Thirty years ago, the image of a lone man in a white shirt and black trousers, carrying shopping bags and standing in silent protest in front of an army tank caught the attention of the world. The place was Tiananmen Square, the time, June 1989 during the Chinese Student protests. The picture captures a moment of reckless idealism; a young man making a principled statement in the face of overwhelming and implacable forces. After months of protests, tens of thousands of Chinese troops had re-taken the square the day before that photograph was taken, making the young man’s stand the more remarkable.
For too long, young voices have been missing from Nigerian national discourse. Now that our youth have come – Quo Vadis – where to?
The young bring unique attributes to bear on family, community, institutional and national life; energy, enthusiasm and incisive questions about the way society is organised. They are opinionated and the urge to challenge orthodoxy runs deep. They are at the stage of life where failure is not as daunting a prospect as it becomes later on. It is for all these reasons and more that our country needs them and, importantly, needs to make room for them. The consistent, thoughtful, articulate voice of students and the youth that had been missing in national dialogue has returned. It has returned in homes, bukas and bars. It has returned in the voices of the poets and griots, it has come via the vloggers and bloggers on our handsets and screens. Most visibly, it has returned to our streets in peaceful protests that have stirred our hearts and focused our minds.
The parent who does not allow time and space for children to voice an opinion at home is the same one who ignores the potential contributions of the young, those of lower rank and the seemingly weak in the workplace. Institutions and governments that have no time or place to listen to the youth lose vital opportunities for reflection, critical appraisal and renewal. Wise parents and leaders in every sphere recognise that if engaged fairly and patiently, the youth bring so much to the table in terms of energy and different perspectives. They present us with an idealistic vision of the future. In exchange they need and deserve a safe, secure, united and resurgent Nigeria.
In January 49 BC, Julius Caesar led his army across a shallow river in defiance of “orders from above.” As he did so, he is said to have uttered the words “the die is cast”. The river was The Rubicon and the phrase “crossing the Rubicon” has come to be associated with reaching a point of no return.
The youth of Nigeria have crossed the Rubicon. This is a critical hour and while there are significant potential risks, there are real opportunities to improve life as experienced by the majority. It is time for all Nigerians of good conscience and those who wish Nigeria well, regardless of age, demographics, status and geography to roll up their sleeves and support the peaceful protests in pursuit of a better Nigeria for all.
In a speech marking the 10th anniversary of the Southern Leadership Christian Conference in 1966, Dr. Martin Luther King urged his listeners to utilise the power they had to advance the cause of civil rights and racial cohesion in America. He reminded them that power without love is reckless and abusive and love without power is sentimental and anaemic. These eternal truths are relevant to the protests today. A combination of power and love. Love of self, love of neighbour, love of country.
The youth in Nigeria today, on and off campuses, rich and poor, public and private have reminded us that there is more that unites us than divides us. They have highlighted the need for us to review and revise our social contract so that the essential needs of the many are put ahead of the excesses of the few. They have recognised that we have all have latent power and influence, which if activated, co-ordinated and deployed in the national interest is an irresistible force. This is urgent business and should be treated expeditiously by the authorities.
Unquestionably, authorities, the police and the military face daunting security challenges on several fronts. The selfless sacrifices of the gallant ones should be recognised and acknowledged. In many ways, they are victims of the same institutional deficiencies the protesters decry. However, impunity and reckless brutality visited upon young Nigerians must end. The era of public servants without accountability to the public must end. The deliberate sabotage of our institutions by a minority must end. History teaches us that the hidden and entrenched ones will not readily concede. However, history also assures us that with perseverance, change is going to come.
The word from the street is that the soundtrack to peaceful protesting is inspired by our now departed proponent of change. He sang about the suffering and smiling of the masses, painting a seemingly hopeless situation. However, he also provided hope by reminding us that ultimately, you cannot fight water. But some will try. Despite mounting evidence that change is coming, ultra conservatives argue that the government has conceded too much already. They demand an iron fist. I urge government to resist going down this route and to see the youth as allies in the struggle for a better Nigeria rather than as enemies of the state.
Do you believe that our Nation can be re-set? Do you believe that historic oppression will be acknowledged and redress agreed? Do you believe that the moral arc of the universe bends towards justice? I am a believer. But I also know that the arc of the moral universe will not bend on its own. So what should we do in these historic times? With all due humility as a member of one generation that could have done better to another generation that, by God’s Grace, will; what the youth and those of good conscience towards Nigeria ask of others, must be found within ourselves. We must recognise our own frailties and speak and act humbly, respectfully and peacefully. We should seek institutional change in our areas of influence. We should persevere in the demand for truth, justice and equity, working with those in leadership who have demonstrated a willingness to take the nation forward and resisting and voting out those who deny our current realities. Let undermining and compromise dressed up as charity be refused. Let the red lines be clear and action with timelines emphasised. Let us bend the moral arc of the Nigerian universe towards justice.
May the stories of adversity and unearned suffering open our eyes and close our ranks. May we shake hands across cultures, religious, ethnic and generational divides and build a genuinely representative national consensus. May that consensus propel us to build a truly great Nigeria that will endure and prosper and provide safe haven for all our children and our children’s children for generations to come.
• Ade-Ajayi is a Surgeon and Global Africa Advocate