The Insurmountable(?) Divide of Age: A short and likely-incomplete history of youth interventions in the politics and governance of Nigeria.
Let’s start with five quotes which I’ve randomly assembled, and which suggest that the debacle of ‘old versus young’ is one of the commonalities of human existence across space & time:
“The old think the young are lazy and entitled. The young think the old are incompetent and inefficient.” — Joanie Connell, PhD
“The young people think the old people are fools — but the old people know the young people are fools.” — quote from an Agatha Christie novel
“Old people were young people before young people were people.” — attributed to Tom Wyatt
“That’s the duty of the old, to be anxious on behalf of the young. And the duty of the young is to scorn the anxiety of the old.” — Philip Pullman
“The hand of the child cannot reach the shelf, nor can the hand of the adult get through the neck of the gourd.” — Yoruba proverb
In my view, Nigeria’s traditional fault-lines are Religion (Christianity vs Islam, primarily), Region (North vs South; and all six geopolitical sub-groups in multiple oppositional combinations), Ethnicity (Igbo vs Yoruba vs Hausa vs ‘insert any of the other hundreds of groups’), and Partisan Affiliation (which has changed from generation to generation; NPC vs NCNC vs AG; NPN vs UPN, SDP vs NRC, PDP vs ANPP vs AD, PDP vs CPC vs ACN, now PDP vs APC)
Now this should be obvious — but it only recently struck me that there’s a fault-line that we have not reckoned with as much: the Gener-AGE-tional one, i.e. Old vs Young. The young perpetually feeling they’ve arrived and done something that has never been done before; the old amused, contemptuous and dismissive all at once.
You can classify these fault-lines on the basis of their fluidness/mutability: The fluid ones: Age, Religion, Partisan Affiliation on the one hand, and the immutable rest (Region and Ethnicity). Re Age: it is the most fluid of the lot, the fluidity being certain and inexorable. No one is forever young, and no one is old without having once been young. Also, the definitions of young and old are not static; they vary from place to place and even within the same place from time to time.
There’s also an inherent relativity that uniquely applies to age— in a roomful of octogenarians, a sixty-year-old is naturally deemed “young”. Also, a 35 year old writer can be deemed ‘young’ while a 35 year old footballer or tennis player or boxer is (kinda) old. That’s how age and its definitions and perceptions work. (For the purposes of this piece, note that youth will acceptably range from the 20s all the way to the 40s).
The generational divide in Nigeria (nothing new, by the way!) has come to the fore most recently with the ENDSARS protests. Young people feeling like this was their chance to assert themselves in a country whose leadership structures generally do not reflect the reality of the national demographic in any way. For this generation of twenty-somethings, it was definitely a coming-of-age moment; an exhilarating induction into an awareness of the possibilities of power and influence available to be wielded in shaping the future of their country.
I have been struck by the popularity of the sentiment among young people that the ENDSARS protests were the first-ever awakening of youth in the history of Nigeria — sentiments captured in the “Sorosoke Generation” self-definition (translation: “The Generation that Spoke/Speaks Up!”), versus their parents who are “Gbenudake Generation” (translation: “Those Who Shut Up / Kept Quiet / Chose Silence!”).
“We are doing what our parents failed to do,” the young people of Nigeria seemed to be saying, gleefully, during the protests.
Watching it all unfold has made me think about many things, including the roles of young people in shaping the post-independence history of Nigeria; the various significant junctures in the history of Nigeria, in which the young and relatively-young have masterminded one form of intervention or the other, with varying degrees of success — whatever success might mean. (Keep in mind that all of those young interventionists of yesterday are the elders and and ‘ancestors’ of today. Yesterday’s sorosoke = Today’s gbenudake).
What follows is not an exhaustive list, of course; just my early thoughts on this; thoughts I hope to build on, reinforce — or perhaps repudiate — in the near future.
