NANS: The ’45-year-old’ Student Leader

By Abimbola Adelakun

The news that the National Association of Nigerian Students had elected a 45-year-old Sunday Asefon as their new president, unsurprisingly, met with derision. Yes, I am quite aware that Asefon claims to be a decade younger than his putative age. Still, in a society where people already graduate from tertiary institutions at 20 years, a student leader aged almost four decades is awkward. We associate student leadership positions with youths who can still claim to be possessed by idealistic zeal and an unsullied vision of social transformation, not older men who should be halfway through their career ladder.

But this piece is not about Asefon’s age, but another malaise: Nigeria is stuck in a time warp.

During the #EndSARS protest, popular singer Ayo Balogun (aka Wizkid) referred to the President, Major General Muhammadu Buhari (retd.), as “old man” in a Twitter commentary. Quickly, the devotees of the President’s personality cult, including a Buhari aide, pounced on him for being disrespectful. One had to wonder why calling a man advanced in years like Buhari “old man” could produce such a visceral reaction. One can argue that their uneasiness could be a sign of the times. Advancing years no longer guarantees nobility and respectability as it spells decline of physical and mental capabilities. In a society where politics depends on the aggrandising uses of power, to be called “old” is a slur. It suggests one is a spent force.

But beyond that obvious explanation is the more sublime reality: Nigeria has a time problem. Due to our retarded modes of governance and the perennial failure to advance as a society, time seems to be running against us. Our bodies are yielding to the tyranny of biology, but as a people, we do not much to show for what we have done with time. From the cumulative amount of the years of our lives that we spend in traffic daily, to the time we lose when bureaucratic processes work with minimal efficiency, to the time that is frittered away as we confronted with the nemesis of teachers’ and the Academic and Staff Union of Universities’ strikes, to the many years of post-school unemployment that whittles away one’s dignity and sense of personhood, Nigeria is one country that wastes one’s life by wasting one’s time.

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Growing up, we were told that time and tide wait for no one. We believed so, only to grow into a society where time wastage is an official policy. From womb to tomb, the Nigerian life is a story of needless waste of people’s time. To be born a Nigerian is to be socialised into a society where time is frequently distorted by the maladministration of our myopic leaders.

To redeem the time, people have always resorted to a cynical manipulation of their ages while our leaders have psychologically distanced themselves from the truth of their own bodies. Members of our political class not only insist they are “youths,” they also disparagingly refer to actual youths as “children.” That is a Peter Pan complex, and that affliction has served as an alibi for our leaders who want to continue to inhabit the spaces that were traditionally designed for younger people. From the National Youth Service Corps camp where visibly older people lowball their ages, to the “youth” wing of our national political parties where grandfathers insist they still possess the enthusiastic vibrancy of youthfulness and therefore should be slotted in positions reserved for younger people, to the civil service where people lie about their age so they can enjoy more years of salaries, we have a problem of time.

During the “Soro Soke” revolution of the #EndSARS movement, older people were aghast at the rhetoric of ageism that emanated from the youthful protesters. They responded to the antagonisms directed at their generation with hand-wringing and firm demand for “respect” for one’s elders. If they had pondered the grievances that underwrote the tensions, they would have been more empathic towards the anxiety of this younger generation of protesters. It was a rebellion of young people against an older generation they have come to see as sterile. This older generation grew up in Nigeria’s Golden Age, a time of bountiful harvests. However, it has never been regenerative. Even worse, it remains staunchly parasitical. Not only did they fritter their opportunities, they are still encroaching on the spaces of the younger generation. In the high places they occupy, they are busy jeopardising the future through their habits of inordinate consumption.

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When we were children, we were told that the Nigeria of our dreams was possible, and it would happen in the magical year of 2000. There was going to be education, healthcare, housing, and the good life for all in the year 2000. If we could try and survive till 2000, we would thrive. Those of us who dared to bet on Nigeria approached the millennium with optimism. Finally, we would get to live as humans. As the date drew closer, they moved the promise of national redemption to the year 2010. Within a matter of years, they revised the date by a decade. They gave us something called “Vision 2020.”

In a few weeks, the year 2020, the date of the much-promised redemption, will wrap up, but we still have had nothing. We are far worse off than we have ever been in any period in Nigeria’s recent history. We arrived at the beginning of this year without our leaders accounting for having not achieved the future they promised us. Rather than get serious, they simply proclaimed another date. In September, they announced another a successor plan to Vision 2020 and called it, “Agenda 2050.” From the magical year of 2000, redemption has been postponed for a cumulative period of 50 years. Just like that! There was no accounting of past failures, just another set of dates.

By setting year 2050, they deferred the future from mine to that of my children and probably that of their children. Who is to say that as year 2050 approaches, they will not set year 2100 as the magical year? That ceaseless spate of deferrals of the future has left us in this rut where we cannot proceed beyond the now. Since all the promises of a better future have turned out to be a lie that eventually reaches the end of its gestation period only for them to announce another round, we cannot envision a path towards the future.

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Those that are supposed to have advanced on the social ladder and left certain spaces for younger people, and those that are supposed to be already upwardly mobile while similarly expanding opportunities for those coming behind them, are all presently stuck at the same level. When you have a society where middle-aged men become student leaders, then one has to face up to the problem of time mismanagement. It means the past, the present, and the future have all met at the same junction, and they are colliding. We are not advancing. Older people, unable to face the future, retreat into an imagined youthful mode. They get angry when you call them “old” because you shatter a comforting illusion.

Our society is one of endless deferrals of the future. We are caught in this time warp where we keep making a nostalgic retreat to the past, especially the ’60s and ’70s when things made sense. In those times, the structures bequeathed us by our colonial masters were still intact, and life was so abundant that a certain generation of undergraduates ate a quarter chicken on Sundays. Nobody dares dream of that kind of future now. We can only look back longingly at who we used to be. When we talk about Nigeria’s future these days, what we talk about is going to that past where things worked better than they do now. What we are doing now is running many miles to return to the past. There is no vision of the future that matches the reality we live in the past. That is how we got stuck in this time warp where not even old men want to be old.

What are your thoughts?

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