The curious case of Nigeria’s different youth generations and their poverty: A rejoinder

Messrs Femi Pedro and Ahmed Sule make sweeping generalizations as though the Nigerian youth were one monolithic block. This assumptive centrality gives their arguments a simplistic skew and is representative of how Nigerians as a whole fail to apply thoroughness in analyzing our national challenges

Adebayo Alonge
Solutions Ideator

Young and old white rhino as representative of Nigeria’s two different generations
Image credit: Wikipedia

Nigeria’s socio-cultural structure is not one that offers young people a place or a platform through which they can be heard. This is why middle aged and older men will attempt to stand in positions of authority and attempt to speak to and on behalf of a generation to which they do not belong and of whom they do not understand. It is a culture that prides itself in applying whatever advantage one may have in getting ahead of others. Family wealth, traditional kingship titles and age- nothing is spared in forging forward in what is the scramble of Nigerian life. In our race for worldly success which we define primarily in the material, we commonly accept that poverty in our communities is the result of people’s ancestral sins, their own misfortune and the barriers placed in their way by enemies.

I am starting from this sociocultural context in order to challenge what Nigerians take as the normal- that success is purely as a result of people’s hard work and the structural situation of the society that they encounter in their youth, both of which constitute the central assumptions in Messrs Femi Pedro and Ahmed Sule’s write ups i.e. Buhari and the curious case of the young generation  and the marginalized Nigerian youth and the curious case of Femi Pedro. Although I acknowledge the arguments in these articles,I however must state that they do not present the complete view of what really makes people succeed or fail, especially in Nigeria. In Mr. Pedro’s generation of ‘hard workers’, how many achieved the Nigerian dream? How many fell by the wayside? How many died in poverty and are still dying waiting for remittances from the young generation that he exhorts? If the older generation was so productive because it was willing to push through the existing barriers and eschewed distractions, why is it then that young Nigerians today have to start all over again like as though they were just liberating their nation from the grip of colonial tyrants? Does the holy book not say that a righteous man leaves inheritance for his children? Where then is the inheritance from the lofty generation that Mr. Pedro speaks so proudly about? On the other hand, Mr. Sule argues that the young Nigerians are mostly stuck in poverty because of population pressure and the high barriers to opportunity placed by older Nigerians. How then does he explain the large number of youths in the USA and China who are creating wealth for themselves and disrupting old industries through innovation even though both countries have populations that are both 2X and 8X that of Nigeria? If the barriers were that high how does he then explain the success of young Nigerians in relatively new industries- music and social media? Is it entirely due to family connections and having established careers before taking the risky plunge into entrepreneurship, which he alluded as the reason for Mr. Pedro’s success?

Youths cannot be stereotyped because they are different
Image credit:

In fact, Messrs Femi Pedro and Ahmed Sule make sweeping generalizations as though the Nigerian youth were one monolithic block. This assumptive centrality gives their arguments a simplistic skew and is representative of how Nigerians as a whole fail to apply thoroughness in analyzing our national challenges. The age group of 15-24 years is generally considered as the youth, although across Africa, the term youth mostly refers to young people aged between 15-35 years. If we were to apply the latter term, we would be looking at young people born between the years of 1980 to 2000. The perceptions,attitudes and realities of youths born in either 1980 or 2000 differ by a wide degree and only by addressing young people in Nigeria through this lens would you really be able to prescribe appropriate exhortations or offer support.

To understand any group of people,we must understand the interaction between nature and nurture in shaping their attitudes, perceptions and behaviors. Since our subject of analysis in this article is the youth of Nigeria as compared to the older generation, we must assume that nature hasn’t changed since both population subsets essentially derive one from the other. We have had no major immigration or change to the genetic pool at least over the 70 years which constitutes the relevant period of review. As a result, we can hold nature as a constant for explaining the supposed variance in success seeking behavior and actual achievement between the generations born between 1945-1980 ( the ‘older generation’) and 1980-2000 (the ‘youth’). I will not carry out any analysis of the ‘older generation’ because I have only a limited understanding of their times. I will only seek to analyse the ‘youth’ so as to explain why Messrs Femi Pedro and Ahmed Sule do not really address what is the real reason for the underachievement of the Nigerian youth and in fact its whole population.

