Monday Philips Ekpe argues that the youths are in a position to chart a bright future for themselves

I am not about to lambast President Muhammadu Buhari for the impression he created the other day at an international forum abroad that young Nigerians are lazy. He has so far received more condemnation than commendation after that controversial episode – putting it mildly. For me, it was a missed opening for the father of the nation to market the country, especially its largely creative, dynamic and predominant youth population. Instead of dwelling on that, I have chosen to remind youths that there exist enough reasons to be enthusiastic about their capacity for positive impact, undeniable productivity and pragmatic regional and national leadership.

Much is being said about persons in their 30s and 40s assuming the highest political positions in their various countries – France’s Emmanuel Macron and Canada’s Justin Trudeau, for instance. Even here at home, past military heads of state like General Yakubu Gowon, General Olusegun Obasanjo and Major-General Muhammadu Buhari became leaders within that age bracket. While Gowon presided over Nigeria’s bitterest and only civil war to date, Obasanjo midwifed the Second Republic in the late 1970s. On a continent filled with cases of soldiers’ grip on power, ordering his colleagues back to their barracks and surrendering the political space to politicians were no small achievements. Not to talk of the high risk Buhari and his fellow coup plotters took to “salvage” Nigeria and “”arrest” its slide into socio-economic destruction. Those were critical moments in the country’s history. Interestingly, the young men at the time were in charge and their dates of birth were never an issue.

Neither should the ability of the present Nigerian youth to rise to the occasion be in question now, despite the prevailing harsh realities. Survival in the country today cannot be taken for granted. It is becoming increasingly difficult to meet the basic needs of life, even more daunting to actualise sublime goals. The environment here is filled with brick walls. Scarce chances for personal development are further contested for by tens of millions of people. Young people are now told stories of how wonderful amenities used to be on campuses; how hot meals were served in cozy cafeterias; how corporate organisations lined up to snatch graduands; how new cars were given to fresh graduates as employment incentives; how those who studied in America, Europe and elsewhere longed to return home to pick up juicy jobs; and how brilliance and hard work were handsomely rewarded.

At best, nostalgia can provide metaphysical satisfaction. In the same vein, endless lamentations about a lost paradise or squandered opportunities can elicit more disillusionment, despair and desperation. Ultimately, these two attitudes, if not checked, can produce a tribe of cynics and losers. Luckily, a vast majority of the youths of Nigeria want to and deserve to win, to be enlisted and abide in the growing clan of the world’s artistically or scientifically mobile young population. Against intimidating odds, some of them are already making their marks on both local and international scenes. They are among the most accomplished professionals even in advanced countries. The will to survive and thrive has pushed many of them beyond entrenched limits. Considering the hardship they have had to endure here, it is not surprising that young Nigerians break academic and other intellectual records across the planet.

Slothfulness is, therefore, not an integral part of the DNA of the Nigerian youth. Surely, the nation has boys and girls and young adults who are sluggish. But, of course, indolence has no country of origin. The human race, no matter the colour, religion or language, is characterised by a distribution (though uneven) of idle minds. Nigerians are no exceptions.

Getting stuck to a grouse with the president over his perceived misdeeds would be equally unfortunate. Such anger should be channelled towards positive ends. The major challenge before Nigeria now is to rise up from its self-inflicted slumber and become the real giant that it is, not only in Africa but around the world. This would require the kind of drive that is available to the youthful. Campaigns are on to allow or encourage the young to become more active politically while telling the elderly to take the back seat as statesmen and stateswomen. But can our youths walk away from the shadows of the fathers who have been bogged down by ethnic and religious sentiments?

I recall the golden era of student unionism, with one example here. In 1986, a female student – Fatima, I think – was shot dead at Ahmadu Bello University (ABU), Zaria, by the police. The first university that reacted was the far-away University of Ife, now Obafemi Awolowo University (OAU). The fire of solidarity spread across the country in virtually all the tertiary centres of learning. The protests brought the nation to a standstill in just about 72 hours and the government was forced to shut down the institutions. That was under the military. Religion, ethnicity and sectional affiliations were not strong enough to stop them from acting as one in pursuit of justice. National unity was at work. They mobilised their energies to catch the attention of the mighty. They did all that without the benefit of handsets and the social media.

Already, the internet dominates the thought processes of many young people. That’s in vogue. One wonders if anything can be done to intervene now. If only they can use this technology more productively, their own lives and our societies will make genuine progress. With that, the youths are better equipped to bring about change. They are placed in a position to chart a future they can be proud of. The extravagant time and passion spent on programmes like BBNaija can be a test-run for their involvement in the general election next year. They can decide to seize the soul of Nigeria for good, from the forces that have so far ensured that this blessed nation does not rise above mediocrity.