One word captures the clash between Nigeria’s youth and its leaders

Amid the global protests of 2020, a generation of young Nigerians took to the streets frustrated with the country’s leadership. Tens of thousands of protesters called for #RevolutionNow in August and #EndSARS in October, referring to the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS), notorious for extrajudicial killings. President Muhammadu Buhari responded with a violent crackdown and used the military against the #EndSARS movement. At least 56 people were killed, the authorities arrested protesters and blocked activist leaders’ bank accounts.

The mass protests turned Nigeria’s Generation Z against its aging political elite. In August, an adviser to the president fired the activists for alleged youthful inexperience. “A revolution is always a mass affair, not a trace of boys and girls,” he said. The comments led some people to refer to the aide as agbaya, a Yoruba word meaning “bad elder” – or an older person who acts like a child – and denotes an educated but selfish adult with power.

Amid the global protests of 2020, a generation of young Nigerians took to the streets frustrated with the country’s leadership. Tens of thousands of protesters called for #RevolutionNow in August and #EndSARS in October, referring to the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS), notorious for extrajudicial killings. President Muhammadu Buhari responded with a violent crackdown and used the military against the #EndSARS movement. At least 56 people were killed, the authorities arrested protesters and blocked activist leaders’ bank accounts.

The mass protests turned Nigeria’s Generation Z against its aging political elite. In August, an adviser to the president fired the activists for alleged youthful inexperience. “A revolution is always a mass affair, not a trace of boys and girls,” he said. The comments led some people to refer to the aide as agbaya, a Yoruba word meaning “bad elder” – or an older person who acts like a child – and denotes an educated but selfish adult with power.

No other word captures the conflict between Nigeria’s leadership and its booming young population so perfectly. In response to the #EndSARS protests, protesters saw a stark example of the elite’s indifference to ordinary suffering. “The Nigerian [government] has turned its back on real human security problems and has become a full-blown agbaya chasing after citizens who advocate civil affairs, ”tweeted Ayo Sogunro, a writer. A comment in the Guardian newspaper argued that “the youth may know how to lead more than those in power”.

About 70 percent of Nigerians are under 35 years old, but that is not reflected in the government. Buhari, who took office in 2015 after serving as the military head of state in the 1980s, is 78 years old – living more than 20 years longer than the average Nigerian. The legislators are also disproportionately older. Few young people have the financial capital to run for office, and large donors prefer to support older candidates. Although the age difference between elected officials and their constituents is not specific to Nigeria, it is local custom to bring older people to power: Nigerian elders are valued for their wisdom.

In Nigeria it is frowned upon to address older people by their first name, let alone insult them. Until the end of military rule in the 1990s, the word agbaya was mostly used among family members. Its pejorative use against political figures reflects the desperation of Nigeria’s young generation, who grew up amid a decade of violence and economic insecurity. Not represented in the government, they are now rising to demand accountability from their leaders.

Nigeria’s population is well on the way to surpassing the United States by 2050, and there aren’t enough jobs to support that surge. The coronavirus pandemic worsened several governments’ failure to invest in job creation. Rising poverty and food inflation have exacerbated longstanding security problems: Boko Haram in the northeast, kidnappings for ransom in the northwest, and separatists in the south. A 2018 poll by the Pew Research Center found that 45 percent of Nigerians wanted to move abroad in the next five years.

The younger generation is fed up with these poor prospects and sees that older political elites do not live up to the wise ideal. “Nigeria is on its knees because some Agbayas have made public decisions … not in the national or public interest,” said Samson Itodo, executive director of the Abuja-based Youth Initiative for Advocacy, Growth, and Advancement Africa, which encourages youth participation Politics. Democratization and social media have allowed citizens to shout officials more brazen. Many young people disregard tradition and instead demand that Nigerian politicians earn their respect.

The # EndSARS demonstrations that broke out after a video showed that police allegedly shot and killed a man were the most sustained in Nigeria since 1945. But the large crowds also showed sheer desperation. Looters found pandemic food aid stored in government warehouses and politicians’ homes, undermining trust in the government. For the demonstrators, the suppressed aid and crackdown only strengthened the image of Nigeria’s political leadership as Agbayas: a harassing elderly elite unwilling to protect their citizens.

The protests forced the government to disband SARS, but that did not resolve the root causes of youth discontent. Oil revenues make Nigeria Africa’s richest economy, but tax compliance is low and national income has stagnated since its peak in 2001. Young Nigerians have to pay for public services out of their own pockets, while the Agbaya elites abuse public revenues. When the coronavirus crisis deepened last June, the government cut its education budget by 54 percent and healthcare spending by 42 percent.

The legislature’s attempts to counter the economic crisis have only drawn criticism. In January the government launched a job creation program for 774,000 young people – the largest in Nigerian history. But the recruitment agencies only pay $ 49 a month, less than the minimum wage. Critics say the program is a short-term solution and recipients have complained about payment delays. “These types of problems lead to resentment and anger in young people. There is so much inequality and there is no deliberate attempt by the state to bridge the gap, ”Itodo said.

Meanwhile, the Buhari government has passed other laws to curb dissenting youth. A bill would give the authorities arbitrary powers to restrict access to social media and impose prison sentences for sharing fake news. Youth advocates fear that the government could use it as another arbitrary legal instrument against activists. A second bill aims to combat hate speech, but human rights organizations suspect it is directed against dissidents. The proposals have sparked further criticism, with one commentator likening the government to “an Agbaya tyrant who snatches a social media toy from a child because he can”.

Buhari reinforced that image in June when he banned Twitter without legal support. The move came after the company deleted a tweet from the president threatening secessionists in the southeast for violating his abusive code of conduct. “Many of those who misbehave today are too young to be aware of the destruction and loss of life during the Nigerian civil war,” he wrote. “Those of us who have been in the fields for 30 months and been through the war will treat you in the language we understand.” The threat of criminal prosecution did not prevent young Nigerians from accessing Twitter via virtual private networks, to call out the “Agbaya Administration” for advancing towards dictatorship.

As young people’s anger against the Agbaya leaders grows, Nigeria’s political landscape is slowly changing. A 2018 law lowered the age limit for presidential candidates from 40 to 35 and for MPs from 30 to 25. Youth candidates rose 63 percent between the 2015 and 2019 elections. Itodo, who led the campaign for the law, cites success stories like 29-year-old Cephas Dyako, who was elected as a minority whip to the Benue State House of Assembly in the central north in 2019. But in 2019, young people still made up less than 6 percent of the elected candidates, even though 51 percent of registered voters are between 18 and 35, according to Itodo. “We don’t want to be here,” he said.

Conditions for young people are likely to only get worse. The collapse in oil prices caused by the pandemic sparked Nigeria’s second recession since 2016, and government revenues have plummeted. Buhari continues to blame the youth for economic problems. “If they want jobs, they’ll behave,” he told a local news channel in June. The next elections in 2023 are still a long way off. But there are more and more calls for the president to resign. It was young Nigerians who led the country to independence in 1960. The new generation’s dissatisfaction with the Agbaya leaders could usher in a new era of reform.

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