Youth Protests: A Call to Genuine National Renewal
From the moment of political independence, Nigeria appeared set to attain very great political heights, social integration and economic viability. We started well, but for sixty years now, it appears Nigeria has wallowed from one crisis to another, pursued misdirected economic policies and reaped sour political fruits.
There was a time when students received pocket money from the Government; jobs were available before the completion of school. One gained admission to school based on merit and recruitment into the army, police, and other paramilitary bodies was also largely based on merit. Those noble Nigerian political leaders who fought for our independence put the people first, and their interests were subordinated to those of the people. There was more careful planning, infrastructural development and maintenance. Roads, even when not tarred, were maintained regularly. Even in rural areas, one went to hospital and came back with different packages of medicine. Pensioners did not have to queue up for long months. It was not paradise, but there was a country that could really be said to be the giant of Africa on the march. Teachers, doctors, pharmacists, engineers among others, came to work in Nigeria from Asia, Europe and other African countries. The foreign exchange rate of our national currency was fantastic. The “Ghana must go” protests showed how Nigeria as a local economic power was like a magnet that attracted people from everywhere.
We thought that Nigeria was on the march to emerge as one of the greatest nations, but greed, the quest for selfish power, narrow ethnic interests and worst of all, exaggerated religious sensitivity began to polarize us. The chasm between the north and south and Christians and Muslims became disturbingly wider. Trust, merit, patriotism, honesty and hard work, all began crumbling. The country started degenerating and sometimes appeared to be on the brink of collapse. Since the civil war, followed by various forms of violence rooted in religious or ethnic sentiments, Nigeria has not remained the same. As a consequence of this, women and young people suffer greatly. Some young people, fed with the produce of corrupt earnings, lack role models at home and sometimes at school. Is it any wonder that in some cases even with the help of their parents and teachers some children today cheat to pass exams, while others engage in cultism, etc?
Over the years, as if by progression, life started becoming miserable. There is no safety on the roads, people everywhere complain of hunger, unable to meet basic needs. For water, you provide your borehole; for electricity you buy your generator; for security, you find your “mai gadi”, for school, you pay to enroll children in private schools; for medical care, you go to private hospitals or clinics and pay through the nose. Social insurance for young people has been lacking, just as for pensioners who have worked nearly all their life in service of the country. Ex prisoners are not well rehabilitated, teenagers are troubled by a bleak future, youths run away from the country to travel abroad legally or illegally, in search of greener pastures. Some of them are trafficked, while some go on voluntary prostitution, with some dying in the Sahara desert, in Libyan jails or in the Mediterranean Sea.
As a Catholic priest for almost forty years, I feel that many people prefer to see me as a social worker. Day in, day out, requests flow in for basic needs: school fees, hospital bills, food, house rent, etc. Letters, e-mails, text messages and calls received are largely about requests to meet the needs for basic survival.
Transferred from Jos to Abuja as Archbishop, my troubles have doubled. Some of my acquaintances in need from different parts of Nigeria who before now, did not text or call me, believe that I have made it “big” as the Archbishop of Abuja, and they so very kindly leave their bank account details after describing their woes and how “you are the last hope.” Some feel that in my new position in Abuja, I have the resources to meet their demands or to talk to influential men or women on their behalf for jobs, contracts or other favours. Some, I think, believe that I have regular breakfast with President Buhari every morning! Since they cannot go or write to government or talk to their representatives in the National Assembly they turn round to ask, “What is the Church doing?” Even when palliatives during the Covid-19 lockdown were not getting to them, instead of confronting government, some would ask “What is the Church doing?”
I tried to explain that the Church was not established as an alternative government to provide food, education, health care or to look after all the needs of the poor, the prisoners and the sick. In doing our corporal works of mercy we only watch out for those suffering social deprivation and assist them to complement government efforts. Somehow, because there seems to be a perpetual social lack, the impression has been formed that the Church must be in the forefront of providing social services, by reaching out to the poor and marginalized. Yet, no support is given to the Church by the Government. In some cases, the Government even wants to tax Churches despite the humanitarian services being rendered!
Our communiqués since the 1960s, published into a book by the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Nigeria (CBCN) are a testimony of the concern of the Catholic Bishops not only with spiritual and pastoral welfare, but also with the integral progress and happiness of all Nigerians. The younger generations even tend to blame the Church for not doing much for the youths, but they forget to take their demands to Senators and other elected officials who receive mouth watering and humongous salaries and other privileges, when the basic pay for an ordinary worker is thirty thousand Naira per month, nearly the cost the cost of a bag of rice! In order words, a man or woman works for only a bag of rice in one month! Yet, we wonder why there is agitation or violence at many levels.
Now the youths feeling tired, crushed, desperate, frustrated, demoralized are asking: stop brutality; provide good governance; remove the monster of corruption; make life more bearable and reasonable. They are crying out for a new Nigeria. A new Nigeria is not impossible. The youth protest is like the proverbial gadfly stinging us to wakefulness as religious, traditional and political leaders.
The youths must realize however that due to prolonged greed and corruption in the country, we have mostly been infested with the virus of greed and corruption. This includes some leaders in places of worship, roadside mechanics, traders, office clerks and even the youths themselves. A secretary in a government office hides your employment file until you give a good tip. It is no longer news that contract sums are deliberately inflated to enable the awarders of the contract get their big share. Needless to say that this seriously affects the quality of services provided. Our leaders seem to be always on a borrowing spree, and having borrowed, they don’t use the funds judiciously and fruitfully, thereby seriously jeopardizing/mortgaging the future well-being and all-round prospects of present and future generations.
Because there is a time for everything, time has come for genuine introspection, critical self analysis and inner purification. Nigerians in public office or in private life; on the streets, employed or unemployed; in the classrooms or market, must always think of the good of other Nigerians and the common good that binds us all. The scriptures advise us to do whatever we do with honesty, noble motives and intentions and to do them in the name of God. Whatever good we can do, we should do it now, for we pass through this world only once. We should learn to live simple life styles. Through this, there will be enough to go round and very few will be in dire need.
Truth must however be told. Things are not well. Something urgently and effectively must be done by the authorities. Dialogue is the way forward, a national conversation. People scream about disproportionate appointments in favour of some groups based on ethnic and religious grounds. Others worry that some tribes lord it over others, resulting in constant violence. There is inequitable distribution of our resources and the thwarting of democratic process through electoral rigging. Today, the immoral buying and selling of votes openly during elections goes on without qualms of conscience. Nothing seems to get done without monetary inducement. Many young people complain that today if interviews for employment opportunities are advertised it is a mere formality because the jobs or positions would have already been assigned well in advance to influential government officials or rich business personalities or to the highest bidders.
All of us are guilty about what has happened to Nigeria and Nigerians, but we can work at it together. As long as there is life, there is hope. Pointing the finger of blame will not solve the problem. The decay in which we find ourselves started decades ago. We can work at it with serenity, truthfulness, equity and justice. We cannot go on like this with brothers killing brothers and strangely celebrating it as an “achievement.” Militant herdsmen, bandits, religious fanatics, kidnappers and corrupt Nigerians, especially among the political class, add to our litany of woes. We seem to be our worst enemies. This reduces the quality of life for Nigerians. The need to talk openly, sincerely and to act in a positive and concrete manner is now!