by Ahmed Olayinka Sule, CFA
Dear Otunba Pedro,
A couple of days ago, while talking to my sister, she asked me whether I had read an article written by Femi Pedro which was trending on social media. I hadn’t, but as we were speaking over the phone, I did a Google search and came across your article titled, “Buhari and the Curious Case of the Young Generation” on Bella Naija blog. After reading the article I decided to pen a response to you.
In the aftermath of the publication of your article, there has been a lot of debate about the contents of your letter with a number of people, especially those of the middle-class variety agreeing with your point of view. Since you are an influential Nigerian whose words carry a lot of weight and because your article is addressed to a very important but vulnerable segment of the Nigerian populace, it is important that the contents of the paper are critically examined. Since your article was addressed to young Nigerians via the public domain, I will also respond to your article via the public domain. In my opinion, your article is flawed not only logically, but it is also flawed morally and economically and in the next couple of pages, I will explain why. I trust that you will read what I have to say with an open mind.
In your epistle, which was written in response to the complaints by our youths about the lack of opportunities available to them, you suggest that youths have always played an important role in Nigeria. You argue that the same circumstances faced by the present crop of young Nigerians was faced by previous generations of young Nigerians, the only difference being that the present crop of Nigerian youths are arrogant, lazy, vain and lacking in ambition. To justify your argument, you cite your ability to OWN a bank along with some of your friends when you were all in your thirties. You also develop a “Hall of Fame” of past and current generation of Nigerians who achieved political, economic, industrial and artistic or creative success in their youth. You also advice young Nigerians to humble themselves, know their worth and eliminate distractions, which hinder them from seeing the big picture.
With all due respect Sir, your analysis is simplistic at best and vicious and dangerous at worst. It is written from a privileged narrative and the condescending tone of the article is nothing more than “youth-slamming.”
To support your assertion about the indolence of our youths, you appeal to your authority as a Nigerian elite who achieved wealth, fame and influence at an early age. By devoting the first three paragraphs of your article to the story behind the formation of Guaranty Trust Bank (GTB), you are telling the Nigerian youths that, “If I could OWN a bank, in my youth, why can’t you?” The fact that you OWNED a bank in your thirties is not a sufficient and necessary condition to conclude that young Nigerians are lazy and lacking in ambition.
You have developed a syllogism along the following lines:
Premise 1: I was successful at a young age.
Premise 2: Young Nigerians have not achieved what I achieved when I was their age.
Conclusion: Therefore, Nigerian youths are lazy and should work harder so that they can seize the moment.
Another flaw in your argument is you result to cherry picking to support your argument. In short your paper suffers from selection bias. You conveniently develop a “Hall of Fame” of Nigerians who excelled at young ages and use this as a basis to suggest that young Nigerians are lethargic. Names such as Fola Adeola, Linda Ikeji, Awolowo et al resonates with most Nigerians and informing your readers that they were all young when they achieved fame will bias your reader to your point of view. According to the 2006 census, there are around 50 million youths (within the 15-34 year age bracket). A sizable number of these youths are near or below the breadline. It is therefore illogical to select a sample of successful youths and reach a conclusion about the whole population of young Nigerians especially when the sample is not representative of the total population.
Another omission in your analysis is the circumstances of Nigeria during the period before our independence in 1960. You state, “Since pre-independence, the Nigerian youth have played a pivotal role in nation-building and economic development.”- So far so good. But what you fail to point out is when the colonialists were in power, they occupied the top positions in the country. Post independence, when the colonialists left the country, the top layer was vacant and the younger generation of Nigerians who were educated at the time were in prime position to take over. Contrast that with today where there is an ever-increasing number of youths at the bottom of the ladder who are unable to climb up because the top is occupied by the older generation. This is the reason for the youth’s grievance. You may then argue, “But in my time, there was an older generation of people at the top, yet we broke through the glass ceiling.” This is true, but you need to bear in mind that the circumstance of 20 and 30 years ago is also different from today. In 1980 and 1990, Nigeria’s population was 73.6 million and 95.6 million respectively, however as at today the total population is around 173 million. If you extrapolate the youth population in these different eras, you will then begin to appreciate that the conditions of yesterday are not the same as today.
