I meet an older gentleman on the plane to Lagos from Johannesburg. I am returning from The World Economic Forum on Africa (WEFA), my first time attending the prestigious affair filled with world and industry leaders, global shapers and the like. The Sunday morning flight creates the space for a five hour conversation about the current state of Nigeria, with a knowledgable and interesting stranger. Among many things, the topic the man and I spend hours debating, is the mindset of Nigeria’s youth. He argues, that my generation has never experienced a working Nigeria. They have never received the rewards of Nigeria’s educational system, or institutions. Rather, they have grown up in a Nigeria defined by poor governance, and disturbing gaps in income equality. That in spite of these narratives of a ‘rising Africa’ our generation has come of age in a Nigeria where there are simply the rich, and the poor. For me, this statement conjures my awareness of my experience of living in Lagos for the past two years.
The narrative of ‘moving back’ fills daily conversations in Lagos and has even led to the creation of a website for young Nigerians moving back to Nigeria or contemplating the act. This framework, proves challenging for someone like me, who was born and raised in the U.S. (with the exception of one year in secondary school in Kwara state). Of course, I spent time in Nigeria when I was younger visiting family. Later I came frequently as a young adult through research projects and grants, but to say ‘moving back’ means a return — something I cannot necessarily claim in the same way as peers who were born in Nigeria and later went abroad for an education.
It’s not a narrative I’m interested in claiming anyway. In fact, what often frustrates me in my interactions with Nigerians, young and old, is the need to singularise the experience young Nigerians can have in Nigeria and thus create and exacerbate economic and structural divides that we desperately need to bridge. We are told that we should come ‘home’ and contribute to developing our nation, but when we arrive, we are often shamed for having different cultural understandings of the world around us, and even Nigeria itself. We are told that our desires for greater efficiency and equality are foreign. It’s like the funny face people make when I make a statement about gender equality, which is always followed by the bemused expression on their face when they ask, ‘So you’re a feminist?’
Last year I got into a car accident in the Oniru area of Lagos. The accident was not my fault — a reckless keke (tricycle) driver tried to overtake me on my blind side. Unfortunately he was carrying a mother and her newborn baby as passengers who fell out of the moving vehicle and the incident warranted some hysteria. But what ensued was a 60 minute session of sitting in my car with locked doors while area boys and market women banged on my car, yelling and screaming to ‘settle’ the matter even though no one was harmed. A male friend tried to negotiate a way out of the situation on my behalf, but that day was the first day I felt truly terrified in Lagos. When the keke driver raised a brick to throw through my front window, my feet quivered on the brakes as I contemplated actions I never thought I would ever have to consider.
That day I kept trying to understand why so many strangers could hold so much anger against me, despite also being a victim of another person’s recklessness. Later, friends and family would explain: ‘When they see you and your 4×4 jeep, they see things they cannot have; they think you are part of the reason for their poverty.’ Others said that my experience was a Lagos standard and that I had finally become a true Lagosian. Looking back on that day, I realise that the memory has haunted me in a different way. In the midst of that car accident, I was surrounded by my fellow ‘youth,” yet we were diametrically opposed. If this is our natural state, how do we build a sense of community and recognise that we actually need each other to change our present reality?
In considering our future, one thing is clear, we need to work towards building just one of the many missing qualities of our elders, critical self awareness through the ability to see the bigger picture- we are not enemies. And where there are problems (or accidents) that require solutions, we must be able and willing to hear each other out regardless of how we are positioned. Those with means must resist being dismissive and those without must resist making assumptions. I reject the narrative that Nigeria must be rebuilt by those of us who have traveled abroad for an education, the returnees, or in other words, the elite. Rather, what we need is to position ourselves on the same side of the fence. That is the only way we can move forward.
I have another conversation with a Nigerian elder this week. He says leave the past in the past. So what if our parents and grandparents experienced different Nigerias? We are in the present and we have the capacity to create a new reality for ourselves.
I think we need to start asking the right questions, those that may be beyond our parents and elders, the questions that will allow us to interact with each other as people and to see that ‘we’ are all around us. Our elders may be struggling to hold on to political power to their very last breath, but we have to recognise that in many ways, the strength of their grip is in our hands. They have made our country dysfunctional, but we have the power to look past the inequality they have created, and create a new Nigeria. Something of our own.