President Muhammadu Buhari virtually set the news media on fire at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (COHGM) in the United Kingdom on April 18 when he, more or less, described Nigerian youths as lazy bums with an undue sense of entitlement to the basic things of life on account of the nation’s oil wealth. In answer to a question on the investment opportunities in the troubled North-Eastern part of the country, he seemingly undermined his role as the country’s chief salesman and marketer by describing Nigerian youths in unsalutary terms. Specifically, he told an investment forum at the conference: “more than 60 percent of Nigerian population is made up of youths below the age of 30. A lot of them have not been to school and they are claiming that Nigeria is an oil-producing, therefore, they should sit and do nothing and get housing, health care and education free.”
That statement has since become a pivot for a negative assessment of the president’s suitability for his office, and his quest for a second term in office in 2019. It also brought back onto the front burner of public discourse the president’s penchant for making inappropriate statements that his spokesmen and supporters have to labouriously struggle to explain to the people.
Buhari’s many misstatements are well known. For example, before the 2011 presidential election which he ran in and lost to his predecessor in office, Goodluck Jonathan, he had told Nigerians that the poll had better not be rigged, otherwise “both the monkey and the baboon would be soaked in blood.” Later, after the 2015 election that brought him into office, he made the popular 97 percent versus 5 percent statement, with which he indicated that the parts of the country that gave him five percent of their votes cannot be treated the same way as those that gave him 97 percent. He described the statement as “political reality”, contrary to the expectation that the President would treat all parts of the country equally, irrespective of who they voted for in the election that brought him to power.
Buhari also once drew the ire of many women and other enlightened people all over the world when he openly denigrated his wife’s well-meaning advice, saying her place was in his kitchen, his sitting room and the other room, thereby undermining the importance of women and their role in the political developments in their country. These statements have elicited the condemnation of many Nigerians and even foreigners, even as his supporters have risen in his defense that he was only speaking the truth.
There are many questions begging for answers on this latest presidential faux pas. First, is the question of whether Nigerian youths are actually lazy as portrayed by Buhari. The second has to do with the president’s office and if it is appropriate for him to disclose the laziness of the youths to an international forum, even if it were true. The president negative portraiture of Nigerian youths is incorrect. For many discerning Nigerians, our youths are largely hardworking and ingenious young persons struggling to make the best out of the very difficult lives that the nation’s leaders have, over the years, made their unfortunate lot. Everywhere you turn, these days, you are sure to see many young Nigerians struggling to make lemonade with the harsh lemons that our leaders are throwing at them.
It is rather difficult not to fault our successive leaders who have not provided a good environment for Nigerian children and youths to thrive. For several decades now, with perhaps only the early years of post-colonial rule as an exception, Nigerian children and youths have not been afforded the best that the nation has to offer in terms of healthcare, education and a general enabling environment for them to thrive. The situation has worsened over the years with increasingly little attention to education, health and housing, especially in recent years. Even though recent administrations, including the current one, initiated a number of programmes on job creation, such as the internship and agricultural schemes, these initiatives have hardly scratched the surface of the problem of youth employment in the country. There are no major initiatives to improve education at the secondary and university levels, although the efforts on childhood education have only now recently decreased the number of out-of-school children in the country from about ten million to 8.5 million. It is, therefore, not in order to suggest in any way that Nigerian youths are lazy. This is more so as they can be seen in many walks of life — music, theatre etc — trying to do the best that they can in difficult circumstances that are not of their making. Even if our youths are lazy never-do-wells, it is not the President’s place to project this sad state of affairs at an international forum. No salesman, no political leader, goes to an international forum to highlight the weaknesses of his product or country. Instead, they quietly work in the background to improve in the areas of weakness.
The debate on whether the President used the word, “lazy”, in his submission is unnecessary. There is no way to summarise what he said other than that many Nigerian youths are somewhat deficient and probably not worthy of an investment in their future. Where I, however, take exception to the hoopla over the President’s misstatement is the attempt to use it as an excuse to rubbish the efforts of the present administration and make a saint of some of our past leaders who played leading roles in bringing the nation to the doldrums from which it is only now trying to recover. Even as we chide the President for his faux pas on our youths and call for greater attention to their plight, we must be careful not to allow the pains and sacrifices of the current efforts to reposition the country, which are now only just yielding results in some sectors, to engender a return to Egypt.
Egypt? Those are the days of massive and unbridled looting, as attested to by the dramatis personae themselves, some of whom have returned their stolen loot. The unbridled looting in the past administration went on even as knowledgeable Nigerians, including the then CBN Governor now Emir of Kano, Sanusi Sanusi, Prof. Charles Soludo, former Education Minister, Dr. Oby Ezekwesili, Mrs. Ngozi Okonj-Iweala and co cried out about the squandering of the nation’s wealth and its implications for the country’s future.
That future is here now, and the self-confessed looters want to use the temporary difficulties to stage a comeback to continue their looting spree. These same people who looted the nation into recession are now projecting themselves as messiahs and trying to obfuscate the gains of the present efforts to reform the management of public finances. These are efforts that have started yielding more funds for the nation, and which hold the promise for better days ahead as the funds are deployed for national development. Under such circumstance, the needs of children and youths, and the quest for infrastructural development can be better addressed. Already, there are increasing remittances to public offers from exports of agricultural products, raw materials, manufactured goods and solid minerals. Remittances by Federal agencies such as Nigeria Ports Authority (NPA), Customs, Joint Admissions and Matriculation Board (JAMB), Federal Inland Revenue Service, NIMASA and the Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria (FAAN) have also gone up.
Importation of rice, one of the country’s staples has declined significantly since 2015, while local rice production has tripled. Instead of upturning the apple cart, what I believe the current ruling party needs is encouragement to see through its reforms and to stiffen its war against corruption, even among its fold. The battle against corruption must not be one-sided, and the funds that are becoming increasingly available to the government must be deployed to the benefit of the people, especially the youths. For now, there is hardly any easy way out of the dark tunnel into which Nigerians were thrown by their succesive leaders.