Generation Y and Z have different realities to each other and to the older generation
Image Credit:

I will start by attempting to segment the youth population by major social and economic trends to which they were ‘nativised’. ‘Nativisation’ as defined by me is the sociological and economic environment through which a certain group of people have  lived most of their formative years and which as a result has influenced their perceptions, realities and behaviors. In the period from 1980 to 2000, Nigeria experienced three major socioeconomic shifts. As a result, what is commonly referred to as the youth of Nigeria is in fact made up of three very different youth segments. These segments are defined as follows-

  1. Generation Y-SAP
  2. Generation Y-Sanctions
  3. Generation Z-Liberalization

1. Generation Y-SAP

This generation was born between 1980-1985. According to the United Nations World population Prospects 2015 Revision, this group represents 20% of Nigeria’s approximately 60 million youth population. Their formative years occurred in the mid 1980’s to the early 1990’s when the major socioeconomic trend was the structural adjustment program and its attendant consequence of wiping out the nation’s middle class.This generation mostly grew up having cereal for breakfast and shopping with their parents in the old Kingsway stores. What many young Nigerians perhaps do not know is that the shopping mall trend currently sweeping across Nigeria today actually started in the late 1970’s. In fact these malls only failed in the early 1990’s when the middle class essentially ceased to exist. This generation had to endure the shock of seeing the their white collar parents lose their jobs and begin lives afresh as traders and small business people.This generation also experienced how different the reality was for Nigerian households that had working class parents with jobs in so-called safe industries- the civil service and oil & gas. At the risk of making a sweeping generalization, my experience has been that members of this segment are mostly risk averse, primarily focused on building careers in large companies while also having small side businesses to support the family income and serve as an hedge should they possibly lose their jobs. They are mostly also apolitical preferring to align with powerful stakeholders. Many members of this group who have been unable to build careers in the formal sector are leading small to mid sized businesses in the informal sector. Many members of this group have given up large amounts of their time and income to support their struggling parents and fund younger siblings through school.

They definitely do not fit into Mr. Pedro’s description of young Nigerians as– indolent, not ready to learn their craft, willing to be used as miscreants and easily distracted by social media. This group are in fact social media migrants having only become exposed to social media in their late 20’s.

2. Generation Y-Sanctions

This generation was born between 1986-1995.According to the United Nations World population Prospects 2015 Revision, this group represents 49% of Nigeria’s approximately 60 million youth population. Their formative years occurred in the early 1990’s to the late 1990’s when the major socioeconomic trend was the Abacha dictatorship which was characterized by politically motivated killings and severe economic hardship as a result of internationally imposed sanctions. This was the period when many Nigerians across the country used charcoal as cooking fuel and ate bread for sustenance..This generation mostly grew up in fear- of hunger, of road accidents, of highway and home robberies (often door to door), of losing their older siblings to cultists and of being constantly told to be careful with regards what they say and do. They grew up seeing wealth as the only protection against poverty and were raised through a period that showed to them that what mattered was not how you became wealthy but how rich you were. As early digital adopters, they led Nigeria’s informal e-economy of cybercafes, recharge card stalls and yahoo-yahoo fraud. As the country’s political dispensation shifted to democracy they were not too young to not know the risks involved in engaging in a variety of roles- either as political commentators in the social media space or as thugs on the street.They were also not too old as their Gen. Y-SAP siblings to fear taking on these risks especially as they have seen how much power and wealth is possible if they were to in fact succeed. Many members of this group are pursuing multiple master degrees, emigrating for education and work and leading the emerging technology and social  impact sectors across Nigeria. The level of responsibility so far handed over to this group in Nigeria’s current socio-political dispensation is non-proportionate to the risk they have taken especially in the political space. This is primarily due to Nigeria’s age influenced glass ceiling, the ‘be careful’ advice that this group constantly receives from older people and their intense individualism that prevents them from working together to have a primus inter pares- after all they all believe they can lead. If this group were to not give a damn,if they were to take the Yakubu Gowons and Nzeogwus as role models as suggested by Mr. Pedro, what would have become of Nigeria at this time?

Members of this group recognize the importance of connections as well as just going out there to make a name for themselves. As a result they do not fit into Mr. Sule’s narrative of Nigeria’s youth as being mostly cowed into dependability by the upward mobility barriers placed by the older generation. They take pictures of themselves as they trample upon one another in their hustle for work, they sell recharge cards on the streets with smiles. They know their poverty, yet they do not seek handouts or beg for pity. They remain hopeful and fight for their futures within the constraints placed before them. They believe that if they work hard, suck up when they should, and oppose when the opportunity avails, that they will achieve success whatever the cost.

3. Generation Z-Liberalization

This generation was born between 1996-2000.According to the United Nations World population Prospects 2015 Revision, this group represents 31% of Nigeria’s approximately 60 million youth population. Their formative years occurred in the early 2000’s to the early 2010’s when the major socioeconomic trend was the democratization of Nigeria’s institutions and the liberalization of its economy. This generation has grown up knowing that those who succeed are those who find their way especially in the area of their natural gifts. They are aware of the risks of day to day life in Nigeria but are also acutely informed of the global world and the opportunities that talent and technology offers them to live above the limits of their immediate environment. They have very strong views about politics but don’t really care to take direct action to influence the process for their benefit unlike their Generation Y-sanctions siblings. As digital natives they live in the technology,social media and internet ecosystem. Since they live in this ecosystem, it cannot be said that they are distracted by it- they simply do not know any other way of life. Mr.Pedro advises young people to put away social media and focus on the bigger picture. His point of view is rather conservative as he seeks to preserve for the young a way of life he is accustomed to but which in reality does not exist anymore in the world that this group identifies with. This world is one that successful people in the developed world recognise and embrace. e.g.Donald Trump personally drives his twitter account and young billionaires in the USA have emerged from starting out the sharing economy that has given us the likes of Snapchat etc.

