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Nigeria: Pitfalls of Generational Shift

Image removed.For Their Tomorrow, We Gave Our Today! Thus goes the title of one of those useless hagiographic books published in the thick of Ibrahim Babangida’s treachery (let’s be clear: coup is treason, even if successful) and despotism: the beginning of the dictator’s elaborate attempts to smuggle himself into a nice corner of history. Apart from the customary pompousness associated with the Babangida brand, the book’s title goes right into the heart of the generational question in Nigeria’s national trajectory. Often, national discourse is framed, even by the most perceptive commentators, around issues of generational boundary-cutting with a view to determining the role played by successive generations of national and local managers in the defoliation of the Nigerian dream.

If Nigeria now ranks behind the likes of Chad, Mali, Niger Republic, Eritrea, and Burkina Faso in a disturbing number of indices of development and advancement, national angst usually places the blame on one generation or another. There is, of course, something Fanonian about our obsession with generations. After all, in discoursing decolonization and freedom for the Third World, Frantz Fanon had supplied one of the most enduring philosophies of the student movement in Nigeria – when we had NUNS and what later deserved to be called NANS. Generations of aluta-seasoned Nigerian students carried Fanon’s quote like a recharge card: “every generation, out of relative obscurity, must identify its mission and accomplish or betray it”. Today, the jokers who dare to assemble in our Universities and call themselves NANS deserve to be spanked.

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When we frame Nigeria as a linear and temporal progression from one generation to another, we are in essence in agreement that every generation has identified a mission – an idea of where to take Nigeria and how to make her mean. The cut is what mission they identified and how they proceeded to accomplish or betray it. No matter our disagreements on their strengths and weaknesses, it is safe to assume that history has largely resolved the question of what mission the generation that stretches from Herbert Macaulay to Obafemi Awolowo, Nnamdi Azikiwe and other anti-colonial icons set for themselves. Their perch in our places and spaces of memory is a good indication of how that generation acquitted itself of its mission within national and regional spheres. Members of that generation are deservedly residing in cool corners of national or ethno-national memory and need not detain us further here.

The title of Ibrahim Babangida’s self-serving book identifies a certain generation whose mission it was to sacrifice its present for the sake of what, back then, was still the “tomorrow” of a certain category of Nigerians. But for the tragedy of our circumstances, it is tempting to re-read Babangida’s book – actually a collection of his speeches - and have a good laugh over his propositions and presumptuousness. A good way to assess the “sacrifices” of Babangida’s generation is to examine the “tomorrow” in the title of his book closely. That “tomorrow” is now the devastating today of millions of Nigerians who were either in primary, secondary, and tertiary institutions or were in their early thirties contemplating life when Babangida gunned his way in as superintendent of their future. What is the quality of the today that Babangida and his generation beggared Nigeria into? The answer, I think, lies in the fact that Babangida’s is the most despised generation of national managers in Nigeria at the moment. They are in their sixties through to their advanced seventies. Some of them are still hanging around in government at over seventy. Some, like Olusegun Obasanjo, are pretending to be relevant to anything. National discourse often holds this generation responsible for the atrophy of our dreams and potentials. They are called names at every opportunity. Here is what a commentator wrote in response to a piece in my Sunday column for the newspaper, NEXT:

Posted by Sylvia on May 17 2009:Old men are the problem in this country. Tired, greedy, old men. By the way, shouldn't they all be dead by now? Of course not, they don't have high blood pressure from blackouts, go-slow, unemployment, unpaid pension, hospital bills, school fees... no, no blood pressure here. They just get fatter and fatter...rolling around like round barrels of oil...

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This view is fairly representative of the treatment of Babangida and his generation in national lore. I have myself referred to them in an op-ed as the generation of the “failed babas”. Wole Soyinka, in a caustic self-referential move, described his generation as a “wasted generation”. One does not need a Babalawo to decipher who exactly is wasted in that generation: the political and military managers of our national destiny; not Wole Soyinka or Chinua Achebe. The disastrous fortunes of the generation of the failed babas in national lore stems from the fact that they are the ones who took over from the foundational generation and proceeded to define Nigeria as food. They were so intellectually impecunious that the only metaphor that mobilized them as a generation was the idea of Nigeria as national cake. And they were prepared to kill anyone who got in the way of their philosophy of nation-as-food: ask Ken Saro-Wiwa; ask the nameless Niger Deltans that their army of occupation has murdered over the years. Once they identified their Fanonian mission as gorging, they proceeded to fulfill it with Stalinist thoroughness, reminding one of Ibembe Olokunrun, D.O. Fagunwa’s paean to the god of the stomach.

