Bamidele Ademola-Olateju, the star whose half a century of life we have gathered here to celebrate, is many things to many people. No geo-political zone in this country, no age and cultural demographic, has been excluded from the purview of her humanistic intellectual and activist exertions in the arena of social justice.
I know it will sound unbelievable to those who know that she and I are activist soulmates but, yes, there have been times when she has been too busy for me. Even me.
I’ve had to queue up and wait for my time with her. Whenever Nigeria happens tragically to the less privileged as she so often does, Bamidele’s privileged friends and associates have learned to recede to the background of her preoccupations as she transforms into an amazon, embracing the trenches on behalf of the poor, the oppressed, the downtrodden. Thus, when Nigeria happened to Citizen X recently in Port Harcourt, Rivers state, Demola Olateju, Imani Olateju, Dipo Famakinwa, Dapo Rotifa, Kunle Ojeleye, Bayo Omisore, Pius Adesanmi and so many others knew they had to surrender their respective spots in her life to a total stranger.
After the tribulations of Citizen X in Rivers state came the tragedy of Citizen Y in faraway Bauchi state. As happens not infrequently in that part of the country, Citizen Y is an underage girl lured into early marriage and forced religious conversion. The privileged people in Bamidele’s life took a back seat as she launched an all-out war for the restoration of the human dignity of an under-privileged compatriot she had never met.
And here in Lagos, people know their Mummy G.O. They know the activist. They know the public intellectual. They know the most influential columnist for Premium Times. They know one of the most industrious farmers of the southwest. They know the “afigeleperin” of Facebook and the public sphere. They know the citizen of the Yoruba nation and the denizen the pan-Nigerian nation.
But they know not the street crawler…
They know not the Citizen Bamidele who wakes up and spends the day driving in the seediest and most dingy parts of Lagos.
“Bamidele,” I ask her, “what’s with this your crawling the streets of Lagos?”
“Pius, I am doing research,” she tells me.
“Yes, research. I want to understand the people my conscience pushes me to fight for. How can I speak truth to power on behalf of the street vendor, the newspaper vendor, the roadside mechanic, the Danfo driver, the Danfo conductor, the habitués of paraga joints, the victims of Nigeria’s big men and women if I do not spend time with them? How can I fight for them if I do not learn to see Nigeria through their eyes? Pius, do you know that N20, 000 can change a life at some levels in this country? But you cannot just throw N20, 000 at a problem in somebody’s life. How does the vulcanizer in Oshodi define economic opportunity and capital? These are the issues I try to understand as I set out a few times a week to crawl the streets of Lagos and be one with the perspectives of the downtrodden.”
Bottomline: east, west, north, south, Bamidele Ademola-Olateju’s life is a pedagogy of self-sacrifice for project Nigeria, of an unalloyed subscription to the possibilities of national becoming that have been truncated for so long by our two twin tragedies: visionless leadership and an enslaved followership hostile to the very idea of being liberated from Stockholm syndrome. Of all these constituencies that she invests her considerable intellect in, none has exercised our subject, and none has retained her attention more than Nigeria’s horde of millennials – that demographic born mostly in the 1990s. Some would include those born in the 1980s in that category.
I guess Bamidele is especially drawn to millennials because they are Nigeria’s first truly orphan generation. If you study carefully the history of Nigeria, warts and all, you will discover that no generation has ever had to come of age without being symbolically parented and guided by values, morals, ethics, and a clear-cut demarcation between right and wrong. Every generation has always offered heroes and role models as national torch bearers and examples for younger and succeeding generations. The millennials are the first generation we raised without credible role models. They are the first generation we taught to relativize crime, theft, corruption, right, and wrong.
If you came of age in Nigeria before the 1980s and the 1990s, everything that is wrong with the Nigeria of today’s millennials was equally wrong with your own Nigeria. In certain instances, your own Nigeria was even worse. If your Nigeria were better than the mess we currently have, Chinua Achebe wouldn’t have had to write The Trouble with Nigeria. What distinguished your imperfect Nigeria in the past from the imperfect Nigeria of the millennials in the present is the fact despite all the putrefaction around you, the older generation immediately before you gave you role models who taught you to ask such questions as:
Did he steal?
Why did he steal?
What becomes of his family’s name now?
Faced with the same fact of theft and in exactly the same circumstances, today’s millennials are the first generation we raised and taught to ask:
Is he the only thief?
Is it your father’s money that he stole?
Is it not our turn to steal?
Why are you witch hunting only my own thieves?
What about your own thieves?
Millennials are also of course the first generation we raised not to care about how to spell leave our son alone correctly. They prefer: “LIVE our son alone!” Finally, millennials are the first generation we are openly raising along these lines in social media madrassas of hate and intolerance run by many shameless agbayas in my own and older generations.
