Nigeria's Generational Capital - How Many More Generations Will Be Wasted?

23 June 2021

Jos — When Professor Wole Soyinka dismissed his generation as wasted, I thought at the time that a deep seminal perspective had emerged for understanding Nigeria's predicament. Many years after that claim, Nigeria's national integration project kept unraveling. And it has been unraveling in a most undesirable manner at the most fundamental level of the state's responsibility to her citizens: security. From kidnapping to banditry, and from insurgency to nationalist agitations, we see Nigeria's national fabric bursting at the seams. Intellectuals, scholars and well-meaning Nigerians are agitated about the possible ways by which the doomsday prophecies and predictions about Nigeria's failure and possible implosion can be undermined. I am equally concerned. And my concern stems from many years of professional reflections and service to the Nigerian state as a civil servant. My search for institutional and governance reform still remains the most logical and structural conclusion of my agitation for the enabling of Nigeria's national project of national integration. I should then be deeply worried that the challenge of translating the grand vision of Nigeria's greatness remains perpetually trapped. Or rather, something negative seems to be the only result we can get from many years of trying to build one nation out of my ethno-national diversity.

Being a civil servant in Nigeria remains for me one of the most patriotic professional vocations around which the task of good governance is hinged. But at the height of my vocational service, I had cause to be genuinely shocked again, out of my intellectual wit, by this Laureate Wole Soyinka's notorious but profound claim that his was a wasted generation. This was a claim that indeed caused serious national consternation and outcry when it was made. The claim would later jumpstart my curious interrogation of the critical link between generational capital and the success or failure of Nigeria's national project. The kernel of that critical reflection is simple: the problem with Nigeria is not simply that of leadership, but a leadership that is aggravated by generational deficiencies. In other words, "the problem afflicting the concretisation of the Nigerian Project is the winding and protracted crisis of generational encumbrances transferred from one period to another from independence. The crisis consists of not only the lack of personal example, but also the persistent near-invisibility of a collective generational will to offset the multidimensional deficits colonialism bequeathed to Nigeria."

But beyond this reflection, I had reasons to be worried whether my own generation might be heading towards a similar judgmental date with national history. This was all the motivation I needed to begin a historical and intellectual excursus into the patriotic and heroic deeds of intellectuals and professionals who have lived and contributed to Nigeria's progress. My objective was to discern where, in historical terms, to quote Chinua Achebe, "the rain began to beat us" as a nation. I both intellectually engaged and had some seminal interactions with a number of those I considered to be Nigeria's heroes-- Wole Soyinka and Chinua Achebe, Simeon Adebo, Allison Ayida, Michael Omolayole, Emeka Anyaoku, Hayford Alile, Olu Falae, Sule Katagum, Aliko Dangote, Bala Usman, Nana As'mau Dan Fodio, Christopher Kolade, Obi of Onitsha, Igwe Nnemeka Achebe, late Profs. Claude Ake and Peter Ekeh, Richard Joseph, Rev. Dr. S. T. Ola Akande, Enoch Adeboye, T. A. Akinyele, Ayo Banjo, Odia Ofeimun, Pat Utomi, Toyin Falola, etc. the list is both long and even more distinguished. I had a most engaging and unforgettable but prolonged seminal interactions with the late Chief Simeon Adebo at his Abeokuta country home in the pursuit of inspiration and insights for my civil service institutional reform research mission. I understudied late Prof. Ojetunji Aboyade and Prof. Akin Mabogunje to receive the baton to continue in policy and development management struggles in the trench of the public service.

But some of my most defining interactional moments were with the late sage, Chief Obafemi Awolowo, and the national enigma, Chief Olusegun Obasanjo. Apart from the initial intellectual consternation I got from the Nobel Laureate's "wasted generation" statement, Chief Obasanjo helped in concretizing my understanding of how the generational trajectory stands. In his reckoning, the generation before him was responsible for winning independence for Nigeria, while his own generation fought the civil war to keep Nigeria's national integration dream alive and steadfast. I arrived at a moment of panic again when he articulated my own generation's responsibility as that of laying the foundation for Nigeria's economic greatness. At this point, there was no way I could ignore the significance of this generational analysis any longer, nor could my mind stop asking whether my generation was ready for that enormous task.