Rather than seek to suppress this ‘nativisation blend’ as Nigerians typically do with what they do not understand, should Nigeria’s older elite not seek to launch their country into the future by enabling their young ones become the best that they can possibly be within the digital space? This is what some states in the USA are doing by making it compulsory for high school students to take classes in coding either during school term or holidays. This Generation Z is seeking its own path especially at junctures that enables them intersect technology into areas that are economically viable especially in music and apps.

The New World: Where bankers listen when tech creatives talk
Image credit: Mark Zuckerberg

They do not have ambitions to be owners of banks or to make ‘small money’ as career white collar workers or political commentators. They seek to make wealth quickly by creating their own music labels and tech start ups that they can use as money spinning vehicles to sell million dollar services in endorsements and convenience products to banks and consumers. They do not live by the 9-5 rule that served Mr. Pedro’s generation. They discount the value of formal education. They may therefore come across as indolent and lacking in ambition. However this facade is misleading. What they lack in long hours, they make up with the productivity they achieve by leveraging technology tools and diffusing information among one another. What they lack in ambition in the traditional careers, they make up with big dreams in the technology and media space. What this generation needs is not a redirecting into the world that Mr. Pedro is comfortable with, a world that is in its death pangs; what they need is business guidance into the new world of the internet of things, of which they are natural natives and in which they can help Nigeria take its place in the world. Today does not belong to those who own banks, it belongs to those who imagine and create technology.

I have gone through segmenting the Nigerian youth population with the clear objective of showing that there is no one Nigerian youth population. I accept that my broad segments may also represent generalizations of youth in these age ranges but they however serve to show that young people in Nigeria cannot be boxed into a fitting stereotype as Messrs Femi Pedro and Ahmed Sule have done. In addition, I have also attempted to show that the differing perceptions and attitudes of members of these youth  sub-segments predisposes them to respond  in varying ways to the constraints that they experience within the Nigerian society.

We created poverty in Nigeria, we can end it
Image credit:

Finally, I will like to address the opening theme of this article- which is the assumptions most Nigerians accept for why people succeed and fail in our society. I accept that hard work and dreaming big are important to success as Mr. Pedro stated in his article. However I must add that at least in Nigeria that these are not the only criteria. I also acknowledge that the economic failure that many Nigerians (not just its youths) experience is due to a failure of government and abdication of responsibility by our elite in the intervening period since our independence. In fact, I would say that most of the failure that many Nigerians have experienced is not due to their lack of ambition or drive but rather due to selfish and bad decision making by very privileged members of Nigeria’s high society. However what both Messrs Femi Pedro and Ahmed Sule have not addressed is our subtle cultural acceptance of poverty as a normal- as an occurrence to people that arises from their own actions and the actions of others.

Poverty in fact does not exist, it is a reality we have created in our cultural drive to be better than our neighbors. We want to accumulate more material wealth than everyone else so that we can gain the vanity of showing off to someone that they are dumber or less privileged. As a result, we keep on taking our shared resources for ourselves until it is normal in our eyes to see our compatriots without anything, knocking our SUVs in traffic for food and dying destitute in our streets. To understand what I am driving at please look at what the Scandinavian countries have done to build true societies. They have done this by assuring minimum standards beneath which no citizen will be allowed to fall while also placing no limits to how rich the most ambitious citizens can be. We have allowed poverty among us because our culture has come to accept it as happening to our brother and sisters because of what they have done or has been done to them. This is why we carry out bizarre blood rituals and conduct religious sessions to cast out demon causing impediments and compel supernatural forces to grant us enabling factors for success.

We will only begin to live our true destiny devoid of all the vices that currently plague our nation- of corruption and aggrandizement and their associated ills, when we come together as people to ensure the livelihoods of one another. We will only begin to really grow when our elite shed their arrogant ways and realize that the youth of their nations do not have to go through the suffering they went through on the way to success. If one generation inherits the same tediousness to achieve a better life, what then is being bequeathed? Where is the development? What is there to be proud of, if a father hands over to his son the same harsh life he inherited from his father? There is no honor in saying that we made it without help and so go and find your way. This is not how nations become great, it is only the surest path to maintaining inequality and depriving a large majority of a life free of hand to mouth travails, a life that does not allow for innovation and self development.

Once Africa’s elite realize that their legacy depends on handing over a better Africa than they received, then its youth and its long suffering people may then be freed to pursue their true passions, knowing that they can achieve their truths irrespective of the status of the families or the generation into which they are born.

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