Here we go (I’m realising the narrative below is heavy on violent stuff: protests and coups and attempted coups, and at least one plane hijack and a Civil War — might there be a compelling counterpoint narrative that is being ignored here?):
In November 1960, hundreds of Nigerian students demonstrated against the Anglo-Nigerian Defence Agreement, which the Balewa Government would go on to sign with the United Kingdom in January 1961, a few months after Independence, and which was stridently opposed by a motley coalition of the opposition Action Group and student groups. The student protesters did succeed in invading the Parliament Building, and Cabinet Premises, assaulting officials in the process.
Another series of anti-Defence Pact (and pro-Patrice Lumumba) protests followed in February 1961, led by the Nigerian Youth Congress. At the end of the day, the Nigerian Government was forced to (in truth as much in response to external circumstances as to internal pressures) jettison the Pact, in January 1962.
January 1966: The first coup d’etat in Nigeria’s history. A band of ‘revolutionary’ young men, all military officers (Major/Captain rank), all in their late 20s and early 30s: Kaduna Nzeogwu, Emmanuel Ifeajuna; Timothy Onwuatuegwu; Chris Anuforo; Humphrey Chukwuka; Donatus Okafor; Adewale Ademoyega, Ogbonnaya Oji
It was a bloody affair, by the time it was over, 27 people lay dead, including some of the most high-profile politicians in the land. This intended ‘revolution’ didn’t quite work out, but it did put an end to democracy, usher in military rule in Nigeria, and arguably set the stage for the Civil War of 1967–1970.
The Civil War: How that Civil War played out largely came down to the whims and caprices of two young men. One 32 (Yakubu Gowon), the other 33 (Odumegwu Ojukwu). Both senior military officers, the former occupying the position of Head of State of Nigeria and the latter as Head of State of the breakaway Republic of Biafra. (Both were surrounded by officials and advisers that included much older men).
The February 1976 (failed) coup — a bunch of young revolutionaries, led by thirty-something-year-old Lt. Col. Bukar Suka Dimka, assassinated Head of State Murtala Muhammed in Lagos traffic in February 1976. Muhammed was only 37, and had himself taken power in a coup that deposed the 40-year-old General Gowon in July 1975.
The Newbreed vs Oldbreed debacle: In late 1987, the then military President Babangida placed a political ban on all persons who had previously held senior government positions, since Independence in 1960 — leading to the classification of politicians as “Newbreed” vs “Oldbreed”. “Tens of thousands of people” were affected by the ban, noted the New York Times, when the ban was lifted in December 1991.
The 1989 SAP Riots: Lagos, Benin and Port Harcourt, May/June 1989. Student protests against the SAP economic policy of the Babangida administration. Those were the days when Student Union Governments were the most powerful youth blocs in the land, and their modest sneezing certain to trigger an unnerving bout of cold in the corridors of power.
The 1990 Coup — Gideon Orkar was 37 when he led the failed 1990 coup against General Babangida. Many of his co-conspirators were equally young men.
June 12: Young Nigerians were at the forefront of the protests against the annulment of the June 12, 1993 Presidential Election, and the subsequent pro-democracy struggle.
The October 1993 plane hijack: Four teenagers — Richard Ogunderu, Kabir Adenuga, Benneth Oluwadaisi, and Kenny Razaq-Lawal, armed with guns and knives, and associated with a shadowy group that called itself the Movement for the Advancement of Democracy (MAD) — hijacked a Nigerian Airways Airbus A310 plane heading from Lagos to Abuja, and diverted it to Niamey, Niger Republic, on October 25, 1993. They demanded the resignation of the Interim National Government (ING) that was in power in Nigeria at the time, the de-annulment of the June 12 elections, and the swearing-in of the presumed winner, Chief Moshood Abiola.
They gave a 72-hour ultimatum, failing which they would blow up the plane. Nigerien security agents stormed the plane days later and ended the siege, arresting the hijackers. They would end up spending close to a decade in prison in Niger Republic. “We wanted change,” their leader would later say, in an interview, going ahead to admit the “extreme” nature of their intervention.