There is more. You will recall that in your own imperfect Nigeria, at no time was it a crime to question power and challenge authority. Political actors of the First and Second Republics were consistently challenged, criticized, engaged, and very often rubbished by the people. Even the most sacrosanct political figures and heroes of bygone eras were consistently challenged and critiqued by the people. The same applies to our worst military traducers. None was above criticism even at the height of their power.
Decree 4 did not help the current President of Nigeria when he was in power in the 1980s, he was constantly critiqued and challenged. Settlement and co-optation did not help Ibrahim Babangida. He could not muzzle the people. Abacha rolled out tanks and mowed down people in broad daylight in Lagos. It did not help him. It did not place him above criticism. In fact, guerilla journalism developed right under Abacha’s nose. At no time did Nigerians police fellow Nigerians and muzzled their right to critique and challenge power and authority.
We have enabled precisely such a strange phenomenon in the era of millennials. We no longer need jackboots to muzzle us. Citizens try to muzzle fellow citizens on behalf of power. As far as I know, this is the first time in our history when citizens self-police and also police fellow citizens in order to ensure that no voice is raised to engage or critique or question political heroes deemed saints.
A Nigeria in which it was once possible to question, critique, undermine, and disagree with Nnamdi Azikiwe, Obafemi Awolowo, and Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa has become a space in which you may critique EFCC corruption indictees only at your own peril. A Nigeria in which it was once possible to challenge and disagree with heroes like Wole Soyinka and Gani Fawehinmi has become a space where to ask questions about rogues like Femi Fani-Kayode and Dino Melaye is to run the risk being shouted down by diseducated products of social media madrassas who would tolerate no questioning of their rogue heroes.
How did we get to this point? There will be as many answers to this question as there are people in this hall. As you reflect on this question, many of you will perhaps come to understand why millennials are so crucial to Bamidele’s work for Nigeria. Furthermore, as you ponder this question, there is an important point I want you to bear in mind: I am neither blaming nor holding millennials responsible for the scenarios I have thus far described.
If anything at all, I am praising them. I am praising even the most Stockholm syndromed among them. I am trying to understand and sympathize with even the most fanatical excusers and justifiers of EFCC corruption indictees among them. After all, even in the context of our overall leadership rot, every previous generation was nurtured and mentored by a few bright spots of exemplary characters in our firmament. If previous generations that were mentored still made such a thorough mess of Nigeria, how much more millennials who were nurtured in the diseased morality and ethical desert of the order we instituted in 1999?
You, elders in the hall, grew up in a Nigeria where the dominant public ethos was crime and punishment. Yet, punishment was no sufficient deterrence for you not to mess up the country. How much more a generation to which we subsequently bequeathed an ethos of crime without punishment? No, make that crime with the immense reward of material wealth and improved social standing. I understand, for instance, that the Senator representing my federal constituency, notorious for flaunting wealth whose source is anybody’s guess, has been rewarded with more than one hundred chieftaincy titles in this country. How do you expect the millennials whose only national reality is this pervasive system of crime and reward to turn out?
No, I am not blaming them. I am accounting for the crimes we have collectively committed in creating the context in which we have been raising a generation on whose young shoulders lies the future of Nigeria. This is the generation which bears the responsibility of assuring Nigeria’s place in a new world order governed by what is known as the global knowledge economy. This the generation we expect to bring genius and innovation and apps to bear on the strategic envisioning of Nigeria for the 21st century and beyond. I am trying to account for why Bamidele engages that demographic with such a missionary sense of urgency. Deep down in her heart she knows that every time we fail to win one of these young people for Nigeria, Dasuki and his ATM gain an ardent defender. Every time we lose one millennial because of the absence of credible role models, the social media madrassas of renegade goats undergoing degoatification gain an ardent defender.
I am also trying to tease out one suspicion I have always entertained. Those of us from previous generations, the generations that were mentored by role models but yet failed Nigeria and made a terrible mess of her, have arrogated to ourselves the right to assess, evaluate, and draw up the report card of millennials. I suspect we do this because we are their uncles, aunts, and parents. Often, we pronounce judgement and declare them failures. We wince in pain every time we encounter their terrible grammar and syntax on social media. We perorate about the quality of the education we received every time we determine that they are displaying inferior reasoning and intellect. After each NYSC passing out parade, the graduates among them invade social media, thanking God in grammar that God cannot understand. We squirm in agony and proclaim that Nigeria is doomed.
Are we too harsh on the new generation? Are we in the position to judge and evaluate the generation that created Nollywood, rejuvenated our music industry, created Andela, Budgit, Nairaland and is holding its own in the world of IT hubs, is expanding the frontiers of innovation and entrepreneurship – and doing all of this in a country which has offered them nothing? Led by President Buhari, Babatunde Fowler, and Godwin Emefiele, older generations which offered these kids nothing and no stake in project Nigeria are now in fact busy stealing jobs from them in the era of change and rigging such jobs exclusively for their own children. All entreaties to the President to address this dent on his image and give millennials hope that the President is against denying them a fair shot at opportunity has been greeted with stubborn and tragic silence.
