“His unfinished education, his joblessness, his hunger, his poverty, all these he found out were different forms of violence. It consisted not of physical, brutal assault but of a slow and graduate debasement of himself, his pride as a man.”
Violence, Festus Iyayi (1987)
On the 1st of October 1960, the nation of Nigeria erupted in celebration for right before them lay the reality of freedom, the release from the grips of British colonisation. The nation was ready to build itself anew, strong and prideful, already leaning towards the infamous and debated phrase ‘One Nigeria’. On that day, a Nigerian newspaper wrote that independence would be “an era of national consciousness and political maturity,”(Cartwright, 1961). The country was in the throes of hope and trepidation, like a child leaving their family home to see the world through their own eyes, searching for an identity carved in their own likeness.
The nation currently exists on different sentiments, the excitement of freedom has long been buried and exchanged for harsh truths of a country left to develop in fragments, still stained with the insidious and violent presence of colonisation. Corruption and state violence have woven itself around the very promise of Nigerian political maturity and the wishful thinking of national consciousness has been marred by civil war, terrorism and tribalism. In a country where 83 million people live below the poverty line which is 40% of the nation (AlJazeera, 2020), the question that one can ask is where did it all go wrong? The answer to such a question can easily be evaded in a hierarchal society like that of Nigeria, there will be many answers and accusations around its failings, the citizens may answer differently to the government while the Christian may speak another truth than the Muslim and the Lagosian will mutter one problem that the individual living in a rural area in the Northern part of the country does not. However, the truth of all nations is that it is the citizens that make it, it is the very poor, the young, the survivalists who bear the brunt of the corruption which swathes their lives, these are the people who whether willingly or unwillingly bear the weight of the system on their backs and in their daily struggle. It is impossible to theorise such inequity, it is also almost unnecessary to ask oneself while living in Nigeria the question, ‘what does this nation owe me?’ when the idea of receiving what one is owed by such a government feels like a wistful dream. Yet, it is time to ask, it is time to accuse, it is time to decide what Nigeria owes us, its people.
On the 10th June 2021 President of Nigeria, Muhammadu Buhari, spoke to Arise TV and said,
“Nobody is going to invest in an insecure environment. So I told them, I said they should tell the youth that if they want jobs, they will behave themselves.” (George, 2021)
Three years ago, Buhari spoke badly of the Nigerian youths in a similar fashion, stating that many of them claim that Nigeria is an oil-producing country and that this meant that, “they should sit and do nothing, and get housing, healthcare, and education free.” (Ogundipe, 2018). In layman’s terms, the President of Nigeria was accusing the youths of being lazy.
It is important that one never lets a governmental body tell them of their history. Most of all, we must never allow them to tell us of ourselves for corruption is an enemy of truth and a friend of deceit and fear-mongering and if corruption is historically the emblem that the Nigerian government chooses to bear then it is not the president that can tell us the character of Nigerian youths. In fact, a president and the entire administration making such deflections onto their own people does not save themselves but rather shames themselves for their incompetence to lead. I talked to youths living in Nigeria about what they believed their government owed them and within this essay you will find their answers among the words that tell you of the state of Nigeria today.
Crime and Safety
One thing Buhari said that is truthful, is that Nigeria is a very insecure environment. Human Rights Watch has stated that so far the insurgency of Boko Haram has killed thousands of people and displaced 2.5 million people (Ewang, 2021). This reveals that there are many Nigerian people left with deep mental scars caused by displacement as studies have shown that those displaced often suffer from several mental health issues as a result, such as depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder (Ahmar and Nohra, 2014). Terrorism is not the only crime that plagues the nation as of April 2021 alone, 600 civilians were killed across the country from various crimes, with 406 civilians being abducted by armed groups (Akinwotu, 2021). Rape, kidnapping, murder, burglary, fraud, robbery, and bribes are just some of the criminal violence which are experienced by Nigerians daily (Oguntunde et al., 2018).
Therefore, the trauma of crime hangs over the nation becoming haunting normality where there is no government made infrastructure or framework in place to effectively prevent or limit crime, crimes which are married to poverty, crimes which exist in the nation not because of delinquent youths but because of structural and systemic issues within the running of the nation. Was it not the APC senator, Smart Adeyemi who said, “Our security system has collapsed. It has failed.” (Fadare, 2021). It is one thing to live in a country where your safety is not assured but it is frightening to acknowledge that if your safety was compromised, receiving justice for what you have survived or, have not, would be unlikely. This feeling tackles your spirit and leaves you feeling anonymous and uncared for.
