In January, I will be 60 years old. I am what you might call a born-free, a member of the first generation in Nigeria that did not breathe the air of colonialism, and whose existence was entirely shaped by the new leadership of a free country, and the communities that nurtured and sustained us.
This luck of the draw, for me, meant that my childhood in Ife, a university town in south-west Nigeria, was a blessed one.
The environment was designed for human flourishing. We went to grade schools where every child was inoculated, wrote on slates with chalk, wore immaculate uniforms provided at little to no cost to parents, and where we moved effortlessly between Shakespeare (in English) and the fantastical world of spirits in the works of DO Fagunwa (in Yoruba).
Travelling theatre troupes came through town every so often, Hubert Ogunde’s among them. On Sunday we would be at Ori Olokun theatre in town, the first to see new plays (Kurumi; Our Husband Has Gone Mad Again; Oedipus Rex) produced by the dashing young playwrights then in the orbit of Wole Soyinka, the future Nobel laureate in literature.
I was in the church choir but also learnt by heart every verse of “Sixteen Great Poems of Ifa”, the core text of the Yoruba divination system and the whole cosmology of which it was part. In my young life was reflected the confidence and the ambition of the new country.
Then, of course, came the military coups and the Biafra war, whose wounds remain untended and unhealed; more coups and instability and violence; a slow-motion collapse of thriving communities; endemic ethnic and religious clashes; a fierce competition to expropriate state resources for private benefit; and the entire abandonment of the commons.
The Nigerian became alienated from the idea of Nigeria. The country “most likely to succeed” at the end of the colonial era when I was born — a country well ahead of China and Singapore and Indonesia in indices of human flourishing — is now well behind the development curve of nearly all but the most dysfunctional and decrepit states. Now, it is a country with a higher number of people in absolute poverty than even India, though it has only one-seventh of India’s population.
Nigeria has been a democracy, at least in form, continuously for the past 21 years, but its capacity to produce sufficient numbers of capable leaders is hobbled.
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The state is enfeebled and is unable to deliver public goods. The current president, Muhammadu Buhari, a former military strongman, is so lacking in vibrancy and ambition that even his allies concede that attaining the presidency seems to be the end itself, not rallying a notoriously fractured but energetic nation behind a new idea of Nigeria.
He presents more as an absence, something simply not there. And we are weighed down by a predatory political class that seems to be in a race to loot whatever is left before the lights finally go out.
This might all sound very bleak, and in the light of the gunning down of peaceful protesters by the army in recent days, a certain pessimism might seem justifiable. But we do have many things going for us which, in the hands of a new generation of leaders, might create a new Nigerian story.
We do not need oil, because we have among the world’s most endlessly inventive people, capable of insane amounts of hard work. We have large numbers of people demonstrating persistent excellence in music and film and fashion and the arts, and tech-driven entrepreneurial pursuits.
We have several million highly skilled people, especially in the diaspora, whose enormous brainpower can augment the extraordinary determination and drive of the 200m people in one of the world’s top-10 countries by population. (In several studies, the US Census Bureau classifies Nigerian-Americans as number one per capita in holding of bachelors, masters and doctoral degrees.)
Our median age is about 18 — one of the world’s youngest populations that, on current trends, will make Nigeria the world’s third most-populous country behind India and China, sometime in the next 30 years, according to the UN.
This seems to be a major driving force behind the recent mass rallies against police brutality throughout Nigeria — an open rebellion by the country’s youth, who have grown frustrated and angry enough to say no more.
They remind me now of the Indonesian youth whose rebellion against the corrupt dictatorship of Suharto ended his 30-year reign, when the cries of “reformasi” rang throughout the islands. The young Nigerians, for now, seem only to be demanding an end to violent predations of the police.
But their rallies, for now met with state violence, show every sign of morphing into something more — something that reaches for the reform of the political system itself, that improves its capacity for producing leaders fit for the 21st century and remake the country for human flourishing.
And yes, my country remains one “most likely to succeed”. We just took our time arriving at this moment, having exhausted all the alternatives.
Dele Olojede is a founder of Africa In the World festival and a winner of the Pulitzer Prize
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