The question bears then repeating: are we too harsh on millennials? There are at least three generations before them and they all failed to set Nigeria on the right path. Is it fair to impute even partial responsibility for these antecedent failures to them? If you ask me, I think we are too harsh on them. In fact, I think we are too harsh on ourselves and the generations before us. In fact, I am no longer so sure about the underlying premise of our work as dissatisfied public intellectuals. Our premise is simple: successive generations of Nigerians ought to have done better for this country, could have done better for her. Millennials are the scape goat summation of what we then deem a failure to deliver for Nigeria. But are we right in believing that every generation of postcolonial Nigerians ought to have done better? Did any generation ever really possess what it would have taken to do better for Nigeria? Are we not asking Nigerians to give what they never had?
To answer these questions, you will have to cast your minds back to one of the most tragic episodes in the recent memory of this country. Perhaps I should not even say recent for the millennials that we are talking about were still mostly infants when June 12 happened to this country. June 12 was Hope 93. June 12 was MKO Abiola. June 12 was MKO Abiola’s post-annulment colourful proverbs. Indeed, the political portents of June 12 have been studied extensively but the contributions of that episode to language and linguistics have yet to be adequately engaged. Abiola’s flowery proverbs were perhaps only surpassed by the conceptual sagacity of Yoruba news anchors on radio and television as they tried to capture the ramifications of the tragedy inflicted on Nigeria during that episode by Ibrahim Babangida.
No sooner had Babangida foisted the Ernest Sonekan-led interim national government on the country than Yoruba news anchors began to describe that political contraption as an “ijoba fidihe”. The descriptor, “fidihe”, spread like Chinua Achebe’s proverbial bushfire in the harmattan. If there was ever an idea of something going viral before the era of social media, it was “fidihe”. The word was greeted with excitement all over Yoruba land but, of course, it also guaranteed ignominy for Chief Ernest Shonekan and the contraption he agreed to lead.
Fidihe! To seat precariously and tentatively on one buttock! The semantic recesses of that word are infinite. It connotes tentativeness, patch-patch, and temporariness. Fidihe is ad hoc. Fidihe connotes a solution of convenience imagined on the spur of the moment as a temporary fix until something more durable, something more permanent, something more genuine, something worthier can be thought of to replace it. And just in case you’re thinking that fidihe could ever become a permanent solution to anything, just imagine the physical contortion of seating down on only one buttock. You may try it out right now on your chair and let’s see how long you last on your one buttock before falling down!
When the late Uncle Tai Solarin travelled across Nigeria upon his return from England in the 1950s, what he witnessed was fidihe at work on so many levels. He eventually put his thoughts together in a small book of essays which he published in 1959. The book is entitled Towards Nigeria’s Moral Self Governance. I wasn’t previously aware of this book until I began to do the research for this lecture and found it in the library of Carleton University’s Institute of African Studies. If the governments of Western Nigeria had any sense, they would collaborate with DAWN on how to publish a new edition of this book with an introduction by an established scholar and make it compulsory reading in all state-owned Institutions of higher learning in the region.
But I digress. By 1959 when the book was published, it was already pretty much a settled matter that Nigeria as a geographical and political entity was pretty much a fidihe contraption hurriedly put together by the British. After all Chief Obafemi Awolowo had famously described her as a mere geographical expression because there are no Nigerians in the sense in which there a French people for instance. What Chief Solarin added to this picture – and this is why his book is so original and still rings so true today – is to confront us with evidence drawn from east to west, north to south that even the people in the said geographical contraption are also fidihe.
There you have it! A fidihe country inhabited since 1914 by a fidihe people who have never been able to or have never been incentivized to find a way out of their foundational fidihehood. How can a fidihe people do better for a country in the 21st century? Nigeria never really stood a chance because the foundational fidihe model of peoplehood cobbled together by the British has never ever been transcended. This is why every generation of Nigerians has treated the country as a passing opportunity for corrupt material enrichment and nothing more.
I guess that part of Bamidele’s work with mentoring millennials stems from one sliver of opportunity that is often unnoticed. Millennials may be the most abused set of Nigerians in terms of our criminal failure as elders to give them heroes and role models. But they are also the only generation of Nigerians that can transcend the tragedy of fidihehood via new modes of being and becoming. They are also the first to be able to transcend our pettiness as their elders and look up to global heroes of success and triumph made ubiquitous by social media. They really don’t need us to motivate them. They have Mark Zuckerberg to look up to. They have Serena Williams to look up to. Right under our noses, Mark Zuckerberg has reached out to lift Iyinoluwa Aboyeji and his Andela.
By believing in millennials and betting on them, Bamidele is betting on the future of Nigeria.
Her work beckons you to go and do likewise.
I thank you for your time.
(Text of Bamidele @ 50 birthday lecture. Lagos, July 9, 2016)