Thursday, May 5, 2011

What Next for the Youth Vote?

Perhaps the most significant subtext of the 2011 elections was a statistic: 70 percent of Nigeria’s population is under 35. In the course of the campaign, various candidates sought to lay claim to the “youth vote” via campaigning on social media platforms and direct engagements in youth-oriented forums. The polls were marked by a very significant upsurge in youth activism. Many young people shed their aloofness and got involved.

This youth majority has serious implications for our public life and politics.

The question is: Now that the polls are over, what next? We would be mistaken to believe that simply voting is the extent of our task. Our work is only just beginning. Nations are not transformed in election cycles but in generational cycles. Therefore, the emergence of the post-oil boom generation (those born roughly between 1975 and 1990) as a putative demographic majority, holds possibilities for national renewal.

Nnamdi Azikiwe proposed that the most critical dialectic in the evolution of nations is generational conflict. “Youth,” he wrote, “act as a sort of catharsis to society. It is the revolt of youth against the injustice of the old which enables old age to realize that it needs a new set of values, morally or otherwise.” He believed that the contest between youth and senescence is history’s decisive dynamic. The contest is over who owns the future and thus has the right to define it. In Azikiwe’s conception, youth transcends physical and physiological conditions; it is a state of mind, a new way of perceiving reality. It is a psychic disposition towards discontent with the status quo; a hunger for innovation and progress.

Over the past half-century, our sense of nation has been defined by a particular generation born between 1930 and 1945. That generation became politically ascendant in 1966 after the fall of the First Republic; it fought the civil war and through cycles of coups and counter-coups ever since, it has remained the most influential faction of the Nigerian elite. The recurrent figures in our politics either belong to this generation or share its ideas. Wole Soyinka famously dubbed them “the wasted generation” for failing to fulfill Nigeria’s destiny.

This generation has continued to wield an altogether malign influence. Their values were inherited by their children, the independence generation, so-called because some of them were among the mass of flag-waving children on October 1960 or born in its wake. They came of age just as the oil boom briefly offered the material means of fulfilling our national potential and then receded, leaving behind the carnage of consumerism and corruption. The independence generation witnessed the collapse of the Second Republic and the abortion of the stillborn Third Republic. They placed their faith for national redemption in messianic military men and were sorely disappointed. They reacted by largely withdrawing emotionally and psychologically from the Nigerian project. Their politics is marked by abandonment and alienation. Their rhetoric is one of resignation and recrimination.

Because the wasted generation witnessed the sectarian perfidies of the First Republic and fought a bloody civil war as a result, its definition of Nigeria is as a patchwork quilt of mutually antagonistic tribes, perpetually on the brink of warfare. Despite the wasted generation’s rhetorical obsession with Nigerian unity, their sectarian vision of Nigeria has done more to undermine national solidarity than anything else. As our own generation comes of age, the hour has come to redefine Nigeria and what it means to be Nigerian.

Unlike the wasted generation and some of the independence generation who were born in a British colonial territory and first carried British passports, we are authentic sons and daughters of the Nigerian geopolitical reality – one hundred percent “omo naija.” We bear the burdens of its dysfunction and the accumulated derelictions of past generations. Unlike them, we have no memory of a time when Nigeria worked.

Whereas our parents were the first generation out of rural areas into the townships and managed tensions between their allegiances to tribe and nation, the post-oil boom generation are for the most part born and bred in sprawling, urban metropolitan spaces. We came of age in an epoch of globalization and many of us, through exposure, education, travel and work, have a bifocal consciousness of both local and global realities. We are thus obliged to operate in a social universe far larger and more diverse than that of our parents. We intermarry more and live and work far away from our natal communities. We are typically children of two or more worlds; socio-cultural hybrids for whom identity should neither be a lethal weapon nor a fatal weakness but merely a symbol of self-definition.

We grew up in a Nigeria in which “Where do you come from?” is the most frequently asked social question. It is an interrogation of origins; often an attempt to classify the subject of inquiry into a tidy category or frame neat stereotypes through which we may relate. With this query, we typecast each other and make ciphers of our compatriots. ‘Origin is Destiny’ is the chief principle of progress. We are denied our right to define ourselves as we deem fit and sentenced to a lifetime in straitjackets of inherited identity. Opportunities for self-actualization are circumscribed by where we come from. Accident of birth over which we have no control is frequently the main factor that influences our chances of success.

This is arguably our greatest failing as a society. We obsess too much with origin and too little about destination. We focus too much on divining narrow ethnic pasts at the expense of imagining a grand national destiny. We waste so much time and energy classifying “indigenes” and “non-indigenes” when only citizens are needed. The question should no longer be “Where do you come from?” but instead, “Where are you going?” Our place of birth should matter less than place of berth – our destination. Nation-building is much more about a perceived common future than a shared ethnic past. The passport to that future should be our state of mind rather than our state of origin. We should pay less heed to ancestral oracles and sharpen our powers of prophetic imagination.

This is not to advocate amnesia. Memory matters, for there can be no development without peace; no peace without justice; and no justice with memory. The process of rebuilding our future must include an accounting for its ruin. Even so, the vast majority of our country did not see the Civil War, so we can no longer sustain the definition and practice of politics as a continuation of the war by other means. What we have seen is the failure of previous generations to bury their antipathies and promote a just peace.

Nation-building requires faith, forgiveness and reconciliation. We must be willing to admit and overcome our bigotries and inherited prejudices; to seek first to understand before being understood. Whatever our political convictions, let us hold them with decency and civility and always with a respect for the other. Human life must be our most sacred temple and human dignity our highest ethic. We must reject the legacy of bad politics that condemns us to carry on cycles of strife and vengeance. For the sake of our children and theirs, we must become avatars of peace. Only by so doing can we proclaim new beginnings.

We have been conditioned to relate with each other in terms of negative stereotypes and mythical ethnic categories and to discuss Nigeria with clichés. Yet the fullness of our freedom as a people will come about only when we foster semantic liberties in our conversations and freely define ourselves without suffocating stereotypes.

The challenges now confronting us and which will assail our children are onerous. We will witness Nigeria’s population hit the 300 million mark just under thirty years from now. We could also witness the depletion of Nigeria’s oil reserves and/or the discovery of a new source of cheap alternative energy, both of which developments will throttle our current oil-based economy. Clearly, the failed politics of the past fifty years is unsustainable. This is why we must now design alternative ways and means of civic engagement.

Our promised land is a realm of boundless opportunities for vertical and horizontal mobility; where citizens are judged by their character and competence, not their creed, clan or gender; and where the only limit on our potentialities is our own consciousness.

Skeptics will argue that this is an unattainable ideal and that we are better off aspiring to what is realistic. I disagree. Nations do not progress by reaching for what is realistic but by striving for the ideal. It was never realistic to stop slavery or segregation or colonialism or apartheid or the holocaust. Our civilization will not advance by grasping the low-hanging fruits of the realistic but by reaching for the stars. By the sheer force of desire and discipline, we can translate the apparently impossible into the inevitable.

A nation is a dream in constructive fulfillment. If Nigeria is a nightmare, it is because we have acquiesced to the reprobate dreams of the vilest among us and relinquished our right to envision better as citizens. The time has come for us to dream boldly and dare in like spirit. Let us embrace it.

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