Mr. Pedro, you also fail to acknowledge the responsibility of the older generation in creating the mess that our youths face today. Nigeria is in its present state due to the corruption and greed of the past generation who mortgaged the future of the young generation in order to line their pockets. Without going into names, if you search your “Hall of Fame,” you will notice that some of the people on that list are responsible for ruining the lives of the very young Nigerians you are advising.
In your analysis, you completely ignore the impact of social exclusion on our youths. You note, “Most of us who made an impact in our early thirties came from modest means. We were not rich, and we did not have any noteworthy inheritance. Nobody did us any favours.” Really? Lets go back to the genesis of the formation of the bank that you OWNED. It is possible that most of your co-investors were not born with silver spoons, but it is obvious that at the time when the bank was formed, you were all accomplished middle class gentlemen. For instance, prior to that historic meeting at “Fola’s crib”, you all had proven track records. Bode Agusto had worked for PriceWaterhouseCoopers and Citibank; you had worked for Central Bank of Nigeria and First City Merchant Bank; Fola Adeola had cut his teeth with D.O. Dafinone and Deloitte. Moreover, you are a scion of the renowned Pedro family and have a surname, which is recognisable throughout Lagos. Your double barrel foreign qualification (achieved at a time when few Nigerians could boast of a foreign degree) in addition to your closeness to Otunba Subomi Balogun put you in good social standing to enable you wine and dine at the table with like-minded people to formulate a remarkable idea like OWNING a bank. Would you have been able to wine and dine with your co-investors if you came from a poor family, had to delay working in a first tier corporate entity after your graduation because you had to take care of your five siblings while living in a one bedroom flat only to find yourself unemployed at the age of 33?
So Sir, in summary, your article is logically flawed as it is based on cherry picking, sweeping generalisations, syllogism, red herrings and false dilemma.
Your thinking is also flawed on moral grounds. By singling out the Nigerian youth, you are assaulting acerbically a vulnerable segment of Nigerian society that is defenceless against your assault. You fail to synthesis your top-down elitist approach with a more humane bottom-up analysis and as a result, your pen or should I say keystrokes has left young Nigerians dehumanised and bloodied on the Jericho road of life. Admittedly, you are a man of integrity, however, I find it strange that you have not used your position of influence to publicly speak truth to power. Admittedly, I am not privy to your conversations with people in the corridors of power and there is a possibility that you sometimes tell them some home truths, but wouldn’t it be more beneficial to society if you speak truth to the “classes” publicly with the same zeal that you have spoken “truth” to the masses publicly? You have also failed to speak truth publicly to your friends in the financial sector. If you carry out an in-depth analysis of the working practices of the many banks that dot the country, you will come to the realisation that some of these institutions are committing crimes against humanity. Some young Nigerians who work in the financial sectors have battle scars to show. Some are given unrealistic, unreasonable and unattainable deposit targets to meet, failure of which will result in termination of appointments; some are encouraged to engage in corporate prostitution by selling their bodies for deposits; some are stripped of all form of their humanity by narcissistic executives; married and pregnant women are often discriminated against; some have been subjected to novel forms of sackings such as “e-sacking”, “exam sacking’” and “verbal sacking.” Perhaps you should channel your energy to speak to your friends and ex-colleagues to make banks more humane for the younger generation.
Earlier on, I mentioned that your article was simplistic at best and vicious and dangerous at worst. The reason why I described it as dangerous is partly because of your mentoring involvement. You say, “I have spent a lot of time mentoring, observing and interacting with young Nigerians.” My concern is that if your 1,844-word essay is a reflection of your views about poor Nigerians in general and the marginalised young Nigerians in particular then such Darwinian elitist thinking is probably being passed down to the next generation of Nigerian leaders being mentored. Is Nigeria at risk of breeding a new generation of elites that have contempt for what Cardinal Mahony calls the last, the least, the littlest?
Your analysis of the Nigerian youth bears all the hallmarks of the bootstrap philosophy, which suggests that for people to succeed in life, they have to do it by their own effort i.e. lift themselves up by their own bootstrap. In short, the unfortunate is to be blamed for his misfortune. It is the same sentiment expressed by Auma Obama, sister to President Obama who once said, “Poverty is not an excuse for failure. Do something.” The problem with this line of thinking is that it fails to factor the structural causes preventing individuals from realising their true potential. Martin Luther King eloquently denounced this Darwinian philosophy when he said, “It’s all right to tell a man to lift himself by his own bootstraps, but it is cruel jest to say to a bootless man that he ought to lift himself by his own bootstraps.” Nigerian politicians and oligarchs have taken the spoils of the land leaving little or nothing for our helpless youths thereby rendering them bootless.
