By Ike Okonta
“As I watch you, Nigerian youth, take to the streets and the social media insisting that enough is enough and that the time has come for you to take your country back, I can only express my pride in your generation. You are not talking ethnicity. You are not talking religion. You are simply saying that Nigeria presently is not working, and that you are now determined to make it work.
This is a noble sentiment. And I stand with you in your latest endeavor.“
You call yourselves the ‘Japa’ generation. And quite rightly. Nigeria at present is a mess politically, socially and economically, and you want to migrate to Europe and North America where governments are more serious and accountable to their people. Migration is as old as human history, and people have always moved to other climes in search of fulfillment or adventure. I therefore refuse to criticize you for doing what others before you all over the world have always done.
But you also call yourselves the ‘Sore Soke’ generation – the young people who in late 2020 took on the might of the Nigerian police and in one week’s display of outrage, public demonstrations and sheer courage, used the ‘End Sars’ campaign to draw the nation’s attention to the corruption and highhandedness that are the hallmarks of policing in this country. President Muhammadu’s response to your peaceful and patriotic gathering at Lekki Toll Gate was to unleash the murderous Nigerian Army against you, shooting and killing you even as you were waving the national flag and singing the national anthem. I salute you, Nigerian youth.
And now you have decided to intervene in the nation’s political arena after watching Nigerian politicians use their positions to enrich themselves and their relatives since the advent of the Fourth Republic in 1999, leaving the rest of the country a social and economic wreck. I want to tell you that your decision to join the political fray is long overdue and is in fact in the Nigerian tradition going back to the early 1940s. It was the students of Kings College, Lagos that, angered at the depredations of British colonial rule and the seeming inability of Nigerian nationalists to unite and move against it, visited Herbert Macaulay and Nnamdi Azikiwe in 1944 and charged them with the task of establishing a political party that would unite all Nigerians and galvanise them to demand for independence immediately. Thus was born the National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroun (NCNC.)
It can therefore be rightly said that Nigerian youth paved the way for independence in October 1960. But Nigerian youth did not just stand on the sidelines and watch the older politicians politic. They played a pivotal role in guiding the politics of the time by establishing the Zikist Movement in the early 1950s, uniting the North and the South in their insistence that independence be granted to Nigeria on the basis of socialism and a political structure that did away with the old three regions and put in their place a more balanced federation of several states. The Zikist Movement was Nigeria’s first truly pan-national political movement, eschewing ethnic and religious sentiments and insisting that the country’s true enemy was British colonial rule and that it should be confronted by all Nigerians pulling together.
It is also a fact that the older politicians stabbed members of the Zikist Movement in the back and turned away from the pan-Nigerian ideals they had espoused in their rush to take over the reins of government from the departing British in 1960. The result was a bloody military coup six mere years after independence, a bloodier counter-coup and then a civil war that left the rest of the world asking whether Nigerian leaders had what it took to hold Africa’s most populous nation together as a united entity. I make bold to say that had the older politicians paid attention to what members of the Zikist Movement had to say concerning governance and political cohesion in the country, the chaos and bloodletting that marked the 1960s would have been avoided.
Nigerian youth intervened again in June 1993 when Moshood Abiola won the presidential election but General Ibrahim Babangida for self-serving reasons refused to hand over the government of the country to him. Even long before this event, Nigerian youths had been mobilizing against Babangida’s hare-brained Structural Adjustment Programme that had left ordinary Nigerians even more impoverished. They also wanted an immediate end to military rule and a return to democratic government. The annulment of the presidential election result in June 1993 presented them with a welcome opportunity to do away with the military altogether and they did this with uncommon courage and political agility. The birthing of the Fourth Republic in May 1999 is the gift that Nigerian youth bequeathed to grateful Nigerians.
It is now an obvious fact that the promises of the 1999 have not been fulfilled. The politicians have not learnt their lessons. Like their predecessors in the un-lamented First and Second Republics they have deployed ethnic and religious stratagems to hide their true objectives – plundering the national treasury. In all indices of national development, Nigeria is virtually crawling on the floor. That explains the decision of you, Nigerian youth, to intervene politically. I heartily welcome you to the arena.
A good number of you have chosen to support the candidacy of Peter Obi. The reason for your choice is still a mystery to me but I respect your choice, nevertheless. However, my experience dealing with Nigerian politicians is that you cannot afford to give them a blank cheque, believing that they will execute the right policies and programmes once they get elected. You must rally together as youth and identify the core policies and programmes you want to see implemented and press them on Peter Obi. Even more important, you must unfurl a Nigerian Youth Charter as a guide to your future interactions with all Nigerian politicians, Peter Obi included. Also, assuming Peter Obi gets elected, you must insist that Nigerian youth occupy at least thirty percent of all the cabinet positions.
I was a youth like you when as a political journalist, I joined thousands of other youth to take on General Ibrahim Babanagida in the early 1990s. If my generation has any achievement, it is that we gave Nigeria democracy in 1999. But that achievement is fast turning into a Pyrrhic victory as I watch on the sidelines as the very prize some members of my generation paid the supreme price for has been turned into an avenue for incompetent and corrupt politicians to do as they please with the nation’s destiny. As I watch you, Nigerian youth, take to the streets and the social media insisting that enough is enough and that the time has come for you to take your country back, I can only express my pride in your generation. You are not talking ethnicity. You are not talking religion. You are simply saying that Nigeria presently is not working, and that you are now determined to make it work.
This is a noble sentiment. And I stand with you in your latest endeavor.
Dr Okonta was until recently Leverhulme Early Career Fellow in the Department of Politics at the University of Oxford. He now lives in Abuja.