Matthew Blaise, a queer activist, told me, “Nigeria has failed me by not putting structures in place for my security and well-being, for me to actualise myself.” And this is it. The right of self-actualisation for all people and the accessibility to the apparatus that can make that happen. If there is no security or safety in a nation then there is no ultimate self-actualisation for its citizens because when security itself is compromised, which is the very thing that upholds citizenship and any nation-state, then all other institutions and infrastructures within the country will ultimately fail.
Poverty and Unemployment
Currently, 83 million people in Nigeria live below the poverty line but it is estimated that by 2022 the number of people living in poverty will increase to 90 million (Onyeiwu, 2021). This means that millions of people do not have access to the most basic of needs such as food, clean water, clothing, and shelter in addition to education and healthcare which both prolong one’s life and ability to sustain oneself. It is difficult for a nation to build itself when the citizens do not even have the tools to survive daily, let alone push forward the economy. As inflation plunges millions more Nigerians into poverty, the decline of the nation deepens. Nigerian youths are left hopeless and destitute in a country where there is no promise within sight. Raphael Obiora Okeke said to me, “Nigeria as a country has failed her people…economic uncertainty has buried the hope of many perhaps, most of the Nigerian youth.” It is this uncertainty and poverty that has led to the crime that grapples onto the nation.
In William Hansen’s essay on Poverty and ‘Economic Deprivation Theory’ (2018), Hensen focuses on Northern Nigeria and the dispossessed as a source of recruitment for Boko Haram. He notes that Boko Haram recruits the “destitute, the dispossessed and indeed the wretched of the earth”. The underclass in Nigeria are vulnerable for exploitation, easy targets for radicalisation, and are both perpetrators and victims of the violence which brews in a country whose infrastructure, governance, jobs, and structural foundations are not just absent but appear to be neglected by a government that was elected in order for them to revive the country from destitution. In Hensen’s piece, he states that every single of his interviewee said the desire for income were among the major inducements for joining Boko Haram, this revelation is enough to understand the dangerous effects of poverty, its presence in the reality of crime and terrorism and the necessity to focus on alleviating this issue. However, without poverty and the underclass, what status and title of importance would the Nigerian upper class have to their names? A Nigerian youth who preferred to remain anonymous told me, “I feel the elites use poverty as a means of remaining at the top of the food chain.” And ironically, their words are believed by many as even Hensen’s piece contains an introduction which speaks on the “Parasitic predator class that dominates the post-colonial Nigerian state.” (Hensen, 2018).
Then one cannot talk about poverty in Nigeria without discussing unemployment for anyone who lives or has been to Nigeria will find routine in the daily sights of young men roaming the streets or sitting idly at roadsides, jobless and yearning for employment, for money, for survival.
It is not, as Buhari seemed to have hinted in June, that the youths of Nigeria want nothing more than to be indolent but rather there is a scarcity of jobs that no one can avoid. Nigeria’s jobless rate has more than quadrupled over the last five years (Olurounbi, 2021) making Nigeria the second-highest country in the world to have so many unemployed people after Burkina Faso (Olurounbi, 2021). Such high cases of unemployment in the country have disastrous effects for the citizens. The youth who need jobs to make something of themselves, to better their lives, or support their families find it difficult to come across anything and that leaves misery upon a person. Okeke believes that it is the responsibility of the Nigerian government to provide people jobs, stating that lack of jobs, “Pushes the youths to seek for greener pastures abroad.” For people like Okeke, Nigeria is bleak and so are the prospects of it changing. So, how can a country grow if even the youths that would take the country into tomorrow, have no job to feed themselves? Blaise answers plainly, “The country has repeatedly failed young people.”
Do the citizens have human rights in such a troubled nation? The definition of human rights given by the United Nations talks about life and liberty, freedom from slavery and torture, right to work, and education but one in particular point stands out to me. It reads, “freedom of opinion and expression.”. This, according to the United Nations, is a human right for all individuals of any nation. If the Biafran war, the events of October 20th, 2020 during the End SARS movement, the hanging of Ken Saro-Wiwa and the Ogoni nine, or the death of Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti says anything, it says clearly and painfully that there is no freedom of opinion and expression in Nigeria. That in fact one is met with death for daring to criticise the futility of a government they believe does not serve them. Worse is that those who are murderous will face impunity for their crimes because of their class or their position or the backing of imperialist nations. Far worse is the relinquishing of the human rights of queer people in Nigeria whose policing of opinion and expression is political and systematic through legislation. Matthew Blaise says, “This country failed me as a queer person by making anti-gay legislations, criminalising my existence and restricting my humanity because my queerness is my humanity and I can’t divorce my experiences of living in this country from that.”
