I am Not You. I Repeat: I am Not You By Chude Jideonwo
From the middle of last year to early this year, a raft of my peers began to express disappointment with President Muhammadu Buhari, who they were actively worked for or supported in 2015. Many of us are understandably deeply disappointed in the government’s performance, expecting much better from an administration in which we invested such hope.
Some of them, however, moved beyond disappointment to expressing regret for the 2015 vote.
For some of them, of course, this came from a place of singular conviction that has to be respected. But for the others, you could clearly see the peer pressure of the tit-for-tat poisonous atmosphere of social media. Having triumphantly ridiculed those who chose different only years before, it became difficult to stand still in the face of embarrassment.
I was silent, because of a self-imposed discipline not to speak ill of a government in its first two years (a benefit of the doubt I also gave to President Goodluck Jonathan), but I disagreed fundamentally with many of my friends and associates.
While I could certainly identify with the disappointment – valid, necessary and urgently needing to be expressed – I was alarmed by the regret. Because regret is not an option with regard to the necessary choice Nigeria made in 2015 to punish a failing government. I could not possibly regret the well-considered, all-risks-taken-on-board decision Nigerians made two years ago.
Imagine my irritation therefore when, in the thick of February’s protests against the government, which I joined, I found on social media a few people insisting vociferously that I was expressing regret for my vote.
I am an individual, with my own beliefs, values, imperatives and preferences. And I am deeply resentful of anyone situating my fiercely independent opinions in the context of what other people think.
My anger was simple: How can you assume my opinion based on what someone else says, and then proceed to make statements based on that assumption, robbing me of my agency?
And herein lies much of my impatience with the elite conversation especially on Twitter; much of it is based on its own self-reinforcing assumptions, rather than an unprejudiced understanding of divergent strains of thought.
Indeed, there are very many debates that people, of different political persuasions, have on Twitter that are based not on shared reality, but on some sort of cognitive dissonance that its purveyors consider consensus, but that excludes a large swath of the Nigerian citizenry.
Let’s talk about some of them.
One is the idea that what Nigeria needs above all else is young people in government, a subject I have dealt with in more detail in an earlier part of this series.
I routinely hear sentiments like, ‘no one above 50 should lead Nigeria. Or ‘what Nigeria needs is youth in positions of power’.
Then many, because of my extensive work and investment in youth development, assume I agree with this consensus, even though I have clearly written many times, including in my first book, that youth is not a synonym for effectiveness.
I have written that the majority of the youth who seek political power need the humility to gain capacity first in a society that hasn’t much given the opportunity to build that competence. I simply am not convinced that what Nigeria needs to drive its development is youth.
Instead, what I do believe is that Nigeria needs leaders who know how to create value. Based on our experience in this particular administration, that belief is even more acutely sharpened: Nigeria needs people who have practical experience in creating value, in building systems, in expanding wealth.
Those people must have a familiarity and facility with the world as it works today, and most likely should come from outside the active federal political class, as we know it today. If a compromise must be reached for players within the political class, it should be those at least who have been able to create significant, sustainable private sector value.
‘You betray youth by supporting an old man for president’ is therefore not a statement that much wins my regard.
It is certainly bizarre to assume that a man who has actively and publicly rooted for the 70-year-old Hillary Clinton to be president of the world’s most powerful nation would see anything significantly wrong in a 70-year old being president of Nigeria.
At those times I want to scream: I am not you. I think completely, and utterly different. I do not agree with you. I mostly have disagreed with you. Engage me not based on how other young people think. Engage me on how I think.
Let’s talk about another trend.
I remember that during the Goodluck Jonathan administration, I tweeted, and then wrote in my last book, that there was no fundamental difference between the All Progressives Congress (APC) and the People’s Democratic Party (PDP).
I insisted, at a time when it was deeply unpopular in an opposition-driven social media atmosphere to say so, that the politicians I saw in both parties were essentially the same, not separated by ideology as much as competition. And there were hardly saints in any of them.
This is a view I continue to hold today and probably will until Nigeria’s political parties evolve into ideological centers, even if it was is an unpopular with anti-APC crowds today as it was with anti-PDP crowds.