In the past couple of pages, I addressed the logical and moral flaws of your article. In this section, I will discuss the economic flaws of your analysis of young Nigerians. Otunba, I know that you are an economist par excellence. You have a Bachelor of Science degree in Economics from University of Wisconsin–Superior and a Master’s degree in Economics from Wichita State University; you worked as an economist at the Central Bank and you are a member of the prestigious Chartered Institute of Bankers, London. But with all due respect Sir, based on the contents of your paper, your thinking is out of tune with current economic thinking. You analyse the plight of the Nigerian youth from the narrow prism of Nigeria, even though the problem is a global phenomenon. While economists and policy makers around the world are banging their heads to understand and find solutions to global youth unemployment, you are simplifying Nigeria’s youth unemployment challenges to discussions about Don Jazzy, Face book and six young men who OWNED a bank.
I strongly recommend you read the 2015 baseline report prepared by the World Bank and the International Labor Organization titled, “Toward Solutions for Youth Employment. According to the report, we are witnessing the largest concentration of youths in human history with about 1.8 billion young people around the world. Of this number, 85% live in emerging economies like Nigeria. Almost a third of young people around the world are either not in employment, education or training. The younger generation who you debase, account for approximately 40% of the global unemployment and are four times more likely to be unemployed than the older generation. At the moment, the situation shows no sign of improving as nearly a billion additional young people are expected to join the global workforce in the next decade even though only 40% are expected to join jobs that currently exists. Moving back to Nigeria, our youths suffer from the same plight as their global counterparts. According to Mckinsey, youth unemployment in Nigeria is around 50% while the Central Bank Of Nigeria suggests the rate to be 80%. Sir, I hope you can see from these grim statistics that the current situation of youths in Nigeria and youths around the world is tragic.
You fail to consider the interplay between technology and youth unemployment. Automation has eradicated jobs that were available when you began your banking career. As a consequence, there are fewer jobs available in an era of increasing young people. I am sure you were taught in Economics 101 that a limited supply of a good, combined with a high demand for that good, results in a mismatch between the desired supply and demand equilibrium. If you can appreciate this most basic of economic principles, why can’t you appreciate the plight of young Nigerians who have to compete for jobs in an era of fewer jobs as evidenced by the sixteen people who died in stampedes around the country as 6.5 million young Nigerians were seeking employment for the 4,000 vacant positions in the Nigeria Immigration Service? You might want to rebut, “The government and private sector can’t create all these jobs, and so it is up to the youths to set up their own businesses.” The flaw with this thinking is that not every youth in Nigeria is destined to be an entrepreneur just like every Nigerian can’t be a lawyer, doctor, banker or blogger.
You fail to properly stratify the constituents of the younger generation. Most of the people you mentioned in your article achieved their success between their mid- twenties and mid thirties. Labour economics tell us that adults within the age bracket of 25 to 34 display the highest level of entrepreneurship globally. That is partly because at that age one is not too inexperienced or one is not too old to take risks. In Nigeria, the 25-34 year age bracket constitutes 15.4% of the total population compared to 15- 24year age bracket, which is 20.17% of the total population. You also fail to discuss the difficulty entrepreneurial youths have in obtaining credit facilities from financial institutions. Some of them do not have sufficient collateral to obtain loans while others are not well connected to solicit the help of guarantors with deep pockets.
You fail to appreciate the impact of unemployment on the younger generation. Could this be because you never had an unemployment gap on your CV? I understand that you did your undergraduate studies between 1976 and 1978 and started your postgraduate degree in 1979. Within a year of graduating from Wichita State University in 1981, you joined the Central Bank of Nigeria in 1982 where you worked till 1988. 1988 was a critical year for you as you left the CBN for First City Merchant Bank and in the same year you linked up with five other gentlemen at “Fola’s residence” to birth GTB. Perhaps, if your circumstances were similar to the average Nigerian youth today, you would appreciate that unemployment at a young age can negatively affect future earnings; Perhaps, if your circumstances were similar to the average Nigerian youth today, you would appreciate that unemployment at a young age can lead to social exclusion; Perhaps, if your circumstances were similar to the average Nigerian youth today, you would appreciate that unemployment at a young age can lead to further joblessness; Perhaps, if your circumstances were similar to the average Nigerian youth today, you would appreciate that unemployment at a young age can affect your ability to have your own family; Perhaps, if your circumstances were similar to the average Nigerian youth today, you would appreciate that unemployment at a young age can lead to physical and mental health challenges.