The colossal mess that the generation of the failed babas made of Nigeria has two major disadvantages, one a fallout of the other. The consequences of their failure are so devastating, so perennial as to become a sedative in the arena of national discourse and critical intervention. Flogging that generation has begun to dull the senses to the fact that a subtle generational shift has been going on for quite some time in the management of national destiny. If you are in your twenties through to your fifties, Nigeria has been in your hands for quite some time. All you need do is calculate the number of Senators, Reps, Governors, civil servants, and local government officials in that age bracket. The question then arises: if the generation whose tomorrow the Obasanjos, the Shagaris, the Buharis, the Babangidas, and other failed babas mortgaged is now relatively at the helm of affairs, what mission has it defined for itself in terms of project Nigeria?

This is where things get really depressing. Our generation’s provisional report card shows a proclivity for stratospheric, yahoo versions of every atrocity foisted on Nigeria by the older generation we routinely hold responsible for our travails. Some of the most corrupt Governors, Senators, and Reps since 1999 fall squarely in our generation. Gargantuan corruption in the civil service is anchored mainly by workers in our generation. Chief Olusegun Obasanjo must be having a good generational laugh at the expense of Tony Elumelu. The situation is indeed dire. For every Babatunde Fashola, Sullivan Chime, or Abike Dabiri that our generation has to show as possibilities of an alternative Nigeria, we have produced – and we keep producing - hundreds of Andy Ubas, Bukola Sarakis, Dimeji Bankoles, James Iboris, Gbenga Daniels, Lucky Igbinedions and the like. To all intents and purposes, Babatunde Fashola is not only cleaning up after the failed babas in Lagos, he also has to contend

with the propensity of his own generation to outdo preceding generations in wrecking Nigeria. The National Assembly, with an army of inchoate charlatans of the younger generation necessitating a magnifying glass to identify a few excellent Reps and Senators, is a perfect picture of the tragedy of our generation. You know things are really bad when President Yar’Adua of all people accuses you of slowness and inaction. The National Assembly’s service to the people is slow because it has not overcome the idea of Nigeria as food; hence the Ghana-must-go bag has become her most significant emblem in national imaginary.

How did a generational shift occur without a corresponding transformation in national ethos? How have we ended up with a new generation that has so far not even pretended to define a mission but seems bent on expanding the bacchanalian propensities of the generation before it? How is it that the new generation is conducting even worse elections than the generations before them? The fundamental problem here is that since service means food, accession to where service really matters in Nigeria is still largely by primogeniture, as the case of the Sarakis demonstrate vividly in Kwara state. What we essentially have is a transition from fathers to the sons and daughters they sired and groomed in the same kind of philosophies that have been Nigeria’s albatross since independence. Where generational shift does not happen by primogeniture, it still largely happens through prebends and the distribution of favors and privilege. Even the opportunity to contest for political office is a function of various zoning and distributive mechanisms that tie the hands of whoever is eventually “awarded” the party’s ticket to predetermined systems and ways of doing things. President Yar’Adua’s model of privilege-distribution via his daughters essentially means that we have produced new potential presidents or managers of Nigeria’s destiny in weighty capacities, all products of the food philosophy.

The response to these daunting problems of genuine generational shift lies in the continued expansion of a dissatisfied critical mass that consistently works at forcing an alternative vision of society through associative possibilities. Such initiatives of consistent dissatisfaction with mediocrity in the course of the search for viable alternatives will of course always meet with resistance on the part of the status quo and the hyper-satisfied dilettantes of power, especially in the Diaspora, who may transform themselves into distractions and professional demonologists, even as they play footsie with looters but focus should be the keyword of those driven by the power of their convictions that an alternative Nigeria is possible. It is heartening that associations and organizations devoted to radical change are springing up at home and abroad. Change Nigeria Project, Nigeria Leadership Forum, Nigeria Liberty Forum, Respect Nigerians Coalition, Nigeria Rally, and so many others have arisen to broaden the space of radical investment in alternative, just, fair, and humane possibilities. The future belongs to them.

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