That question has a cogent basis in national reality. If other generations have failed or wasted their generational capital, there is no basis for the generational resources that my own generation could call upon to achieve its own agenda. First, the generation of the founding fathers cannot be absolved of the generational deficiencies for winning independence. Its failure consisted of laying the foundation for an ethnic determination of what post-independence Nigeria will be. The second generation picked up the consequences of that failure by fighting a needless and most costly civil war whose reverberation is still deafening, fifty-one years after the war supposedly ended and the wounds were supposedly healed. If the second generation failed in getting the national project on a firm governance structure, how is the third generation expected to perform? At the height of my struggling to make sense of my mandate as a civil servant, I vividly remember the late Prof. Aboyade lamenting to me how his generation has failed, and why I must receive the baton to keep hope alive.

I have retired from the civil service now and have served as best as I could along my generational demands. But I cannot but wonder whether my own generational capital is not almost wasted too. Essentially, my generation lacked the requisite inter-generational handholding and mentoring that could have become significant to functioning. Is my generation almost wasted because Nigeria's developmental and governance dynamics have become extremely confounding? This is particularly agonizing for me because I have failed to see my institutional reform mission make any fundamental dent in the dysfunctional national landscape. Have things totally fallen apart beyond what can even be restructured? No one can blame me for my professional belief that the civil service holds the key to Nigeria's development progress, and hence a means by which to fulfil my generation's duty. Unfortunately, the debilitation of the civil service is one institutional signifier of the generational deficiencies that has persisted over Nigeria's politico-administrative history. And it is against this institutional deficiency that I have marshalled my professional and intellectual capabilities since I gained insights into what I think ailed us as a nation.

If the first three generations have failed to drive the engine of Nigeria's national greatness, how will the coming generation fare? Have the beautiful ones been born with this next generation of Nigerians? There might be hope in the horizon. With the #EndSARS perhaps, this generation seems willing to take up the gauntlet of democratic agitations that might lead to national rebirth. How then do we pick up that thread and keep up with it? One significant thought for me still remains the factor of elite nationalism in Nigeria. Even though, as I argued in a recent essay, elite aspirations often become antithetical to the genuine democratic demands of the people, nonetheless, the elite still holds the key to a genuine rehabilitation of the Nigerian state and her democratic and developmental reimagining. For instance, the Nigerian National Assembly represents an institutional national elite configuration that could be saddled with particular fundamental issues, like activating a constitutional rebirth that will serve as the foundation of transforming Nigeria into a developmental state for achieving good governance. Indeed, the national assembly possesses the wherewithal to kickstart a fundamental elite conversation around value and structural issues that can propel genuine change in Nigeria.

And we do not have to wait for long to find the core of that conversation around the urgent need to recalibrate Nigeria's lopsided federalism into a framework that can attend to Nigeria's plural experience since independence. The present national convulsion in the country in terms of acute insecurities has demonstrated why the idea of restructuring Nigeria's federal status has become more than imperative. Indeed, my technocratic expertise hunch as an institutional reformer inclines me to see the future more in a restructured federation in the service of making sense of Nigeria's developmental status than in the separatist agitations. That conviction is however meaningful only in the context of the proactivity of an ideologically reawakened state that has become aware of a compelling need for change, and has become amenable to the change management required by her significant institutions, like the public service.

The face of an elite nationalism in Nigeria must be a concerned political class, represented by the presidency, that is willing to take the necessary symbolic steps at damage control that will reach out and deep into the collective psyche to first heal the wounds of fear and distrust that characterize our national coexistence at the moment, and then to commence the rebuilding of the next level agenda that will signal the readiness to put Nigeria back on track to greatness. It is from this readiness of the presidency and the entire political class that we can begin to attend to more critical issues having to do with the macroeconomy, governance and institutional reform and value reorientation for national moral rebirth.

Prof. Tunji Olaopa is a retired Federal Permanent Secretary and Directing Staff, National Institute for Policy and Strategic Studies (NIPSS), Kuru, Jos

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