The November 2000 Under-50 Meeting in Benin City, Edo State: I recently heard (for the first time) about this initiative by a group of young(er) Nigerian politicians and professionals — 47 of them — to create an influential coalition on the Nigerian political landscape, in the early days of Nigeria’s 4th Republic.
Prominent members included Adams Oshiomhole (48 at the time), Labour Union leader at the time, Aliko Dangote (43), Senate President Anyim Pius Anyim (39), Speaker Ghali Umar Na’Abba (42), and no fewer than 14 State Governors — indeed a good number of the first batch of 4th Republic State Governors were relatively young; in their late 30s and early 40s.
There are paywalled news stories from what I believe was their inaugural meeting, hosted by Governor Lucky Igbinedion of Edo State, at the Edo State Government House in Benin — here, and here, and here.
The story is that the letters of invitation for that November 11, 2000 meeting were sent only to persons below the age of 50, and that it was Governor Donald Duke of Cross River who sent out the invites. They called themselves the “the National Integration Group (NIG).”
I haven’t read the paywalled stories yet, so when I do I’ll be sure to add an update. At the time the meeting reportedly resurrected the old national debate about oldbreed versus newbreed. The initiative sadly fizzled out — from what I’ve heard President Obasanjo was not terribly excited about it.
2010 Enough is Enough Protests: A group of young Nigerians marched in Abuja and Lagos, in March 2010, to protest the non-transfer of power to the then Vice President Goodluck Jonathan, even when it was obvious that President Umar Musa Yar’Adua was in no position to exercise presidential powers. That movement birthed the activist group, Enough Is Enough Nigeria.
2012 Occupy Nigeria Protests: Protests against the removal of petrol subsidies and massive corruption in the oil sector. The Save Nigeria Group that kickstarted the protests was a diverse coalition of not-so-young activists, politicians and professionals — but young people played prominent roles as well, especially in deploying social media to craft and amplify narratives and to mobilise participation.
2020 ENDSARS Protests: The latest youth-led ‘intervention’ in the affairs of Nigeria. The interesting difference between this and the previous ones is actually a gender one — the prominence of young women in the coordination and organization and sustenance of the protests. [The idea of a ‘leaderless’ movement is actually a myth, and one that is likely to endure. That there were no formal leadership positions does not mean there were no ‘leaders’ — persons looked up to by others for fundraising and financial administration, logistics, messaging and communications, and so on].
Most of these people happened to be young women — see here (Quartz), here (TIME), here (Elle), here (WaPo) and here (The Cable); prominent global female celebrities and influencers like Hilary Clinton, Beyoncé, Rihanna, and Lizzo actively lent their voices on social media.
I wonder what this portends for the future: might we be entering an age of increased engagement in politics and civic engagement by young Nigerian women? Would be interesting to see what follows; what becomes of the awakened/energized consciousness, even as it dovetails with the rise of feminist consciousness in Nigeria’s middle-class and elite circles. (At this point I should note that the 2014-till-date ‘Bring Back Our Girls’ campaign for the abducted Chibok girls was also female-led; the difference is that the rallying female coalition of ENDSARS is younger; mostly women in their twenties).
Until now, the post-independence political history of Nigeria has been dominated by men; no question about that. (Among other things it is of course a shame that no woman has ever been elected State Governor in Nigeria — even female Deputy Governors are far from the norm — and that women continue to be vastly under-represented in the political space).
I will pause here, and probably return to build on what I have outlined above, and perhaps draw conclusions and learnings, etc.
PS. But before I end I cannot resist the temptation to chip in a comment about a non-political/activist space in which (relatively) young Nigerians have consistently made their mark over the decades: Banking and Financial Services. Perhaps this is because banking is a field that (unlike mainstream Nigerian politics?) readily yields itself to disruption. I’m thinking of what the Fola Adeolas and Tayo Aderinokuns and Jim Ovias pulled off in the late 1980s, the Tony Elumelus and Aigboje Aig-Imoukhuedes and Herbert Wigwes in the early to mid-2000s, and the Paystack and Flutterwave (etc) guys in the late 2010s. Perhaps we can explore this angle in a future piece. For now consider it a digression…