Sir, you need to realise that everybody cannot be a Gbolly Osibodu, Fola Adeola or Femi Pedro. For every Gbolly Osibodu, there are millions of young Nigerians wallowing on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity; For every Fola Adeola, there are millions of young Nigerians who have nothing to live for; For every Femi Pedro experiencing the Nigerian dream, there are millions of young Nigerians experiencing the Nigerian nightmare.
Your direct crusade against young Nigerians is also an indirect crusade against young women. How? Majority of young Nigerians are women who make up 31.3% of the total population compared to young men that make up 27.8% of the population. All the statistics that I referenced earlier are average figures for the youth population. If we are to break the numbers into gender components, you will see that young women are hardest hit by the problems confronting the youths. For instance, relative to their male counterparts, women are more likely not to be in education, employment or training, they are more likely to be socially excluded, more likely to be working in vulnerable employment and more likely to be discriminated against at work.
I would like to address your comments regarding youth distraction. You write, “Young Nigerians have to eliminate distractions. Do not get carried away by the allure of good living, bling, fame and fortune…. By all accounts, social media is obviously the biggest distraction. It is a powerful tool, but can also derail you from focusing on the bigger picture.” Otunba, using social media and focusing on the bigger picture are not mutually exclusive. It shouldn’t be either/or; it is both/and. Permit me to ask you a question. Who is more dangerous to Nigeria? – A young Nigerian logging on to Twitter to express her opinion or an old Nigerian who siphons $6 billion to her pocket? A young Nigerian who logs on to Face book to keep in touch with friends or an old Nigerian bank CEO who embezzles $1.2 billion of depositors money? A young Nigerian who shares her pictures with her friends on Instagram or an old Nigerian who makes a false declaration of his assets? Sir, you are preaching to the wrong generation.
Before I conclude, I would like to advice you to come off you high horse and see things from the perspective of the younger generation. I must admit that you are not alone in your thinking as your sentiments are supported by a cross section of the so-called Nigerian middle class. It is in the interest of the so-called Nigerian middle class to be worried about the marginalisation of the Nigerian youth. A friend of mine often says, “Those that do not hear will one day feel,” while Martin Luther King wrote from a Birmingham jail, “In a real sense all life is inter-related. All men are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be…This is the inter-related structure of reality.” Nigeria has developed a two tier parallel system comprising of two kinds of people – the “haves” and the “have nots.” The “haves” live in their gated communities protected from the “have-nots” who are confined to the ghettos. Oppression has become the name of the game with the 1% oppressing the 99%. The boss oppresses the subordinate; the clergy oppresses the laity; the landlord oppresses the tenant; the lender oppresses the borrower; the musician oppresses the fans, the governor oppresses the governed and the richer older generation oppresses the poorer younger generation. The so-called Nigerian middle class may think they are immune from the sufferings of the “Nigerian underclass” especially when looking through the safe confine of their gated communities. But how long can this last before the underclass begin to leave the ghettos and slums to knock on the doors of these gated communities demanding their share of the national cake? After all, revolutions are usually started by the younger generation.
Finally, in the movie The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, the protagonist Benjamin Button played by Brad Pitt suffers from a condition in which he ages backwards. At birth, he has the appearance of an old man, but as the days and years go by, he becomes younger. When he is 50 years old, he looks like a twenty year old. It might be time for the older generation of Nigerians (of which I am a part of) to age backwards and live as a young person in today’s Nigeria. I am confident that by the time they see themselves sitting for an entrance exam with 80,000 other candidate vying for ten vacancies; by the time they submit thousands of CVs only to receive an email reading, “We regret to inform you that your application was unsuccessful; by the time they apply for a bank loan and are told to produce their mothers birth certificate; by the time they are told to sleep with one Chief in order to generate deposits for their employer; by the time they hear rich old Nigerians tell them that they are lazy; by the time they see that they have no money in their pockets to pay for the medical expenses of their dying mother; by the time they see themselves socially excluded; by the time they see themselves sleeping in a cockroach infested room – then they will understand that it is simplistic, heartless and immoral to call the young generation indolent, arrogant and vain.