For theatre, he stood amidst young men and women. He was not only the tallest in the room. He was the oldest. The young, swathed in smiles, applauded his septuagenarian hands on a document. He was giving the generation of those on his left and right the right to topple him. The gangling man had proclaimed it with the flourish of a signature. Henceforth, no one should gaggle the young.
Yesterday, the youths railed at President Muhammadu Buhari for labelling them as indolent. Today, they are ill at ease when he signs a bill allowing them unseat him. He was aware of the dramatic irony when he quipped that he did not want them to edge him out of the high chair.
What does the average Nigerian youth think about the bill? Is it a gratuitous gratuity? Is it a new dawn? Both political parties have intervened on the matter. The APC sees this as a new dawn to the young. Some see it as presidential mea culpa to the new generation after thrashing them with a rhetoric of condescension. Others, especially the opposition, see it at once as bribery and intimidation.
Was the law necessary? Of course, anything that beckons brotherhood and inclusiveness is a good thing, especially in an age of Macron, the feisty and liberal exemplar of France, and Sebastian Kurtz, the 31-year-old, also feisty, if insular, leader of Austria. To bring the young is to stoke the energy of a new shoot. They are brash but inventive. Red-blooded with rosy thoughts. Reckless but sunny. Bumbling but bubbly. Adventurous, radical, edgy, greedy for change.
This implies new dynamism for any society. But is it also good? Youth can ruin a society or redeem it. Youth played a role in our independence. We can refer to the role of The Nigerian Youth Movement that rattled the British colonial power. Young women like Margaret Ekpo in the Aba Women’s Riot, or Funmilayo Ransome-kuti in the Abeokuta Women riots, a saga that sizzles in Soyinka’s Ake: Years of Childhood. Wild Christian, his mother, dynamised a narrative where Soyinka was an epistolary messenger of a revolution.
Youth gave us independence. Zik, the lyricist of the age, gave us not only oratory but invested the movement with a soul. Awo, who was to challenge Zik, expanded the arsenal.
But that generation also brought disappointment. In his Memoirs, President Richard Nixon opined that men like Zik and Nkrumah frittered away their energies fighting for independence. When it was time to govern, they only gave failure. Even Zik, who had soared with his Zikist Movement, denied them. The same Zik, who claimed his life was threatened. Hear him: “Sir Gerald Whitley plans my assassination. I go to the “bush” whence I came. But if it is the will of providence that I should go by the bullet of a European assassin, I go with supreme confidence and spiritual satisfaction that I have served mother Africa to the extent of my physical ability.”
Now these people were democratic. They rose on the popular vote. Yet, just like prime minister Tafawa Balewa and the upstart Aminu Kano from the north, youth ran in the veins of power. But the skein did not flatter their generation. The first decade of independence reeled to and fro with blood and corruption. Strikes erupted and politicians upended republican principles. Indeed, the nation unravelled, and what did we see? Young men from another segment of society who torpedoed the state. Nzeogwu and his men plucked out civil rule but imploded. Overshadowed by ethnic charges, a flux resulted in power in the hands of Yakubu Gowon, another youth of about 30. He was challenged by another young man of his generation and age bracket, Odumegwu Ojukwu. Brash could not mollify the waters. A 30-month war of brothers sullied the land.
The nationalist elan and the distress of the 1960’s came from the youths taking the stage out of volition.
With the civilian agbada and army fatigue, the nation tumbled. Gunmen flared up to teach civilians the disciple of soldiery. But it foundered because the army was already infested with the nation’s inner rottenness.
IBB imbibed the maggoty legacy and turned it to cynical and sinister use. He inaugurated new breed politics. What IBB faced then, the Buhari “not-too-young-to-run bill faces today. IBB knew the handicaps of that generation: money, structure, experience. What followed were young men who became puppets of the old, a marionette politics. Before long, the charade peeled open.
Sina Peters, who just turned 60, sang “asiko awa youth re o. E ye binu wa.” (This is the era of youths. Please don’t begrudge us.” He applauded his generation – also mine – saying “the young shall grow.” It was all a farce.
Our political structure is not made for the young. To run, you need a “structure.” And structure works on money, often money stolen by the old in power. This is the hypocrisy of the system. It is also a system that sees rigging as guaranteed to scupper the young, even if the young person is popular.
Gramsci announced the political society to illumine our understanding of the power of politicians and their hegemonic demons. They can use their money, influence and therefore ideas to suffocate a society. Nor is it a Nigerian thing alone. Trump tapped on populism because he had the money. Obama added effervescence to the system but he was above 40. Centuries ago, in Britain, William Pitt the Younger became prime minister at 24 but that is rare anytime. The ancient world witnessed a contagion of young men in charge. Some of them were scandals on the throne. Nero, Caligula, Tiberius, et al.
Yet, a big irony yawns. More Nigerians can now run. But the triumph is in theory only. That’s the tragedy. Youths have the numbers but who owns the numbers? That is why critics say that democracy may be about numbers only when the majority owns it. When such scenario often yields the mob. Mobs yield to strong men, like Napoleon after the French Revolution. Majority does not necessarily translate into power. Hence Einstein said that “not everything that counts can be counted.” The bill, for me, is not a watershed moment but only a paper victory.
Professor Biodun Jeyifo, my former teacher, is a critic of world renown who has used the agency of Marxism to periscope society, especially Nigerian. Last week, he did a good job analysing Soyinka’s Death and The King’s Horse man, acclaimed as the Nobel laureate’s best work. But he claims that the play is “fundamentally not about a clash of cultures … definitely not a drama about the irreconcilable antagonism of two different races or peoples.” He also quotes the author who would not have anyone interpret his work as such. Soyinka, a clever writer, knows how to choreograph the interpretation of his work. He succeeded in browbeating many a critic, even those of Olympian stature. The mighty Jeyifo reflected this in his otherwise wise piece in his weekly column in The Nation.
A work can be interpreted any which way by anyone depending on his worldview and the evidence he or she marshals from the work. When the British wears a masquerade and a Nigerian policeman is afraid to address him, or when Pilkings does not want the king’s son to commit suicide, etc, you see clear signs of culture clash in which colonial authority tries to interfere in an entirely Yoruba cultural pride. Not I, says Omatseye to anyone who would impose a view of a book. Roland Barthes announced decades ago the death of the author. Long live the reader.
The position that the play yields other points of view, even more potent ones, about transitions, about person versus tradition, quest of glory, the seduction and mystery of death, etc, are grandly realised by the author. They may even appear on a greater scale in the author’s thematic quest. But culture clash is inevitable as a powerful string in Death and The Kings Horse man.