kadaria Ahmed: “The younger ones have passion, are vocal and seem ready to match words with action. We should certainly encourage them. If a change does occur, I am afraid we can't take credit for it.”
Da most incredible out of Naija: that’s the impala generation. “We should certainly encourage them”, says Kadaria, even as she pronounces a truthfully bitter verdict on her generation, my generation: “If a change does occur, I am afraid we can't take credit for it.” These young Nigerians know that Nigeria, having short-changed and “chanced” them for so long, should at least encourage their embrace of the democratizing imperative. So, they organized a presidential debate and asked President Jonathan: “what about us?” President Jonathan’s response? “Lagbaja, nothing for you”.
Da most incredible out of Naija. These youths are stubborn. There must be something for them. There has to be. After all, they heeded this man’s clarion call for friendship and affection by rushing in their millions to his Facebook page to be treated to daily presidential status updates by Oronto Douglas, Ken Wiwa, and other Facebook presidential body doubles pretending to be Goodluck Jonathan addressing his ‘friends’. Why should their friend from Otuoke shun their debate? So, they screamed louder a second time: “what about us?” President Jonathan’s response? “I want to be a kokolette in the house of D’banj”. And the youths screamed even louder a third time: “what about us”? And the man sent his answer through his Dame: “run for cover under my umblerra.” And the cock crowed.
Da most incredible out of Naija. I meet them. Meet them in daily kilobytes of Facebook. I meet them. Meet them in daily gigabytes of twitter. Like Femi Osofisan’s restless run of locusts, they sally forth daily from an impossible Nigeria into a Cyberia of the possible. In Cyberia, they find the organizing that asks of agonizing: where is thy sting? And they organize. And they have names: Kayode Ogundamisi and thousands like him; Tolu Ogunlesi and thousands like him; Cheta Nwanze (Chxta) and thousands like him; Chude Jideonwo and thousands like him; Adunni Abimbola Adelakun and thousands like her; Nmachi Jidenma and thousands like her; Mallami Kayode and thousands like him; Ifedigbo Nze Sylva and thousands like him; Adepoju Paul Olusegun and thousands like him; Feyi Fawehinmi and thousands like him; Laura Adiba Obubo and thousands like her; Dapo Osewa and thousands like him; I meet them all in the maw and sass of Cyberia.
Da most incredible out of Naija. In Cyberia, they swear by the credo of Bob Marley: “open your eyes and look within. Are you satisfied with the life you are living?” They answer with Enough is Enough, ReclaimNaija, RSVP, and thousands of other Ushahidi initiatives which place the impala generation at the epicentre of foot soldiering for democracy in Nigeria. Renowned blogger and social activist, Sokari Ekine, calls the mobile phone version of Cyberian foot soldiering “sms uprising” in her recent book of the same title. But Nigeria, good old Naija, is stubborn.
Nigeria is stubborn. The official response to democratizing pressures via the social media activism of the impala generation is predictable. If you cannot ignore it, try to blunt its jagged edges via Facebook casuistry. From President Jonathan down to the lowliest local government councillor, virtually every member of Nigeria’s corrupt status quo now has a Facebook page where they are “reaching out to the youth” with watery and unimaginative platitudes about “moving Nigeria forward” and “delivering the dividends of democracy.” If you cannot ignore the galvanizing praxis of Nigerian youth online, try reverse psychology by making public pronouncements that Tunisia and Egypt cannot happen in Nigeria. This is the way some silly government officials have been running their corrupt mouths in Abuja.
Those silly fellows in Abuja have foreign help in their bid to pre-empt and truncate the historical mission of the impala generation. Far away in Washington, a silly college dropout named Joe Trippi, who has a young Nigerian establishmentarian intellectual on his staff list, looks into his crystal ball and pronounces that Egypt will never happen in Nigeria because President Jonathan is the miracle answer to every national affliction. It is not Joe Trippi’s fault that he felt sufficiently enamoured to offer such ahistorical and truly ignorant perspectives on Nigeria’s future. It is President Jonathan’s fault for rushing our petrodollars into Joe Trippi’s bank account, hiring him as a political consultant. Just what the heck does Joe Trippi know about Nigeria? How does one justify the colomentality of going all the way to Washington DC to hire an oyibo consultant to help you win my grandmother’s vote in Isanlu? And now, that oyibo and his Nigerian minion are surreptitiously trying to rig the movement of history by planting carefully-worded reactionary opinions in Nigerian news sites.
Another strategy of official Nigeria is to ensure that the positive energies of Nigerian youth online would never translate into concrete on-the-ground gains in terms of envisioned transformations in the polity. They do this via the ideological embezzlement of the very notion of youth as the young Gihan Mbelu reminded us recently in some public interventions. They open up party structure and other institutional spaces of political agency for just enough room to let in new faces in their early to late fifties as the face of youth in Nigerian politics. You know there is a serious problem when a system throws up post golden jubilee agers like Nuhu Ribadu, Fola Adeola, Dele Momodu, and Pastor Tunde Bakare, and defines them as youth. Meanwhile, the same system will never let in a Malcolm Fabiyi unless he compromises and waits for his turn – by which time he would be in his late fifties. So this progressive face of Nigerian youth must languish in the outskirts, participating in the process only as senatorial candidate of a fringe political party.
“Asiko awa youth re o kan ye binu wa. For sure ni, young shall grow.” The Nigerian system is comfortable with Shina Peters’s philosophy of the young that grows into youth only after their fiftieth birthday by which time they are ready to be godfathered and chieftained into political positions. This explains why no political party in Nigeria has sufficient ideological capital and mettle to come up with something close to the African National Congress Youth League. Julius Malema was born just in 1981. Yet, a system that understands the value of youth has thrown him up as a politician of global repute. In Nigeria, if he was truly lucky and privileged, Julius Malema would still be arranging chairs for a board of trustees meeting between Olusegun Obasanjo, Tony Anenih, Bode George, and Ahmadu Ali.
“Loni ni ko ni d’ola, Hennessy is assured. Loni ni ko ni d’ola, Bacardi is assured.” This is the last time you will have to endure my terrible singing talent today. I bring in this last song for a good reason. Just before we join 9ice in assuring Hennessy, Bacardi and other alcoholic beverages, I believe we need to assure the power of numbers. The impala generation already owns the cybersphere of ideas and political conscientization as I have tried to show here. But the numbers have yet to translate into an effective takeover of the structures on the ground from the dinosaurs and the reactionary members of the status quo. In fact, they and their paid American druids are even boasting that it will not happen. My challenge to this colloquium, as we proceed to discussions after these lectures by Okey Ndibe and yours truly, is that we brainstorm on strategies of translating the gains of Cyberia to Nigeria. I look forward to fruitful discussions and I hope that we shall be able, in a very near future, to come up with an NAI roadmap on how to translate the advantage of youth numbers into concrete political gains in Nigeria.
I thank you for your time.