Western discourses of the African youth are focused on the youth burge and the negative consequences the youth are posing to the continent. The challenge for them, just like with the population question, is how to contain the youth. On the part of the African political leadership there is utter hopelessness with the youth, hence the claim of a “lost generation”. The youth have been debased and criminalized; they have been portrayed as a menace and social nuisance to society. They have been perceived as unfit and incapable of making useful contribution to society because their values constitute an oddity.
When the youth are discussed in social and economic terms, they are said to be the architects of their own misfortune. On the political turf, they are totally excluded from power. They are merely complimented as “leaders of tomorrow”.
In this article, I try to argue that central to the understanding of the youth question is our collective failure and the question of youth marginalization.
The youth were central to nationalist struggles in the era of decolonization in Africa. Most of the African leaders that formed political parties in the twentieth century were all under forty years of age. In Nigeria, many of the First Republic Ministers were all under 35 years of age. M.T. Mbu, Maitama Sule, Richard Akinjide and Shehu Shagari were all under 35 years of age when they became Ministers. Yakubu Gowon was 32 years old bachelor when he assumed the reins of power in July 1966.
It is true that we have a youth crisis. However, I believe in the ability of the youth to renew themselves, the youth crisis is challenging in two contradictory ways- negatively and positively. While everybody has demonized and criminalized the youth, it is useful to view how the youth have been cultivating themselves positively and are using the crises to empower themselves in various ways. Many young entrepreneurs have emerged, many artisans, farmers and cultural producers-musicians, dancers, and so on. They are all doing well. We must acknowledge them and show case them.
Youth are also seizing the information age to be creative and they live in their own world. They are challenging us to the possibilities of their potentials and to the limits of our vision. They are urging us not to draw a boundary for them because their standards are higher than the ones we set for ourselves. In demonizing our youth and speaking negatively about them all the time, we create generational and moral hubs which pose as a barrier and a divide. Rather than embrace them, we despise them; unfortunately they equally see us as adults who are not appreciative and who do not wish to inspire or encourage the youth. This is not a funny ping-pong, it is an unfair value that we have ingrained in our cultural template. However, things have to change and things must change for the better.
Just like there are bad adults so there are bad youth, just as the adults have potentials, the youth have even greater potentials. The gulf we create between the youth and the adults is most times, unmitigated and unnecessary. It is unhelpful, it is not redemptive; rather it destructive. If the youth are bad, it is also because there is something fundamentally wrong with the society and those who manage it-this is the first thing elementary sociology teaches us.
I am not moralizing; I am simply making a point in social cognitive development of people and the socialization processes. We learn, but we learn good or bad things; or we simultaneously learn good and bad things-that means we can apply either or both. Whichever we choose to apply depends on how society is structured and what it has to offer various social categories of people in society. We cannot abstract needs from deeds, action from cause. Every activity has its social origins and social consequences. This is how we should begin to relook the youth question. Let us all turn a new leave. If our children are bad, then we should examine ourselves and not blame our children for being bad. What went wrong and why? Have we done well in the training and upbringing of our children? Has the system done well in providing the infrastructure to support youth development? We must all honestly seek to answer these questions. We cannot shift the responsibility; neither can we be in denial. What have the adults done that made the youth sick of them? Let us for once turn the table and do a sober introspection of our actions.
By far the greatest challenge the youth face today is that they do not have access to representation, they are completely marginalised. They are given token representation in politics. Others always speak on their behalf, and others represent them; those who represent them are mere pawns in the hands of those who constitute the established political status quo. They therefore represent not the youth but the adults, while in government. Their social and ideological constituency is not the youth, they figuratively answer being youth representatives.
My point is that we perhaps too easily shift blame, or show impatience. We are too harsh on the youth and do not see what we ourselves as adults have done wrong to them. One way to approach the matter may be to detach ourselves from inherited stereotypes on the youth. Take for example the education sector. Can we truly say that the current crop of Nigerian students deserve what they get from our tertiary institutions? If we all went through the same kind of training, could we all have been so accomplished and empowered, in our various places of work? However, why is everybody maintaining a conspiratorial silence and leaving the struggle to revive the education sector to the NUT and ASUU? Why can’t we all show collective ownership, even as non-members of those unions? Why can we not insist on a genuine tripartite approach to resolving the educational crisis? Or, is it because we are compromised by our moral qualms? Or are we afraid of being labeled? Can labels or name-calling be a crude substitute for what is just and fair? What does it really matter, any way?
Today, there are many youth with talents, everywhere they went seeking employment they are told that they have “no experience”, as though experience can be manufactured in a vacuum. Many youth who would wish to be in self-employment cannot secure loans, not even from micro-finance groups. What does life mean to such youth? How much can we blame them for their subsequent decisions in life?
At every point in time, we should not rush to condemn the youth, we should look inwards to what we have done wrong or what we have not done right to encourage, inspire, mentor and support the youth. We need to know that at every point in time the youth are socially differentiated and ideologically divided. They are divided by economic means, educational standards, expectations, values and so on. The youth are also divided by negative and positive demands, negative and positive activities. They are open to all sorts of possibilities and challenges, and towards what direction they move depends on a number of factors, some are internal to them and some are not, some can be blamed on parents, schools, churches and mosques, community leaders, politicians and so on. We therefore all have to be held responsible for the youth crisis. We should not shift blame or buck pass. If the youth have disappointed us, it is also because we disappointed them; if we want the youth to change, we as adults must also change-it is a dialectical relationship.
I will conclude by noting that the youth are marginalized in many ways and in many spaces and sites, at home, school, religious and recreational sites and in the political arena. What this does is two fold; first, it denies them the opportunity to mature through mentoring and learning; second, it excludes them from political participation. We must realize that the youth have needs and how they think these needs can be met. We must hear them and create spaces and opportunities for them to express and experiment their ideas. If we block these spaces, it will only be at our perils. The overarching basis for all this is the political exclusion of youth. The mega question is how can we bring them back-in?