Pat Utomi: The generation that left town

DO you know of the generation Y concept? Do not feel bad if you do not. I did not myself until recently. Among other things this generation of Nigerians born from between the late 1970s and the 1990s is angry with the generations before them in Nigeria. Maybe they deserve to be. But it had never quite been framed before me as it was recently.

At a recent conference on education, I provided a bit of a summary history of the rise and fall of education in Nigeria, referring generously to Eric Ashby’s work and the Ashby commission’s very kind remarks about the state of higher education in Nigeria at independence. I noted also sir Ashby’s regrets about how the dream had gone sour, in remarks just before his demise.

One of the participants came forward with this stunner of a question. If higher education was as good in those days as she keeps hearing, she queried, how come it produced leaders that have managed to, and continue to make so big a mess of the country. For some amazing reason, I was able to come back on the shotgun, quick on the draw on that very fundamental question. My generation, I said, was not responsible for the mess because it left town but they probably deserve blame as good, if not worse, for not having the character to challenge and stop the rot. So how and when did my generation leave town?

I began with remarks made at the presentation, a few weeks ago, of a book on achievers, by Fola Adeola. Said the founding Chief Executive of GTBank, “Thirty years ago I was referred to as a young man, today they are still referring to me as a young man.” For me, the point Fola was really making was that the men who ran Nigeria 40 years ago as twenty something and thirty something year old without the benefits of the education Ashby felt so proud of, still run Nigeria as seventy something year olds and still call those 10 years younger young men, just as they did 40 years ago. Hold it there. I know you will look at the thirty something year olds who dominate states Houses of Assembly, National Assembly and even one or two Y generation governors and cabinet ministers.

The truth for me is that my generation, which enjoyed that high quality education found there was little space to add the value they could, and in the main, walked. They are the champions of the brain drain. I remember when I returned in 1982 after my PhD. A group of us used to get together around the Nigerian Institute of International Affairs because there was a core of the group that worked as Research Fellows at NIIA. They included Femi Aribisala, Olisa Agbakoba, Babajimi Peters, Mohammed Garba, Henri Yondowei, and Emeka Aniagolu. When Emeka Kalu Ezera, myself and a few others from outside arrived, almost on a daily basis and the big arguments on policy, nation building and serving the common good started, you could almost feel the walls respond to the passion.

Out of all that came a current affairs journal called Spectrum, engagement with the intelligentsia of the generation before and policy thinkers like Izoma Philip Asiodu and his peers. Then many lost heart. One by one, even that group, which came to define my generation, headed North and West. They left the country to positions in Europe and North America. I still recall an opinion essay by someone who wondered why I was still in Nigeria. And the person was not being nasty. He was actually very kind to me but concluded Nigeria had no room for people of talent. He was more or less reflecting the view of what was considered the appropriate thing to do by those who could in my generation, leave town.

Of our group all that is left in Nigeria besides me, are Femi Aribisala and Olisa Agbakoba. Dr Aribisala, one of the finest political economists of his time, educated at Europe and American’s finest universities, long became a pastor, a wonderful thing to serve God, but a huge loss nonetheless to a discipline in which he was one of the very best.

Emblematic of how my generation left town was a story told by an expatriate CEO of a pharmaceutical firm about their frustration in testing the efficacy of new drugs in the 1990s. They would start with a group of professors of medicine at UCH, and six months later all would have left for Saudi Arabia, then they would turn to another group only for exit to happen three months later.

So who was left to lead and how did Nigeria lose the benefit of the quality education of the 1960s, ‘70s and early 1980s. I think the thirty something year olds who took power in the 1960s have generally stayed in power. In many cases they have cloned themselves in the new young men in power who had to worship at their altar and sometimes sacrifice their souls to be let in. They also incorporated a few that got that education the questioner was wondering about. To deal with why those with quality education they have brought in is to understand two phenomena. One is the corporatist state in post-colonial Africa and the other is the idea of being in office but not in power.

The corporatist state sought to suck in certain elements that seemed able to threaten the system. So the Bar Association president was appointed Attorney-General and put in a position to thwart the rule of law to show loyalty to the incorporators, and the medical association president became minister of health etc. In a variant of this process the incorporated is initiated into a new paganism, money worship. The new idolatry makes all human relative in value to what they own or how much can be squeezed out of them.

So people forget how to speak truth to power and say to the ruler who is clueless: You are the greatest thing since sliced bread. Sycophancy becomes a high art until the beneficiary falls from power and becomes object of the scorn of these sycophants as they move on to the new men in power. The other crippler of the educated that is brought into office is lack of real influence. At a CVL yearly lecture a few years ago, the guest speaker, Prof. Ibrahim Gambari of the United Nations, when he was challenged about performance of people like himself when they are in government, Gambari’s retort was that there is a difference between being in office and being in power. Many incorporated ministers are in office but not in power. Their real influence, if we were to be honest was marginal.

My generation, left town or was ignored, except for those who turned to people, power with mortgaged consciences and money worship, a faith that somehow sucks the finishing of good education from human consciousness such that all that is seen is how “my Mercedes is bigger than yours”. It also sets adherences on a path of reckless abuse of the commonwealth to get money not earned so as to buy things not needed in other to impress people they do not really like.

Professor Wole Soyinka may see his generation as “a wasted generation”; mine simply left town and became useful to other societies. The trouble is that many of us got the education we are taking elsewhere at little or no cost, thanks to the taxpayers of Nigeria. This is why I get into trouble with my many Nigerian physician friends who now live in the U.S., when I tell them that while their American colleagues were borrowing a fortune to pay their way through medical school they were taking freely received training to the U.S. from where they harass me about how come we cannot fix Nigeria.

The guilt of my generation is a big one. It is not the misleading of Nigeria. They were not around to do that. The guilt of my generation is that education did not give us enough character to stay and fight those who did not realise that the duty of every generation is to make its shoulders available so the generation next can better see tomorrow to make it better than yesterday. Instead of fighting off those who took power in the 1960s at age 30 so we can make ready a better place for the generation Y to build on with their ICT know-how and technology savvy disposition, we simply said these guys don’t take prisoners and left town.

This piece was first published in Guardian.


Op-ed pieces and contributions are the opinions of the writers only and do not represent the opinions of Y!/YNaija.

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One comment

  1. Being in office vs. being in power…true and very deep.

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