There is one Nigeria and many Nigerias. There are also many types of Nigeria youth. The Nigerian youth Chimamanda is referring to are bright young things - well educated, overwhelmingly christian and overwhelmingly from Southern Nigeria.
They are hopelessly naive. Their knowledge of Nigeria is confined to Lagos and Abuja (which they don't even understand fully). They have little interraction with (and see no need to interract with) anyone outside their neat little circle.
My gateman, Sanni is a different type of Nigerian youth. He cannot read or write in English. He went home for two months because his only child died (probably from a preventable disease). I tried convincing him to send his daughter to school (if his wife gave birth to another child) - he did not see to send a female to school.
The youth Chimamanda refers to cannot / does not / is not interested in speaking to youth like Sanni in a language he can understand. But even the most corrupt Nigerian politician learns how to speak to simple folk in language they can understand.
Late last year, more than a thousand people in Northern Nigeria died from cholera. Most people in Lagos neither bothered to know nor cared. The same attitude was displayed when hundreds of children died from lead poisoning in Zamfara state.
Why am I saying all this? I believe that social change is possible in my lifetime. But it will take more than bright young things jetting in and out from the UK and the US to land in Lagos and Abuja to speak big english words. It will take men and women of courage who devote time and energy to understanding the peculiarities of the Nigerian nation. Men and women who will discover that elusive common Nigerian voice.
Nigeria is not Egypt nor Tunisia. We are more like Cote D'Ivoire and Sierra Leone. Let us think deeply about that.
I recall the governor of one of the Northern states telling a news reporter to write anything he wanted to write about him because "afterall, less than 10% of the people in my state read newspapers".
We are up against grizzled political veterans who like to keep the masses compliant (i.e. poor, uneducated and uninformed). We are also up against the Western powers who are happy to see our politicians loot the National treasury provided the oil flows.
We are up against a lot. May God help us.
The political awakening of my country's young people could transform
Nigeria's rotten democracy
In primary school in south-eastern Nigeria, I was taught that Hosni Mubarak was the president of Egypt. I learned the same thing in secondary school. In university, Mubarak was still president of Egypt. I came to assume, subconsciously, that he – and others like Paul Biya in Cameroon and Muammar Gaddafi in Libya – would never leave. They would atrophy in their palaces, as in the urban myth about Samuel Doe, the leader of the 1980 Liberian coup; on arriving at the presidential palace, he told his wife, "Look at all this, we will never leave here." Doe might never have left if he had not been assassinated. Coups could remove heads of state, I knew, but not mass revolutions; there were no models for such a thing on the continent. And so I, like many Nigerians, watched the Tunisia and Egypt revolutions with admiration, surprise, even awe. A friend said, almost wistfully, "This would not happen here. The difference is that a Nigerian would never set himself on fire."
The real difference is in our political situations. Nigeria suffered years of military dictatorships, but has had a democracy since 1999. There is discontent and dissent but the political climate is not repressive – the press is relatively free, people are no longer under the spell of fear. As Nigerians prepare for presidential elections next month, what is happening, much less dramatically than in north Africa but with perhaps as much long-term significance, is that the youth is finally awake.
About 70% of Nigeria's population is under 35, and there has been, for a long time, a political culture of ignoring the youth, who themselves were disconnected from the political process. That is changing. Last year, when Nigerians were not told about the whereabouts of the late president, Umaru Yar'Adua, groups of young people marched in protest. More recently, a coalition of groups worked to register young voters, using Facebook, Twitter and texts. At voter registration venues, which were sometimes chaotic, young people brought food and water to make sure the staff did their jobs well. Young women breastfed their babies while waiting in line. Young men spent the night there to make sure they could register. A total of 67 million Nigerians registered, up from 35 million in 2007, and the new ones are, no doubt, mostly young people. A friend asked a woman who had come from school why she wanted to vote. The reply: "Because it gives me the right to complain."
Many still think the ruling party will rig its way to victory, but there is a new dynamism, a keenness to engage. On 25 March, I will moderate a presidential debate, organised by youth groups under the name "What About Us", in which candidates will answer questions sent via social media. The first presidential debate to focus on young people, it is an exciting prospect. Not only will the candidates address the concerns of the majority of Africa's most populous country, but the debate might portend a change in our political culture.
Nigerian politics has been, since the military dictatorships, largely non-ideological. Rather than a battle of ideas, it is about who can pump in the most money and buy the most access. Cash is handed out to local leaders, bags of rice are given to women's groups, and promises are made about fixing roads that nobody really believes will be fixed. Debating ideas, spurred by youth participation, might bring more substance. Candidates will no longer merely hold colourful rallies, but will answer questions about important issues such as education and electricity.
Although much needs to change – the occasional violence, the deep rot of a
patronage system, the lukewarm participation of a jaded middle class – one
can't discount this slow-burning but intense awakening of young people. It might
yet be the making of a great revolution.