By Dan Agbese
Last week President Muhammadu Buhari was widely quoted as having described Nigerian youths as lazy at the Commonwealth Business Forum in London. His senior media spokesman, Femi Adesina, has denied what was attributed to the president. He has been putting a spin on it, claiming that some mischief-makers had twisted Buhari’s statement out of context for reasons that were, obviously, mischievous.
According to Adesina, what Buhari actually said was this: “More than 60 per cent of the population is below the age of 30. A lot of them have not been to school and they are claiming that Nigeria has been an oil-producing country, therefore they should sit and do nothing and get housing, healthcare and education free.”
The trouble with spin doctors is that they often try to gallantly make a distinction between six and half a dozen. Adesina should not have rushed to clear the president. What he said is true. And he meant it. Even if Buhari did not specifically use the word, ‘lazy,’ I can find no better word in the English language to describe youths who “sit and do nothing” and expect to enjoy housing, healthcare, free education, and other goodies to which youths in an oil-rich nation feel entitled. How else, indeed, would one describe the youths in the Niger Delta who collect sitting allowances from contractors as their own share of the wealth from their land?
The problem with generalisation is that you put the good and the bad, or in this case, the lazy and the hardworking in the same basket. In generalising the attitude of our youths to life, the president stepped on the sensibility of those of our youths who are earnestly and honestly toiling to rise from being nobodies to being somebodies in a country where the sons and daughters of nobodies invariably find themselves condemned to merely exist at the bottom of the societal ladder.
The fault lies with the Nigerian system, not with the youths. Laziness is not the problem. The problem is the rather cynical denial of opportunities for our youths. I am in a position, as an employer, to testify to the innovativeness and the productivity of the majority of our youths who know that waiting for manna from the table of the rich and the powerful would avail them nothing but a forlorn hope.
At least three things have happened to our youths. One, the unhealthy re-orientation of the society that emphasises wealth at the expense of morals which is deleterious to their mental and moral health. Even before they are fully developed as young men and women, our youths are driven by the social ethos of get-rich-quick-and-by-all-means, fair or foul. The consequence is the burgeoning crimes such as kidnapping and armed robberies involving the youths.
Two, youth unemployment, a veritable time-bomb, dares the Nigerian state to blink. It denies our youths opportunities for self-actualisation. Our young graduates can find no jobs. Some of them are driven to take menial jobs just to survive. The youths feel let down by the Nigerian system. What is the point of seeking a good education only to find that you cannot put the skill you have acquired to gainful use because the opportunities have been narrowed to favour the children of the movers and shakers of the society?
You cannot blame our youths who refuse to go to school. Education no longer offers them the kind of life and respect it gave to their fathers and forefathers. I once visited the late Captain Amadi Ikwechegh in Owerri. He was the military governor of Imo State at the time. He told me, with almost tears in his eyes, that boys from the state had generally abandoned school to become traders because, according to him, they argued that their educational certificates would avail them nothing. So, why should they waste years in school only to have nothing to show for it at the end of the day? The Imo State experience could be replicated in most part of the country. It is a national affliction.
So, yes, some of the youths do not go to school, not because they are lazy but because education offers them no hope for a better life; whereas good money from buying and selling would make bank managers quake when they receive their phone calls.
Three, the youths feel cheated and abandoned by the Nigerian state, hence some of them resort to anti-social activities. It is their way of getting back at the system that has let them down.
Nigeria is a lucky country with 60 per cent of its estimated population of 198 million below the age of thirty. A country with a youthful population is a country with a great future. Not many countries are this lucky. Some of them are contending with an ageing population.
The future is always a challenge. We all dream of a better future for ourselves and our families. For the future to make sense to the future leaders, it must be secured by the leaders of today. Two things are important. The first is to train the youths today to properly equip them to take on the role of leaders of tomorrow. Human potentials are development through training and opportunities. In February this year, the World Bank issued a report on our education. It pointed out that 80 per cent of primary school leavers can neither read nor solve basic arithmetical problems. More pointedly disturbing was its conclusion that our country is producing educated men and women without learning. In other words, our educational system is a chaotic hollow ritual that offers no direction towards the future.
Secondly, circumscribed opportunities for personal growth circumscribes the future of our youths. The Nigerian state must now begin to take calculated steps towards a) making learning, not certificates, the central tenet of our educational development and b) minimize the frustrations of our youth by rescuing them from pounding the pavements in our towns and cities for jobs that are either not there or have been reserved for the children of the well-heeled. .A country divided along the lines of the privileges and the deprivations of birth nails its future to the cross of myopia.