In fact, a country that practices human rights would not seek to silence its citizens through banning Twitter (Moyer, 2015). The media, which is used by citizens for global engagement, news, and as a tool of broadcasting their needs, their businesses is something only silenced in autocratic states. When a state silences its people through policing or banning media they are, as Rohini Pande and Lucy Page (2018) state, reducing the information available to citizens to reduce their ability to engage in policymaking. If there was nothing to hide, no corruption to see, no faults to be accused of, why would a government try to ban citizens from accessing a global-reaching social media app? An autocratic and actively violent act. It is not an exercise of protecting its citizens’ human rights but the act of revoking it.
The Fleeing Youths
I am interested in how Nigerian youths feel about their country. As a Nigerian myself, every time I am there I am told by young people how desperately they want to leave the country and that desire has never changed throughout the years. Okeke says, “Wanting to leave Nigeria is basically the dream of every Nigerian youth, due to the government’s inability to provide jobs for them. This has driven most youths into poverty, hence the quest for traveling abroad for a greener pasture.” To him, a viable life with the ability to fulfill his dreams and be recognised for his work is only possible outside of the constraining walls of the nation where he was born. “9 out of every 10 youths seen on the streets of Nigeria are hoping to leave the country due to lack of almost everything they desire as youths,” he continues, “starting from basic amenities to providing for their own offspring.”
Many Nigerians fled the nation just before and after the Biafran war of 1966-1970. Writers, journalists, doctors, nurses, teachers, and many more people who had the qualities and drive to push forward a nation, to build it with their gifts, and then share those gifts with others to build a community. Instead, these people were forced out of their country, deeply aware of how much their country would not protect them, how much they would struggle to make anything of themselves within it. Yet, what happened then continues to happen today and if a country could weep, I imagine Nigeria has wept for the many of her people who daren’t stay for their own life and dignity. Izuako is someone who has left Nigeria, “I live in Brazil, Sao Paulo precisely. I left as soon as the president became president because I studied public administration so I understood what was going to happen.” However not all citizens of Nigeria who want to leave the country to have or can do so as one told me, “If I get the opportunity to leave the country with my family, I won’t look back. I would love my daughter to grow up in a decent society where the system works.”
While for others it is not so simple. To leave would be to desert those they care for, human beings who are struggling to find the same peace and livelihood as they themselves are seeking. Blaise wants to remain in Nigeria for those who are queer like them, “There are a lot of people who cannot go out, especially queer people like me who are trying to sort out their life, I want to remain inside with them and have conversations and create spaces for them.” Blaise, whether unintentionally or not, describes Nigeria almost like a prison as they choose to stay in solidarity with their comrades for their collective survival. They continue, “I don’t have a bond with this country, I am incapable of loving this country…I’m just concerned about the queer people and creating an eco-system so we can thrive and continue to live our tiniest best way.” Blaise embodies the integrity, perseverance, and inner strength that the everyday citizen holds, and their life and its struggles mark the unfairness and cruelty of the nation that governs them and the life trajectory of many others.
It is imperative to speak the truth. It is imperative that a citizen does not become their own nation, fatigued with trying to expect their government to simply govern. When the citizens are tired, silenced, and unable to demand better governance, that the oppressor which in Nigeria’s case is the government relaxes in their power, finding safety in the stoicness which exists amongst the sufferings. In Nigeria, those in power share no honourable ties to their people neither do they share a true kinship of their own people but only a persevering thirst for power that is only tangible when there is someone below them without all that they have. This is the cyclical armageddon that humans have made on earth.
“Nigeria owes her people,” as Okeke says, “the idea of making provisions for the basic needs of her citizens in the area of things such as security, social amenities, and transparent administrative governance.”
But it is a futile discussion to Blaise as they say, “Corruption is what runs that seat [government] there is supposed to be accountability but there is no form of accountability. Not even a seed of accountability.”
The young people of Nigeria are fed up with the failed nation they have involuntarily found themselves in, they resent Buhari’s dissociative remarks that are far from the present reality, from the truth. They want to live beyond worry about coming home alive or the worry of finding a job and food to eat, without the worry of speaking up and dying for it. They want to live. It is not in the hands of a government that caused October 20th to happen that they will truly live, it is not a government that has tried to absolve remnants of civil war nor a government whose ‘leader’ accused the very group who will carry the nation in the future, of laziness.
Nigeria owes its people the world, it owes them a life without suffering, it owes itself dignity on the world stage and not the embarrassment of remaining in a globalised state of colonialism. The Nigerian people, the Nigerian diaspora should not let up in our demands against the state in our disgust at the impoverished state of many of our people.
To make these demands is to speak the truth in a tainted society which forbids it, it is to demand what should never be demanded; the right to live.
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