Interviewer: “You were appointed DG of the institute (NIIA – Nigeria Institute of International Affairs) at 33. How was the experience?
Prof. Bolaji Akinyemi: “First, I wasn’t that unique in age. The young have always been in charge of the country. …The cabinet was made up of very young men….. How old was Yakubu Gowon when he became head of state? If I went to the institute at the age of 33, how old was the then head of state, Murtala Muhammed? He was about a year older. Obasanjo was his number two man, but nobody really ever knew his age (sic). I became a minister at the age of 43, but Ibrahim Babangida, who was the head of state, was only eight months older than me. So, in a way, young people have always been given opportunities. I wasn’t unique.”
–Professor Bolaji Akinyemi @ 70 (The Punch, Saturday Feb 11, 2012)
Call me irreverent if you like. See if I care.
Like I say in most of my essays, I am a child of the 70’s and 80’s Nigeria, entering university just two months before Abiola went to prison in 1994. Abacha was in power when I turned 18, you see; so please pardon my anger.
I need to make a clarification though. I will, in a few minutes give my candid opinion of a vast majority of what our very own Nobel Laureate Prof. ‘Wole Soyinka has described variously as “the wasted generation”, referring to his own generation of Nigerians that had absolutely no reason to fail the country as they have so spectacularly done.
My clarification is that every generation has a sprinkling of these bastards, and it’s a huge disservice to the worthy ones (like one of my favorite Nigerians quoted at the beginning of this piece –Prof Bolaji Akinyemi) who did their very best to make Nigeria proud. It’s a huge disservice to have to lump them all together with this irreverent tag. Looking at the individuals, you can definitely pick up Nigeria’s great sons (Akinyemi, Soyinka, Achebe, Fela, Fawehinmi readily come to mind), but as a group, they should have been aborted. I’m sorry.
I knew an article was coming when I first read the interview, part of which I have quoted above; then this evening, I picked my father’s copy of “Military Leadership in Nigeria: 1966 – 1979”, written by Maj. General James Oluleye (rtd.), who was a front-row observer during the civil war (1967-1970) and who also held several critical positions in the Murtala/Obasanjo Governments of 1975 – 1979. His last major role was as Minister (then called “Federal Commissioner”) for Finance in the last 3 years of the Obasanjo regime in the late 70’s. In reading the book again, I am forced to note that these young chaps were just doing as they liked. They had absolutely the whole nation to do as they pleased with. And what have they done with it? Anyway, I get ahead of myself.
These fellows to whom we owe this rot of a country were born mostly between 1930 and 1945. Yes, if anyone turns 70 or 80 around you, he belongs to that generation. But the year of birth is not all that determines which were the worst of them.
The decade 1930 – 1940 means different things to different nations.
For the United States, that was the decade of the New Deal, when the Great Depression bit real hard, and America elected Franklin Delano Roosevelt whose time in the White House saw the laying of the foundation of America’s social welfare system; as he promised a car in every garage and chicken in every pot. It was a tough decade but it got the government working and got them more or less ready for when they had to get involved in what was formerly known as “Europe’s War”.
For most of Europe, it was a terrible decade, as they moved from epidemics to war. They also elected phenomenal people in Mussolini and Hitler. Indeed, it was a decade they would like to forget.
If that decade was terrible for Africa, not much has been reported of it, but from the sons that have ruled Africa since 1957 when Ghana got her independence, that decade brought Africa’s worst bastards.
Incidentally, they were fed as sons. The children born to Nigeria in this decade were mostly teenagers when the final battles for independence were being fought.
You cannot call them the founding fathers of Nigeria. That title is reserved for the Awolowo generation. It was this much older generation (born 1900 – 1920) that started the agitation for independence from their days as students all over the United Kingdom in the ’30s and ’40s. They knew they could make something great of Nigeria, and showed it by the way they governed Nigeria’s three regions in the six or seven years before the 1960 independence.
How lucky was this “Wasted Generation”, you ask? From 1954, they enjoyed Free Education and free health (until 18). They had a new independent nation handed over to them on a platter of gold. They were the very first students in Nigeria’s new Universities springing up in Nsukka, Lagos, Ife, Zaria (the one in Ibadan was already 12 years old in 1960). This ungrateful generation did not fight for the independence in any way; neither did they really have many of the older generation restricting their chances in career progression. For those that chose to go to school, scholarships were thrown at them from every angle, from Nigeria, from the Capitalist West, and from the Socialist East.
[With America’s John F. Kennedy circa 1962]
Then Nigeria found oil, and in commercial quantity. More deposits were found as the decades rolled in, so much so that by the time these fellows were in their 30’s, they complained (loudly) that money was not Nigeria’s problem; it was how to spend it.
Much has been written about the events that led to the ousting of the nation’s founders from political leadership, especially with the coming of the January 1966 coup, and in fact there is absolutely no way to know how Nigeria would have turned out if we did not have that first phase of Military Intervention (1966-79). Some really terrible elements (the Okotie-Ebohs and co) made the soldiers coming very welcome. However, I will not dwell much on the failings of the Akintolas and Okparas, but the obvious failings of these old men we see now. What did they do with our collective wealth, and with our national honor? What did they do with our future, and our bargaining power in the markets of the world?
For a minimum of forty five years (for Nigeria – forty six), most of Africa has been in the grip of the Lucky Bastards, who enter the twilight of their years, leaving populations that have actually tripled between independence and now. Nigeria’s population was barely 60m in 1960. Now we are closer to 170m than to 160m. Now, we’re close to 170m, and hungry.
We have become beggars because our fathers stole us blind.
The Nation’s statistics office released their new figures a few days ago. Officially, we now have at least 110million people living in poverty in Nigeria. How did we let this happen? How did we eat ourselves out like this, with no social welfare system, with very little encouragement for enterprise, and with much wanton aggravation of the poor with your display of ill-gotten wealth?
As they grow old and are gradually forced to retire (thankfully, there is old age, and death), our infrastructure has all but crumbled, our educational institutions are just shadows of their former shadows (!); and alas the world is in some un-understandable financial turmoil, the likes of which have not been seen since these bastards turned up more than seventy years ago.
What can we do?
This is not even written for their benefit, you see. They are the wasted generation and their history is already written. Neither is there much hope for the one that follows, whom I will call the “Cabal Generation” whose god is their belly, and political patronage is their philosophy. All decisions must be made with the belly in mind for the generation of these people, in their 50s and 60s.
Can the rest of us start to rebuild in spite of them? Can we start to save ourselves, please? Can we start from the very foundations, determining for ourselves what we want Africa, nay, Nigeria to look like when we are 70?
Interestingly, we have the numbers. More than 100million Nigerians are between the ages of 1 – 35.
More than numbers, we have the tools to reach everyone with, in our continuously connected world. We have the benefit of youthful vigor, and can learn from the mistakes the dying old men made of their lives. We can find our own ways of talking (with or without a National Conference, Sovereign or Not), and gradually effecting the change we desire.
We should as a matter of urgency, come up with a blueprint for the Nigeria we desire, in all the important areas- the standards and expectations our society will meet, in education; health; law and order; economy; and gradually become what we were meant to be, honorable.
If we do nothing, we ourselves will undoubtedly become nothing but the
Grumbling Bastards. God forbid.
©Chukwudi Adepoju. 25 Feb 2012.