President Muhammadu Buhari’s derogatory comment on Nigerian youths last week, in which he labelled them as indolent, offers fresh proof of his disconnect with the people he governs. As expected, the President’s patronising remark, made at a Commonwealth Business Forum in the United Kingdom, attended by Heads of State and Government of 53 nations, has triggered a rash of tirades against him and his government at home. Nigerian youths deserve sympathy not denunciation.
Accustomed to passing the buck for his incompetence and the failure of his government, Buhari said, “More than 60 per cent of the population is below 30. A lot of them haven’t been to school and they are claiming, you know, that Nigeria has been an oil-producing country, therefore, they sit and do nothing and get housing, healthcare, education free.” An attempt by the Presidency to clarify Buhari’s off-the-cuff statement further exposed the insensitivity of this government. The President’s Special Adviser on Media and Publicity, Femi Adesina, in a swift rebuttal, said Buhari never said that “all” youths were lazy. Such insinuations, he stressed, were the stock-in-trade of “manipulators and twisters of statement of the President who lie in wait to make mischief.” Engaging in semantics, Adesina wondered, “How can ‘a lot of them’ suddenly transmogrify to mean ‘all of them’?” He noted that the President had always applauded and celebrated Nigerian youths who excelled in different areas of endeavour, from sports to academia and other realms.
But whether there is a remarkable difference between the President’s phrase “a lot of them” and the ascribed “all of them” or not, it is wrong for the President to choose an international forum to denigrate his people and for his allies to see critics as “manipulators and twisters.” There is a wide gulf between him and Nigerians. He talks down to them at will and carries on as if he is doing them a favour by being president, whereas his record so far has been sub-par. He brings no new initiative, no robust or creative thinking into governance and there is no sense of urgency in tackling grave national crises. It took him a clear five months to name ministers and, three years on, his government is still groping in the dark on how to create jobs, reduce poverty, fix electricity, tame wanton killings and steer a collapsing country from the cliff.
Do “a lot of youths sit and do nothing and get housing, healthcare, education free” in Nigeria as Buhari wanted his audience to believe? With more than half of the estimated population of 193.3 million made up of those under 30, Nigerian youths have borne the brunt of poor, corrupt and inept governance over the decades. The environment stifles entrepreneurship and innovation, deprives them of quality education, adequate health care, opportunities for self-actualisation and lowers their self-esteem, with the desperate ones risking the hazardous journey abroad as economic refugees.
Over the years, Nigeria’s rulers have failed to translate our advantages in agriculture, solid minerals, rivers, coastline and population into wealth. Our $2,376 GDP per capita makes us a poor country. Power supply, essential to the survival of small enterprises and start-ups, is less than 5,000 megawatts; we import refined petroleum products, while producing two million barrels of crude per day; we borrow to waste on badly-run, loss-making refineries, railways and airports that fail to provide jobs, leaving the debts to be repaid by youths and future generations, while failing to invest in education, health care, rural development and skills as we were reminded recently by American philanthropist, Bill Gates.
Our youths have been battered and dehumanised: the National Bureau of Statistics said 7.9 million youths (age 15-34) were unemployed by the fourth quarter of 2016, with another 58.1 per cent underemployed. Our graduates are forced into menial jobs as opportunities recede. The Brookings Institution put the number of unemployed Nigerian youths at 11.1 million in 2012, while the NBS said 2.9 million graduates and five million semi-skilled Nigerian youths lost their jobs in 2015-2016. According to the Manufacturers Association of Nigeria, 222 small-scale enterprises closed in 2016 with 180,000 job losses; 272 firms were shut in the one year to mid-2016, while 820 member-companies were also shuttered between 2001 and 2009.
“If I were given one hour to save the planet,” says Albert Einstein, “I would spend 59 minutes defining the problem and one minute resolving it.” Rather than youth irresponsibility or delinquency, what has really blighted this country has been the leadership deficit that has manifested in every sphere of life. In other parts of the world, leadership inspires the people and charts a course, which the citizenry follows. The leadership is the model of what the youth aspire to be when they grow up. It was very easy to identify with Nelson Mandela on that ground. His patriotism, transparency, humility and simplicity were infectious. It is said that Mandela was a gifted visionary. He exercised a full range of cognitive, emotional and behavioural abilities to bring about profound change in South Africa. This leadership style was displayed by Cyril Ramaphosa, the South African president, last week when he cut short his attendance at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting to deal with violent protests at home.
By contrast, the Nigerian President was jetting off to the same summit one week earlier, just as 30 people were slaughtered in Benue and Taraba states and another 36, including four policemen, a few days later in Nasarawa State by gunmen suspected to be Fulani herdsmen. But in France, leadership was demonstrated by Francoise Hollande during the Charlie Hebdo terror attacks. He did not only sympathise with his people, he led world leaders on a march against terrorism in the French capital, Paris. That is how leadership makes a difference in the lives of the citizens.
Buhari has once more eroded his brand and the systemic failure of his presidency is again advertised by this reckless statement. Leadership is desirable when it does not look down with derision or condescension on the people. Buhari and his team should follow this wise counsel by adopting a more rigorous approach in defining the problems they are attempting to solve. The youth should stop venerating political office holders; rise above ethnic and religious sentiments. It is a sickening culture to fawn over those in authority; they are in office to serve. By serving, they are not doing the citizens any favour, as Buhari wrongly assumes. Voter turnout in elections strengthens the relationship between a government and its citizens. The youth should participate fully in politics and use their number to vote people of integrity and ideas into office. Not only the youth, Nigerians should conceptualise the leadership they desire in 2019 and beyond.