Recently, Wole Soyinka has been credited with stating in a speech or article titled “Where Did We Go Wrong?” stating a list of the very youthful ages of the Nigerian leaders and pioneers in the immediate post-colonial era. The wordings then goes on to adore the colonial youth of as men of vision and ability. I very strongly doubt that Wole Soyinka either said such a thing in public or wrote it. If he did, he must have gravely overlooked the realities and context that produced the very youthful leaders and pioneers of Nigeria’s past, which he is one. Nigeria’s youthful leaders, therein hailed, have left the country an insuperable legacy of misgovernance, corruption, polarisation and disaster. What is the fuss about Nigeria’s bungling first leaders? Nigeria produced youthful leaders in Nigeria for regrettable reasons, with truly pitiable consequences.
The first was overwhelming illiteracy in the land. Nigeria still has 65 million illiterates. At Independence, Nigeria’s population was just over 40 million but had less than two thousand university and polytechnic graduates. Secondary school and Grade II certificate holders were in the several thousand. A new nation, just before Independence and after, needed skilled indigenous staff to run the country and the shortages were very damaging. If one even had Standard 6, a primary school-leaving certificate, he could very easily find a job as a clerk with the government or a multinational company, a big thing at the time.
It is where the visible craze for certification developed in Nigeria. Once you got a certificate, you could get a good job, breeding an explosive desire for upward social mobility via education. Everyone wanted a certificate because it was seen as a guaranteed entitlement to wealth. Knowledge and skill acquisition was very secondary. The competence of the indigenous job holders, including managerial and leadership positions, was never necessary; the colonialists wanted it that way. That legacy of incompetence persists unobstructed today. There were no involuntarily unemployed primary, secondary or higher education school-leavers in the 1950s, 60s and 70s. There were not enough “certificated people” to fill the jobs. It was the Golden Age of the Nigerian youth, and they took maximum advantage of it without thought of investing in the future necessity.
How does a country with an indefatigable craze for education have so many illiterates today? The youthful leaders of the past kicked the ladder made for them by the colonialists away.
The second reason is, at Independence, graduates over 30 (officially; with emphasis) were uncommon. Most graduates, military officers, police superintendents, teachers, political candidates and intellectuals were under 30 (officially). They were like explorers finding new unclaimed lands; they had an abundance of low hanging fruit to pick. Now the existing fruit is very high up and the Nigerian youth of today, unfortunately, have an incredibly harder time picking them without many facilities and too many barriers.
In 2018’s Nigeria, try becoming a professor, colonel, a multinational CEO, a school principal, a senator, a high court judge, an ambassador or a permanent secretary at age 25 or even 30 today. It was not uncommon in the past. The days when bachelors degree holders or those who have written enduring works can become professors are long gone. So are the days when a Grade II Teacher on his salary can win state or federal legislative elections. Try to imagine a 26-year-old high court judge today.
The third reason is that the newly educated indigenous people, especially the élite occupied influential jobs in which they were the first indigenous generation; all their predecessors were white with colonial and neocolonial interests dictated at Westminster. These new leaders were atrociously inexperienced at jobs requiring high public responsibility and reliable bureaucratic morality. Their white predecessors did not mentor them at all. Great Britain forgot how to build an excellent civil service after Independence agitation and deliberately maintained left local institutions weak to make sure their position as a stationary bandit. It did not need much experience, careful mentoring or considerable skill for the new leaders and managers of Nigeria at every level of governance to start stealing small then proceeding at an expanding rate. Governance of the stomach quickly took precedence of the management of the state and the commons.
Colonial and neocolonial interests directly dictated nearly everything Nigeria’s youthful and geriatric leaders are credited with achieving today through foreign economists, foreign governance experts/representatives, multi- and bilateral- agency professionals. The indigenous legacy of Nigeria’s leaders remains derisory if not retrograde. It is the reality the Nigerian youth live with today. What do they have to aspire to outside the pathways and structures of opportunity previous [youthful] Nigerian leaders have deeply entrenched?
Nigeria’s leaders should be blessing Nigeria, not God. God has already given Nigeria all it needs to become a significant flourishing nation. It is up to the leaders to sort. It is too irresponsible to blame the present youth for Nigeria. I forgot who said they were “lazy.”