Friday, May 29, 2009

Rescuing the Renaissance Generation

There are many of us who believe that the emerging generation of Nigerians (the post-oil boom generation) is summoned by historical circumstances and providential necessity to construct a new Nigeria. However bleak our national condition might be, we have the potential to become the renaissance generation. We could go down in history as the generation that turned back the tide of decay and set this country firmly on the path to the greatness for which she is so clearly ordained. Our time could become a definitive dateline in the calendar of Nigeria’s odyssey.

Some of the portents are auspicious. There is a rich vein of discontent waiting to be tapped for this purpose. There is also a capacity for strategic fraternity and solidarity partly evidenced by the popularity of sites like Facebook and the connectivity made possible by the internet and GSM telephony. There are embryonic intimations of a nascent social order – a more cosmopolitan outlook, defiant of customary prejudices, divisive tendencies and sectarian polemics – a proudly pan-Nigerian identity construct is slowly emerging from the rubble of sectional politics and it is refreshingly different. This is the face of the generation that will save Nigeria from itself.

But the renaissance generation itself must be rescued before it can undertake to rescue society. A calling to national renewal will count for nothing if we fail to answer history’s summons. The real question is: Does this generation care enough about Nigeria to invest in her redemption? The answer, based on available evidence, is probably not. The Nobel laureate and social critic, Wole Soyinka once famously described his generation as “the wasted generation” for its pitiless squandering of Nigeria’s opportunities for greatness. We run the risk of going down in history as the generation that didn’t even turn up for the nation-building enterprise; an absentee generation of runaways made infamous by our dereliction of a historic duty.

Thirty years ago, young Nigerians could be found at the frontlines of social and civic engagement. Their voices were strident in the public arena. It was youths that protested and forestalled the Balewa government’s proposed Anglo-Nigerian defence pact; it was youths that launched the Ali-Must-Go protests during General Obasanjo’s rule and the anti-SAP demonstrations during the Babangida years. It was young Nigerians that founded the Civil Liberties Organization and the Constitutional Rights Project among other groups that were to form the spine of the civil society’s anti-military resistance. Our national anthem enjoins us to always remember “the labours of our heroes past”. Indeed the exploits of the great nationalists of yore, Azikiwe, Awolowo, Aminu Kano, Herbert Macaulay, Michael Imoudu did not come at the crest of old age but in the prime of their youth.

Today, Nigerian civil society is in a kind of suspended animation and is badly in need of fresh blood and youthful vigour to pilot it in new directions. Part of the problem is that the culture of civic participation was virtually destroyed during the eighties and nineties when the trio of military dictators – Buhari, Babangida and Abacha undertook the most comprehensive subversion of civil society in our history. Our generation which grew up during military rule and has only a fleeting acquaintance with democratic culture needs to learn the principles of civic participation. This is important. Our experience of power and governance was of the buccaneering variety rendered by military regimes. This experience frames our modes of engagement in the public space. The utility of violence among young people under the auspices of campus cults, militant groups and other conclaves is in a profound sense, the legacy of military rule – a consequence of the militarization of the public space.

This is only half of the problem. Nigerian youths are more likely to be found today in religious gatherings, crusade meetings, sports viewing centres, beer parlours and clubs. If this generation is to fulfil its calling as the renaissance generation, then it must itself be delivered from the opiate of sterile spirituality and the entrancement of an increasingly bankrupt popular culture. The evidence suggests that a cynical dumbing down of a generation is in progress. Consider that by all accounts Nigerian youths are in poor shape bent double under the yoke of mass unemployment and mass unemployability. Examination scores of secondary school leavers have been plunging steadily for more than a decade. The failure rate is currently over 70 percent. From all indications, ours is a generation with few or no prospects. Yet we are plied relentlessly with a panorama of activities and images designed to distract us from reality. This goes beyond the habitual failure of government. Even the private sector corporations ostensibly imperilled by the growing shortages of skilled manpower are the biggest promoters of an increasingly widespread culture of mindless entertainment.

A cursory perusal of the fare on television yields images of able-bodied youths in dance-a-thons, sing-along contests, and various reality shows that tend towards hedonism. Everything on air points towards a celebration of frivolity and a trivialization of the challenges facing young people in this country. Let us remember that Nigeria suffers severe limitations in basic literacy and numeracy. Yet there is a fastidious lack of investment in the intellectual capacities of our youth. Programmes that promote intellectual armaments are jarringly absent. What passes for entertainment is hopelessly low-concept. Our youth programmes feature an unhealthy fixation on physicality. If we are to think of the brain as a muscle that is toned with exercise then we must agree that our popular culture exercises every muscle but the most important one. About the most cerebrally tasking thing on Nigerian TV right now is the game show, Who wants to be a Millionaire?

On the other hand, there is the disturbing obsession our young people have with religion. I am not by any means proposing atheism; spirituality is a fundamental part of humanity and at its best is an agent of renewal and progress in society. But I fear that our youths are now largely under the thrall of personality cults masquerading as religious movements. Nigerian popular theology is intensely materialistic, promotes immediate self-gratification and is devoid of a social conscience. The Marxist definition of religion as an opiate is mostly true in Nigeria. It should not escape our attentions that the religious boom that multiplied churches and mosques in Nigeria occurred within the context of urban decay, economic recession and the collapse of our communities. This is no coincidence. As people have turned to religion, they have withdrawn from the public arena.

What would happen if the multitudes that turn up with alacrity at the sundry crusade grounds and prayer camps developed the same commitment towards renewing their communities? What if the young, upwardly, mobile and apathetic congregants of the so-called mega-churches in our urban areas repented of their existential cluelessness and were mobilized towards activism in the public square? What if religious leaders of different persuasions adopted a social and moral consensus to publicly interpret their faiths in terms of civility, courtesy, charity, good works, community service and social renewal? Imagine if pastors and imams mobilized their flock towards constructive ventures in the public space rather than destructive ventilations of angst in riots and inter-religious clashes that scarify our land?

If we cannot even imagine these occurrences or can only do so with great difficulty, then we must quickly reach the right conclusions. First, religion as we know it in Nigeria is under-developing our society and far from being a redemptive force is largely an escape hatch from reality, a fount of denial and a zone where civic irresponsibility crystallizes into pious hypocrisy. If the potential for a national renaissance is not to be aborted in our time, we must emancipate those of this generation that are now being anaesthetized into indifference and narcissistic individualism in our religious theatres.

Secondly, the tone and tenor of our popular culture must change. Private sector companies must devote their resources to sponsoring intellectually-stimulating fare as against the celebration of raw animal physicality of youth. We live in an age of brains not brawn and we must commit as a society to developing our intellectual armaments. Put another way, if we educate our children so that they can find a cure for HIV/AIDS, discover cheaper alternative energy or develop ways of renewing the vast areas of our country now being devastated by desertification and erosion, it would make a far greater impact on our social and economic reality than sponsoring them to contest in the World Street Dancing Championships or in international beauty pageants. We will not progress as a nation on the basis of how many street dancers and beauty queens we have.

We must realize that whereas the developed countries of the world are rich enough to afford certain levels of indolence, Nigeria is simply not in that league and can ill-afford leisurely idleness. The problems facing us are daunting enough – they require seriousness and rigour not frivolity and banality. They require focus and commitment not the portfolio of distractions offered by a bogus spirituality.

No comments:

Post a Comment