Based on two episodes spanning 2010-2019, there are signs generational tensions may continue.
In November 2009, Nigeria’s long-ailing president Umaru Musa Yar’Adua left the country to receive medical treatment in Saudi Arabia. That Christmas, the front page of Nigeria’s newspapers tallied up the number of ‘days the President has been missing’ from the country. Barely 10 years into Nigeria’s return to democracy, young protesters took to the streets around the Christmas holidays and into the new year to demand the president’s return. By February 2010, the following year, Yar’Adua’s absence drew the attention of Christiane Amanpour on CNN. Amanpour turned to Professor Wole Soyinka for answers when he featured as a guest on her show. Soyinka, Nigeria’s only Nobel Prize winner for literature described the Yar’Adua administration and the ruling party as “illegitimate, unelected, corrupt, and murderous”. Fiercely unapologetic, he went on to suggest that a secret cabal surrounding the president gained financially from Nigeria’s ongoing power vacuum. That evening on CNN, Soyinka with his age-revealing-silver-afro delivered a blow to the Yar’Adua regime (which ended following his death that May). Soyinka’s rebuke was widely celebrated among Nigerians. This was odd.
Nigerians given a platform on the world stage, such as being invited to speak on CNN, operate under a silent and unwavering code of conduct: Do not speak about the country unfavorably. While the average Nigerian citizen commands an expert’s understanding of national problems, and laments on them as a daily ritual, the code tells Nigerians the world stage is reserved for pointing out the country’s strengths, and taking pride in the motherland—not piling on well-known criticisms to outsiders. Only a handful of Nigerians have successfully broken with this time honored code, including famed musician, Fela Kuti. On Amanpour’s show in February 2010, Soyinka’s celebrated rebuke confirmed he also held custody of this special licence to criticize Nigeria, like his cousin, Fela. Beyond the widespread support for Soyinka’s candor on CNN, Nigerians went a step further, adopting the elder statesman’s diagnosis about a secret cabal seizing control. The term entered everyday discourse following his interview—and stayed. Soyinka came out of the interview as an elder statesman with special exemptions from established codes of Nigerian conduct.
Fast forward 10 years and those codes and exemptions no longer apply. In summer 2019, a social media earthquake split Nigerian citizens into two, figuratively speaking, following an airplane incident. An unidentified young man travelling alongside Soyinka arrived on a Nigerian domestic flight. The young man found someone already sitting in his own assigned window seat: Africa’s first Nobel Literature prize winner, Prof. Soyinka. Ideally, cultural norms would suggest the young man leave Nigeria’s elder statesman where he was now comfortably sat, and graciously take the reportedly free aisle seat, located directly beside the young man’s pre-allotted window seat. Especially given that there would be no additional fees and no change to the young man’s row, wing, or cabin—a loss, perhaps— but not a total one. This time, tradition did not have its way. Witnessing the events unfold on the plane, a Nigerian executive in his fifties described his horror as the young man (who he nicknamed “Bobo fine”) broke with tradition, by asking Soyinka to move to Soyinka’s own aisle seat and free up the young man’s assigned window seat. Flight attendants and the CEO reportedly made various appeals to the young man to respect cultural traditions and leave Soyinka alone, but the young man insisted Soyinka move to his own seat, directly beside. Soyinka moved.
Do these two ‘Soyinka episodes’ that bookmark each side of our current decade leave us with a message about evolving generational tensions in Nigeria? I believe so. Outside the ‘Bobo fine’ plane ride, Nigeria is on a similarly tense journey. The incident captures the zeitgeist: older people are sitting on the younger generation’s seats. Compared to the start of this decade, Nigeria’s population is young and fast-growing. Today, 51 percent of Nigeria’s voters are between 18 and 35 according to the national electoral commission. The country’s median age is 18 years old. Despite these indications, the two main presidential contenders in the February 2019 election were in their 70s. Buhari is 76 and the main opposition candidate, Atiku Abubakar, is 72. Buhari won, keeping the older candidate in charge of an overwhelmingly young nation. Observers suggest current leadership has not been favorable to young Nigerians.
While visiting Nigeria in 2018, Bill Gates observed, “the current quality and quantity of investment in this young generation in health and education just isn’t good enough.” By challenging for his seat on the plane, Nigerians hailed the young man as a hero, symbolically wrestling against a cultural of silence: toward oppression and unmet needs.
Debates about whether ‘Bobo fine’ is a hero or not reveal the seat is a hyper-symbol for Nigeria’s wrestling matches: culture versus disruption; entitlement versus equality; and failed, recycled leadership versus a new economic future. There are documents reasons these wrestling matches will continue. Already, 63% of Nigeria’s population is under 25, and that group is not reflected in parliament. Young activists led a two-year campaign to reduce age limits for elective positions. President Buhari signed their bill into law in May 2018. However, in the same year, Buhari diagnosed Nigeria’s young with a “sit and do nothing” entitled mindset at the Commonwealth Business Forum in London. By August 2019, shortly after the plane ride, Buhari inaugurated 43 cabinet ministers for his second term – none under the age of 40. The struggle for new leadership, disruption and equality appears, at best, to only have superficial endorsement. This is not exclusively a Nigerian problem. Africa’s population is the youngest in the world. At the same time, the 15 oldest presidents in the world are in Africa. The generational wrestling matches are set to continue across Africa.
Nigerians who debated in favor of the young man on the plane and asserted that young people should take control were confronted with a counter argument merely a few weeks later. The youngest senator in Nigeria became the source of public outrage in July 2019 for physically assaulting a shopkeeper and suggesting his orderly arrest her for telling him to “take it easy”. Based on that episode, many people on Soyinka’s side of the debate argued that the elective age should be higher still. But on both sides acknowledgement exists that Donald Duke, who entered the Cross River state house to become governor at 37 is a widely celebrated governor. The citations used—good or bad—raise a pertinent question. Should isolated cases determine the overall right of Nigeria’s young people to be represented?
Beyond representation debates, the plane incident also provoked heated dialogue about the continued relevance of cultural norms. African elders usually enjoy unquestioned reverence, especially in Soyinka’s Yoruba ethnic culture, which elevates seniors to the plural form for pronoun references. If the past is any guide, Bobo would have begged Soyinka to stay in his seat. This time Bobo was not made to beg. Instead, cultural bastions begged Bobo fine, and coming up short, read sirens wailing into a Nigeria’s future led by young people with his mindset. Speculating whether Bobo fine would ask Jay-Z off his seat, critics suggest the real ‘inequality’ is in recognizing local icons.
‘Bobo fine’ could be forgiven for feeling piqued. Airlines promise the money spent on a plane ticket and the self-selected seat will be honored. The Nigerian big man’s largesse and over-powering swagger has sometimes seemed limitless. More striking in this case was that, when the young man insisted, Soyinka reportedly moved to his own actual seat. In an open letter, Soyinka’s son indicated the 85-year old’s tendency for avuncular travel mishaps. The idea of Soyinka having to move just went against custom. But custom and Soyinka have a special relationship worthy of mention. While in his own younger days, Soyinka co-founded a Pyrates university movement in 1952 to resist “conformist degradation” and “social ills”.
Related to “degradation” and “social ills”, the idea most frightening to young Nigerians is a country going nowhere. Yesterday’s Nigeria mirrors Korean cockpit culture, where suppressed objections contributed to plane crashes. In some eyes, Nigeria’s younger generation now stand to earn credibility by carefully choosing their battles with hierarchy and averting existential crashes.
Daniel Akinmade Emejulu is qualified as a lawyer in Nigeria and works in global affairs in Geneva, Switzerland.