by Tolu Ogunlesi
I spent an afternoon last week at the ZODML Library in Ikoyi, Lagos with teenage pupils (JS 1 and JS 2) from two public schools, discussing ‘Conquest and Conviviality’, a book of fiction I wrote for a young adult audience in 2008.
It was an interesting afternoon, and it reminded me of similar encounters with schoolchildren elsewhere – in England in 2011 (with a class of 14-year-old British schoolgirls of Yoruba parentage/origins), and in countryside Scotland, in May (with classes of eight to 12-year-olds).
One of the biggest differences between Nigerian teenagers and their counterparts in the West is in levels of self-confidence to be observed. Our school system here is designed to force-feed learning, without creating a space for pushing back, for real intellectual engagement, an atmosphere of debate and challenge. We are taught to learn that school exists purely for the purpose of surmounting the institutional obstacle that is the school exam; and we sadly fail to inculcate into our children the understanding that school should be concerned less with teaching you what to think than with teaching how to think, and how to challenge established thought. That’s no way to build the people we call ‘the future’. And if we don’t properly build our youths, how do we expect them to build a country that can be taken seriously?
The debate about the place of young people in the development of a nation, the power they have to affect the way a country turns out, is a very important one. And it is the overriding concern of Chude Jideonwo in his new book, a collection of essays, speeches and opinion pieces titled, ‘Are We The Turning Point Generation?’
If there is one person eminently qualified to ask that question, it is Jideonwo. Almost a decade ago, he partnered Emilia Asim-Ita and Adebola Williams to launch, ‘The Future Awards’, aimed at recognising young Nigerians doing inspirational things in various fields of endeavour. I have since paid attention to the Future Awards and its various incarnations – it would be hard not to; such has been their impact in the space occupied by the class of Nigerian youth that is urban, literate and digitally connected. I have myself been a Future Awards nominee, winner and Judge at various times.
Of the beginnings, Jideonwo writes: “We were young people emerging into our own at a time when democracy had just returned. We sensed a new spirit, a new pride in being Nigerian, and a new hope for the future. We couldn’t define what it was, we couldn’t predict where it would go, but we knew that it was here, and that, to maintain that momentum, we had to drive it.”
It’s no mistake that the title of the book is a question, not a statement. Jideonwo, realising that the questions we ask are as important as the answers we accept, comes appearing to prefer querying to declaring: ‘What are we fighting for?’ ‘Why are we angry?’ ‘Unity at any cost?’ ‘Are we ready for change?’ ‘So what if people have an agenda?’
Turning Point Generation is an eclectic collection not only in the thematic range but in the tonal one as well, pulling together social media, popular culture, public policy, and leadership theory; and delicately balancing critique, denouncement and praise.
There are tributes to admirable Nigerians; people like Bolaji Abdullahi, Chinua Achebe, Oby Ezekwesili, Nuhu Ribadu, and the late Dora Akunyili. But Jideonwo is also not the one to gloss over perceived failings, or to try to present his heroes as without flaw. He therefore doesn’t hesitate to express his disappointment with the quality of Ribadu’s presidential candidature, or with the late Akunyili’s missteps as Information Minister.
The themes of “selling out” and “being bought” run through the book, not surprising because I happen to know that it is an accusation that Jideonwo often has to deal with, in a country where everyone believes everyone is up for sale. The admirable thing is that Jideonwo doesn’t flinch from trying to explore the geography of the ethical borders between making a living (business) and making change (activism), or, to put it in his own words, between “advocacy and income.” It’s something I am familiar with – balancing the need to be comfortable with the need to be truthful; and having to evolve a nuanced understanding of the concept of simultaneously ‘engaging’ and ‘criticising’ a perpetually dysfunctional government and political system.
Along the compelling journey that is this book, you will find emotion aplenty, running the gamut from pain and anger to deep and infectious excitement. This is no assemblage of detached commentary, or empty intellectualising; it is the story of a man who is “involved” in every way, as both visionary and victim. Jideonwo’s account of what he went through in the hands of Nigerian nurses and policemen following the death in Lagos in 2007, of his father, is heartbreaking. “That was when it hit me”, he writes, “we are living like animals in this country.”
He doesn’t shy away from controversy, not when conviction is involved. One of the essays in the book is, ‘Why Nigeria’s anti-homosexuality bill sickens me.’ I recall the controversy that attended its first publication online in 2011, the ubiquitous online mob and its knee-jerk reactions quickly gathering to set up a bonfire in the comments section.
Throughout the book, the prose is unflaggingly first-rate, the arguments are lucid and convincing (no surprise considering the author’s acknowledgement of the inspiring influence of Achebe’s The Trouble With Nigeria); every page full of evidence that the writer is a thinker – something that should never be taken for granted in a Nigeria where shallow and ignorant punditry is two for 10 kobo. Even where you don’t agree with him, you cannot doubt that his views are the product of careful thought. And there are so many quotable lines that I kept wishing were mine.
The lessons from the book are many. One of the most emphatic is that we cannot afford to succumb to the brand of cynicism that turns into resignation (one of the book’s five sections is titled, ‘Killing Apathy’) or that turns us into persons with no other ambition than to ‘game’ the system for personal benefit.
That question – Are we the turning point generation? – is a timeless one. I can imagine Obafemi Awolowo and Nnamdi Azikiwe asking it in the 1940s and 1950s, as fate nudged the destiny of Nigeria into their hands. I can imagine Yakubu Gowon and Chukwuemeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu asking it in the 1960s as the shadow of war loomed large.
‘Are we the turning point generation?’ is as applicable in 1964 and in 2064 as it is today in 2014. Those teenage Nigerians I met in Lagos a week ago, born in the 21st century, are as potentially a turning point generation as mine and Jideonwu’s, children of SAP and June 12.
But potential is clearly not enough. And it isn’t hard to surmise that we are where we are today as a country not because we lack potential, but because we have failed to do things right.
It does seem that part of that failing lies in not asking the right questions, or facing the right issues. Now, we have Jideonwo’s book, a timely record of our recent past, from the perspective of a young man with a front-row seat; as well as a guide for the future. The least we should do with it is allow it generate heated conversation and debate.
When the answers to the question, ‘Are we the turning point generation?’ – a corollary, it must be pointed out, to Frantz Fanon’s famous “each generation must, out of relative obscurity, discover its mission, fulfill it, or betray it” – start flooding in, the only ones that will count for marks will be the ones in deed, not in word.
That, in one sentence, is the challenge Jideonwo has thrown at us.
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