Many assumed that I voted for Buhari because he was in the APC. My paper trail, however, shows instead an urgent appreciation of the APC as a vehicle for political competition. In 2016, Nigeria needed strong competition for the PDP and it wouldn’t have mattered to me if Buhari were in the All Progressives Grand Alliance. As long as he was the strongest candidate to beat the PDP, I would have enthusiastically supported him still.
Sullivan Chime excited me when he was PDP governor of Enugu, Peter Obi when he was APGA governor of Anambra, and Babatunde Fashola when he was APC governor of Lagos. That’s where we are in Nigeria, today.
Yet many are unwilling to countenance that complexity of thought, insisting instead on simplistic paradigms, and then making conclusions based on those assumptions.
At those times I want to scream: I am not you. I think completely, and utterly different. I do not agree with you. I mostly have disagreed with you.
The most annoying trend in this respect is the talk of a youth party.
While I am a reluctant supporter of the #NotTooYoungToRun movement, I am unequivocally against the idea of a youth party.
Youth movements are important and useful, and I believe Nigeria urgently needs one. But a youth party is another matter. A youth party, as far as I am concerned, is a non-starter in terms of building a real coalition to effect change in Nigeria.
The first and most important reason for this is so simple to me that it surely should be apparent to many: youth is not an ideology.
There is no collection of ideas called ‘youth’. Youth is a collection of disparate individuals only tied together by a common date of birth. The fact of belonging to a generation cannot mean shared beliefs.
If I were asked for my political views, my answer would be, using American paradigms, a composite of economic conservatism with sprinklings of socialism-sympathy plus extreme liberalism on social issues.
I disagree, for instance, with the vast majority of my peers on abortion rights and sexuality rights, both of which I am for. I disagree on majority government ownership of institutions and believe in the vast utility of the private sector. I would sooner hand over the entirety of Nigeria to business interests (while creating a legal burden on them to provide a social safety net from food to healthcare) than canvass for government ownership.
For those in support of a youth party to assume that all young people think the same, feel the same, believe the same, and assume the same set of solutions for Nigeria’s myriad problems belittles the complexity that serious-minded nation building requires.
In addition to this, I cannot seriously claim that I see younger people as necessarily better in terms of values than their forbears to the extent that they are also susceptible to the corruption Nigeria forces on the majority of people.
So the assumption that I, or many others, would automatically support a youth party simply because of relative youth is disrespectful of individuality and dangerous in terms of understanding and engineering civic behavior.
I am not you. I am an individual, separate and different.
While we are on the subject, it is very important for the alarm to be sounded that young people hoping to create a separate political party that will exclude young people are very possibly building castles in the air.
If people who believe that youth is the answer to our national question are serious about that agenda, then they should urgently begin to find effective ways to infiltrate the existing political parties, to gain credibility in and experience of those institutions; and to undertake a hostile, or perhaps even negotiated, takeover of those political systems.
Nigeria doesn’t stand in a vacuum from global social experience. The way that many politics systems give way to the new is through young players who understand how to make a powerful case either by force of ideas of by force of influence. This force causes the power blocs to pay attention.
But we are not having that crucial conversation, or debate (debate is necessary since there is no assurance that my positions are the right ones), because we assume often that all women think alike, all young people think alike, and all educated and connected people believe in the same baseline.
This is dangerous.
As I said before, it leads to a loss of the complexity of thinking that a new generation truly requires.
It perpetuates plenty by way of cognitive dissonance, and very little by way of creative, independent thinking – the kind that can actually help a hungry, passionate new generation build pathways to the winning of political power or the building of politically influential social networks.
There is a necessity for those who have influence over the conversation today to dig a little deeper into the challenges, opportunities, and imperatives.
If not, very sadly, we will kill difference, stifle debate, dismiss creativity and then end up, sadly, just like several other surface-level generations before us.
Abort, guys. Abort.
*Jideonwo is co-founder and managing partner of RED (www.redafrica.xyz), which brands including Y!/YNaija.com and governance consulting firm, StateCraft Inc (www.statecraftinc.com). Office of the Citizen (OOTC) is his latest essay series.