On the 1st of January 2012, Nigerians awoke to an increase in the price of petroleum from N65 to between N138 and N250 across the country. In the midst of heated reactions, national protests and a general sense of exasperation among Nigerians, references were repeatedly made to the past, Nigeria’s past. There were comparisons of the policy to IBB’s structural adjustment of the late 80s in its potential to devastate the struggling middle class further; others used instances of petroleum price changes and deregulation policies from the recent past to defend their refusal to believe any good would come out of the policy. In defending the policy, the government called on the past as well – preaching that it was a fundamental restructuring necessary to make life better for Nigerians in the long run. Yes, the government mainly spoke about the long run… the future. Ngozi Okonjo Iweala talked about the depletion of foreign reserves and the need to save money for future generations. Incidentally, in 2004 she was behind the creation of the excess crude accounts which accumulated up to 20 billion dollars by the end of 2008. By 2010, the government had drawn down the account to 3 billion dollars and the account, which has been converted into a Sovereign Wealth Fund, currently stands at 3.6 billion dollars.
One thing that stood out to me in the midst of all that transpired at the time was the ambiguity surrounding whose responsibility it is to think and plan for Nigeria’s future. By definition, that is part of the responsibility of the institution of government. The word government is derived from the Latin infinitive gubernare, meaning “to govern” or “to manage”. The word can also mean “to steer” or “to pilot”. Visualizing the root word, government is the agency responsible for directing an object through a pathway from a particular state to a (hopefully) pre-determined destination. Desirable in today’s politics is that democratic principles govern the manner in which the agents are selected – “…of the people, by the people, for the people” said Abraham Lincoln at Gettysburg. It is often forgotten that the first part of that statement speaks of people who sacrificed their lives to make it possible for those left alive to ‘take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion”. Well, many Nigerians might not know of the address, but they are not strangers to the idea of sacrifice. A common response from the few people who believed the fuel subsidy removal was a good idea was that in asking common Nigerians to bear the brunt of higher fuel prices towards a better future, the GEJ led government must demonstrate a measure of sacrifice as well – by cutting the size of the executive, reducing foreign travel and allowances, etc. Wasteful figures from the proposed 2012 budget shot to the limelight and status messages and BBM broadcasts swept across the internet expressing deep distrust and disdain for the government of the day. Not even the announced cut of salaries of government officials by 25% was enough to placate the general public. I reckon that the 2012 budget was the most scrutinized budget in the history of Nigeria.
While all of this was going on, I started to notice certain trends in the reactions of Nigerians to the issues of the day. Some people were more easily convinced of the good intentions of the government than others; others took very hard stances in their arguments. Nowhere was this playing out more fluidly than on facebook and twitter. Expletives were piled on expletives; ad hominems were directed at all those perceived to be pro-subsidy and the #occupyNigeria movement gained momentum. Fortunately, or unfortunately, the movement self-corrected by expanding its discourse to focus on larger issues of bad leadership, corruption and the general lack of accountability that has become characteristic of government in Nigeria (and most of Africa). Subsequently, prominent political opposition figures became the faces of the movement and gradually the #occupy buzz fizzled out. Well, at least it fizzled out on the tweetdeck feed which I set up to track mentions for most of January and February.
It all seemed so familiar though. I remember capturing my top ten tweets about the subsidy and the final word was a tweet from Lagos which read “I’m helping grandma sell stuff in her shop. I told her about fuel subsidy, she said in 2 weeks Nigerians would adapt”. Well, grandma was right. Nigerians are renowned for their short memories, right – or are we? This realization – almost dejavu, led me to think a bit more deeply into the Nigerian element and the roles which different groups have naturally assumed. Unscrupulous leaders do what they like, the people face the brunt and run into the waiting arms of the opposition who foment dissatisfaction and dissent, but eventually the people lose interest and simply… adapt! Then it occurred to me why it all seemed so familiar! I had watched that happen in 2007 and again in 2011 while participating/organizing for local elections in my hometown. In each instance, I witnessed with frustration as my local community had failed to turn dissatisfaction into positive results for the good of the area. Was it that dissatisfaction/hardship was a bad motivation for Nigerians? This train of thought only led to more and more questions.
Another pattern that stuck out sorely was the difference in what people of various ages had to say about the happenings of January 2012. Some expressed resignation and deference, almost powerlessness in the face of the realities. Others expressed deep anger and bitterness while others could barely mask their arrogant disinterest. To be honest, I no longer judge people that have given up on Nigeria and never have anything good to say about her. There appears ample reason to be that way. However, peering deeper behind the curtain of these initial reactions, it appeared that even people who had similar reactions had arrived there from different paths. Some had pre-conceived impressions of the state of the nation; others seemed to form impressions from consideration of media reports or facts while others were swayed by less obvious or logically defensible reasons.
I must point out that I don’t believe in stereotypes. Nevertheless, being a student of the world – I totally agree that culture is a powerful thing. Further, I recently learned about Strauss-Howe’s generational theory having had The Fourth Turning recommended to me by my Professor. The Strauss-Howe generational theory postulates that the history of America (and other nations) can be told as a series of generational biographies that occur in a fourfold recurring sequence. Their theory is an extension of the generational cohort theory which explains changes across generations as a function of traits developed during the period of ‘youth’ approximately from 16 – 25 years. These traits are said to be formed during ‘defining moments’. Note that prior to the idea of cohorts, sociologists tended to classify people according to their current ages, i.e it was believed that people changed their behavior as they grew older and moved through life stages. Contrarily, research showed that people held on to values formed at certain ages throughout their lives. Strauss & Howe place more specific bounds on the cohort theory by defining ‘social generations’ as the aggregate of all people born over a span of roughly twenty years, or about the length of one phase of life” childhood, young adulthood, midlife and old age. Further, they identify a fourfold pattern of societal conditions which different generations experience differently namely: a high, awakening, unraveling and crisis. Generations that come of age as young adults during a Crisis or an Awakening directly absorb the lessons of that defining era, and carry these lessons forward in their attitudes and behaviors later in life. Strauss and Howe label these dominant generations. Generations that grow up as children during a Crisis or Awakening take a dependent role during that defining era, which shapes their later attitudes and behaviors very differently. Strauss and Howe label these recessive generations.
This theory is not without its criticisms, but not as much for the rigor of their thesis, which retells American history as a series of generational biographies going back to 1584 and is in sync with other theories of the rise and fall of civilizations dating back to Chinese and Hellenistic history as well as teaching of scholars dating back to 9th century BC Rome, as for their descriptions of the millennial generation in America. Suffice it to say that the millennial generation world over is considered increasingly difficult to figure out.
Therefore, I decided to combine what I was learning about Nigerian history with this theory, like any scholarly minded fellow would do, in order to see whether any useful insights could be gained. Like Emanuel Derman said in ‘Models behaving badly’, his expose of the 2008 financial crisis, ‘deep inside, everyone recognizes that the purpose of building models and creating theories is divination: foretelling the future and controlling it’. That is really not the purpose of this exercise – to divine. I’ll leave that to TB Joshua. The purpose of the next couple of posts is to identify, for the first time, some uniquely Nigerian cohorts starting from 1911 till the early 1990s, to draw out defining moments in the life of each of these groups and then to suggest some characteristics or values that they share – all with an aim of stimulating discourse about a shared Nigerian past. My hope is that maybe by putting faces to the various moments of Nigeria’s nationhood it will make it less easy for me to forget history and therefore from being doomed to repeat it.Follow @agogodavid