It has been a week in which protests by the Islamic Movement of Nigeria, aka Shiites; dramatic disappearance of the Mace at the Senate and row over presidential rhetoric on the youths occupied the front pages of the newspapers and dominated the social media. All of them point to the national mood becoming quite combative as the nation picks its way to General Elections early 2019. Some of these developments are feared to be dress rehearsals or test running of models of the quinquennial war called elections in much of Africa.
The president’s comments from the Commonwealth session in London appears to have triggered the most hostility. Presidential information managers have intervened to make a distinction between ‘a lot of’ and ‘all’. Unfortunately, words or combination of words do not, in themselves, make sense. Words, phrases and clauses have space and time specificity in relation to what they might mean. In this case, it is the overarching social context in the country that is determining what sense people are making of the president’s analogy.
Why the president chose the youths to exemplify the claim he was making is a bit intriguing. The youths are the most numerous and the angriest detachment today in Nigeria. Any out rightly or seemingly unfavourable reference to them is bound to attract hostility and for good reasons. They know that the quality of education they are getting is not as good as what the generation before them got. And they are the worst hit in an unemployment crisis that is though not peculiar to Nigeria but does have a Nigerian dimension. It was government itself that brought out the nexus between the quality of their training and the unemployment crisis by setting up The Committee on Needs Assessment of Public Universities in Nigeria in 2012.
The nation was told that the details of its findings were such that it paralysed the federal cabinet the day it was presented. That was under Dr Goodluck Jonathan. Nobody in the cabinet, it is said, was prepared for the shock about the degree of decay in federal universities. Any reference to products of such dingy experience from the president that is not out rightly favourable could become an invitation to hostility. That is precisely so because at a time when it is most strategic for African students to be processed in terms of thinking theoretically, acquiring the capability to problematise and think deeply, that is the time their education is reduced to problem solving techniques. How can they not be lazy when they have largely been trained to solve problems without knowing the social history of the problems? Who is teaching theory today?
In a way, therefore, the president got it right when he says the youths are lazy but he should have added that the nation trained them to be lazy. Why are the products of the Nigerian university system up to the mid 1980s shining all over the world today but the World Bank would be saying that Nigerian graduates now are unemployable? How can that not be when it is made to look more profitable to read Marketing, Advertising, Entrepreneurship, Banking and Finance or Business Administration rather than Philosophy, History, Anthropology? Great as Entrepreneurship, Banking and Finance or Advertising and so on could be, they cannot be taught without knowledge of social philosophy and Anthropology, especially with the revenge of post modernist thinking. This is though not a case of joining the unwarranted fanfare about re-introduction of History as a school subject. History itself is nothing. It is the perspective of History that counts. That is why University of Ibadan and the Ahmadu Bello University History programmes in those days stood out. Their perspective of History, not History itself, explains that. Has Nigeria asked itself if there are History teachers with perspectives of History that would make History to be History, from primary schools to the universities?
Observers are worried that a country of Nigeria’s youth population does not have a single elite university. The closest to that is the policy asking the University of Ibadan to concentrate on graduate training. Great but even that is not happening. And even if it were happening, Nigeria would need no less than five solid such universities. It is a strategic investment because the intellectual carrying capacity of today’s products is feared to be an unintended threat to national survival. After all, people cannot act beyond what they know.
With so many versions of the president’s statement circulating among a huge populace already angry over one thing or another, it is difficult to see how damage control can reverse established impressions of the president on the youths. How great it would have been if the present regime had taken the Mahmoud Yakubu report, popularised it and initiated the sort of actions that would have been speaking for it in a moment such as this.
The toying with the Mace could produce unintended consequences beyond the imagination of the organisers of the drama because intra-party squabbles in the ruling party could be more intense and disruptive than inter-party fights. Certainly, someone’s authority in the Senate was the object of the exercise in relation to the question of the sequence of the 2019 elections. It is thus a very interesting development.
The Shiites are stepping up efforts to secure the release of Ibrahim el-Zakzaky, their leader who has been in detention since late 2015. This is also a complicated issue. Governments almost always have more information on the different dimensions of controversial issues such as this but human rights practitioners would always question prolonged detention. Those who do not have all the information about what might be at stake or what is playing out cannot afford to be categorical.
Whether anything reasonable can be expected to come out of this acrimonious mood remains to be seen.