The Next Generation Debate

Tolu Ogunlesi

It’s the kind of news that strikes you as unusual, for one reason: There’s a class of -tion words totally out of place in this part of the world – words like abdication, resignation, restitution. So you can imagine how intrigued I was when it emerged earlier this week that Holland’s Queen Beatrix announced she will be relinquishing the throne to her eldest son, Crown Prince Willem-Alexander, in March.
The 75-year-old Queen, in her speech, said: “Responsibility for our country must now lie in the hands of a new generation. I am deeply grateful for the great faith you have shown in me in the many years that I could be your Queen.” It is interesting to note that Queen Beatrix’s mother and grandmother also abdicated, in favour of their heirs.
The new King – the first male monarch in the country in several decades – is forty-five. So he’s not exactly a ‘youth’ / ‘yoot’. (unless of course we were speaking within the context of Nigeria, or Zimbabwe, where men twenty years past life-expectancy can still receive presidential waivers to enable them claim youthfulness).
But in the words of his mother, he represents a “new generation.” Which brings me to the issue at the heart of today’s column: the youth and ‘next-generation’ debate.
Some background, first. When the colonialists gave Nigeria up in 1960, they left the country to a class of men in their forties and fifties – the Balewas and Awos and Ziks and others. These men themselves had a younger coterie of people they mentored. Awolowo, for example, had the Bola Iges and Bisi Onabanjos, who, were 30 and 33 respectively, at Nigeria’s independence. By his early thirties Ige was already a prominent member of the Action Group.
When the military took over as ruling class, the median age for the leadership of Nigeria must have plunged by at least one decade. Those January 15, 1966 coup plotters were mostly, if not all, men in their late twenties. Younger, I realise, than I currently am. The pattern would continue for a while. When Yakubu Gowon and Odumegwu-Ojukwu led Nigeria into a civil war, they were only slightly older than I am. Gowon was 32, Ojukwu, 33. The 32-year-old Gowon appointed a 31-year-old Ukpabi Asika as the Administrator of the East Central State, and a Ken Saro-Wiwa barely out of his mid-twenties as Civilian Administrator of Bonny.
Oh the bliss of youthful power. One could go on and on. It’d be interesting to calculate the mean ages of Nigeria’s ruling classes from independence till date, and see what pattern would emerge.
It was that generation of military officers who first rose to prominence in 1966, who continued to rule, until 1979. They more or less came of age – married and had children – right there in the corridors of power: the Gowons, Mohammeds, Obasanjos, Danjumas, Yar’Aduas (all born in the 1930s). Behind them lay the slightly younger class of officers, born in the 40s – the Babangidas, Abachas, David Marks, Ogbehas, Rasakis, Usenis, Shagayas, etc who patiently waited their turn, which arrived fully in the mid-eighties (Babangida and Abacha straddled both generations). That class of officers, and their civilian friends, have essentially run this country since then.
Until, perhaps (and this is open to debate) the emergence of Goodluck Jonathan as President. He came from outside that power bloc; when they were consolidating their hold on power throughout the eighties and nineties he was a struggling PhD student and later mid-level bureaucrat tucked away in the creeky anonymity of the Niger Delta. There was a shortlived period during the Obasanjo era, it seems, when technocrat-outsiders such as the Okonjo-Iwealas, el-Rufais and Ribadus gained access to the engine room (again, debatable).
Why have I done this brief, superficial, analysis? It is because I realise that there is no future worth accessing outside the context of the past. Even with Dr. Jonathan’s emergence, and the chance it has given for a new class of power-brokers – including Niger Delta militants – to emerge, the Generals of old and their civilian friends are still firmly planted in the control towers. One good reminder is the Power Holding Company of Nigeria privatisation: a good number of the companies that won the GENCO bids came backed by retired Generals. It’s the way the system has been set up to operate.
I do not write this to complain about that state of affairs, or plead for a transfer of power, no. Complaining and pleading are both pointless. To paraphrase Martin Luther King, power is never voluntarily handed over, it must be demanded. No power worth acquiring is handed over willingly, without fuss.
One alternative will be to wait for the so-called ‘old guard’ to die. Many of them will – and no, this is not a curse – over the next decade, of old age and natural causes. Yes, they’re that old.
But that is hardly a sensible way to go about things.
Perhaps there will be lessons for us in the tactics that helped Nigeria gain independence. Even though I must hasten to add that fighting for independence from a malaria-burdened, increasingly fatigued band of colonialists is not the same as fighting for control with a band of firmly entrenched elite groups, who have no other home country to retire to.
I don’t mean for this to be construed as an argument for ‘this is our turn’. I have always been sceptical of this “our turn” argument. As I wrote in an article first published in my column for in March 2012:
“Age has since become a problem that needs solving, and young people the obvious answers to the questions of geriatric mediocrity and repression. I hear it all the time, those who insist that until everyone above a certain cut-off age (varies depending on who’s making the argument) is put to death by firing squad, Nigeria will not progress. But really, does the novelty and exuberance that youth offers guarantee change by itself? I suspect it’s high time we cured ourselves of a certain blind optimism in the power of the ‘youth’. The young have it in them to be as clueless and as corrupt and as close-minded as the old.”
I still stand by this. Behind and around every corrupt, clueless ‘elder’ lies a band of young ‘uns, angling for a stake at the table of indulgence.
So yes, youth, by itself, will not save Nigeria. But no doubt it is a good place to start. There comes a time in the history of every organisation, and nation, when the leadership must realise that change is in the air. A new set of people must be given a chance, to run or ruin things. There are no guarantees what they will do, but it must happen. This is the Queen Beatrix’ message. And it is one we must take to heart.
Young(er) Nigerians should strive to be more insistent – and strategic – about having a say in the running of Nigeria. They will be the ones left here in 2050 when there are 400 million people within the shores of this country. Woe betide Nigeria if she hasn’t found a way to feed and care for its teeming masses by then.
We really need to take our succession planning seriously in this country. Obasanjo’s greatest mistake, it turns out, was not planning properly for a successor. But kudos to him all the same for the crop of bright young technocrats he gave a chance. If Nigeria still has hope it is in part due to the fact that these people – and none of them is perfect, don’t get me wrong – are still around, and still eager to show an example to those younger than them.
Every system needs to replenish itself, if it is to stand a chance of survival. As my friend Toyosi Akerele likes to ask, of what use is these old men (and I daresay women) making plans for a Nigeria they will not be a part of? Can anyone tell me why 60 and 70 and 80-year olds are still so desperate, decades after they got their own chance at power, a chance to prove to the world the tragic limitations of their abilities?

•Ogunlesi, the Special Adviser to the President of the the Federal Republic of Nigeria and winner of the 2009 Arts and Culture prize in the CNN MultiChoice African Journalism Awards


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