By Tolu Ogunlesi
I suspect it’s high time we cured ourselves of a certain blind optimism in the power of the ‘youth’.
Julius Malema, the man who until recently was the controversial President of the Youth League of the African National Congress (ANC), was born in 1981. That makes him almost two decades younger than the PDP’s immediate past National Youth Leader (who was 49 when he died last year); and half the age of his Zimbabwean counterpart, the 60-year-old “youth secretary” of Zimbabwe’s ruling party, ZANU-PF, Absolom Sikhosana.
Clearly there’s an obsession with being termed a ‘youth’ in this part of the world – in the right hands it can become a meal ticket as powerful as any other, in any system that runs on the petrol of quota.
Much is made of how the youth are the leaders of tomorrow; hope for the future; antidote to the excesses of the old. It’s hard to blame anyone for this, we have seen older generations fail themselves and their children in spectacular ways. Civil servants will by default doctor their ages until it is no longer statistically possible to continue doing so. Presidents refuse to quit their palaces, endlessly reworking national constitutions as though they were personal diaries. This is after all the continent of the Mubaraks and Gaddafis and Ben Alis and Biyas and Mugabes and Wades – clinging on to power long after they have outlived their usefulness, if ever they possessed any.
The above and more have conspired to convince us that the answer to our problems is to cut down on the numbers of ‘oldies’ with access to power, and allow the youth to have a shot. 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.
It doesn’t hurt that Africa has youth in abundance: in 2030, the median age in sub-Saharan Africa will be 22; in the US 39, and Japan 52.
But really, does the novelty and exuberance that youth offers guarantee change by itself?
Nigeria’s youth no doubt form immense potential energy – half of the country’s 160 million are estimated to be below eighteen. That’s eighty million persons available to form the workforce of tomorrow. (It’s a similar scenario across much of the developing world. Half of Indonesia’s 240 million people are younger than thirty).
Should we continue making the mistake of assuming that by themselves Nigerian youth will change their country, and succeed in accomplishing what all those ageing leaders failed at?
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. Our social media savvy and general openness to technology will not by itself save us.
Almost a third of Nigeria’s 35 million school-age children are not in school. Several millions who managed to be in school might as well be out of it, judging from the state of our schools and Universities. It’s bad enough that yesterday’s generations of relatively well-educated Nigerians could not save the country from collapse.
And it goes beyond education. What are we doing about leadership training, and most importantly, in getting young people to be aware of, and to learn from, the mistakes of past generations? We’re where we are today in part because the coup-plotters of yesterday came to power with maximum zeal and minimum preparation for leadership.
Valentine Strasser was 25 when he became Sierra Leonean Head of State in 1992 – and entered the record books as the world’s youngest head of state – and still only 29 when he was overthrown in a military coup. His legacy – human rights abuse, and an inability to bring peace to a war-torn nation.
My suspicion is that leadership has a lot less to do with age than we often assume. And that young Nigerians ought to start toning down that “Na we turn, give the youth a chance!” noise. It won’t save us from driving Nigeria deeper into a hole, when the buck begins to stop at our tables. The noise we should be making, instead, should be around this question: “What can we do NOW, to increase our chances of making Nigeria work, when the time comes?”
It’s a question I’m happy to throw at you.
Tolu Ogunlesi has worked in management consulting, corporate communications and journalism. He was awarded a 2009 CNN Multichoice African Journalism prize, and recently served as Features Editor and Editorial Board member for a national newspaper. He regularly contributes to local and foreign media on Nigerian affairs, and tweets at @toluogunlesi | www.toluogunlesi.com