Most of us are familiar with the fable of the dog and the tortoise.
During a severe famine in the animal kingdom, all animals were instructed to eat their parents. While the famine persisted, all the animals – except the dog that always appeared well-fed-suffered. Eventually, the tortoise managed to prod the truth out of him: unlike the others, he did not eat his mother. Instead, he hid her in heaven, and he regularly returned to her to be fed. While the other animals starved for both lack of food and perspicacity, the dog thrived because of his deference to his elders.
Like most children who grew up in traditional households, I imbibed the moral of the story: To respect my elders because they balance the society. Growing up and understanding the politics of storytelling, I saw the narrative sleight of the hand in that account. The elders who told that tale were not only trying to inculcate values in us, they were also evincing their anxieties. When a society faces a crisis and is bereft of material, intellectual, and ideological nourishment, the youths will likely turn against their elders and eat them whole. That story was a means of conditioning us to defer to them; to forewarn that those who will survive tough times are the ones who let the elders live. After I arrived at that point of discernment, I became more circumspect about the whole culture of “respect” which has historically and culturally functioned as means of social control in our societies.
This preamble is essential to contextualise the economy of repression of youthful energy in our country, and the mechanism of condescension, patronage, and abuse on which it runs. In recent times, one of the starkest ways it has manifested is the supercilious observation that Nigerian youths are not ready for leadership. In 2015, when a septuagenarian became the president of Nigeria – a country with, ironically, one of the largest youth demographic in the world – his fellow old men rationalised their persistence at still hugging the political limelight in their twilight years by claiming Nigerian youths were not ready to lead.
Of course, they have a litany of examples of youths that failed when they held power as evidence that the youth demographic has nothing to offer. They did not, however, speak of the failure of mentorship on their own part neither did they tell us what could be worse than what we have. In what way can a 35-year-old run Nigeria that can be worse than what subsists? What is there to the quality of their administration that is so superior, benchmarks good governance, and therefore worthy of protection with slavish devotion to their reign?
Another thing that this snobbish cult of elders lacks is a sense of accountability. They never admit that the pipeline the society uses to nurture young people, and which they superintend, is one that drains youths of leadership initiatives. They never realise that they fail as mentors and the failure of youths is intertwined with their failure as well. They never look at how the institutions of religion and education, sometimes overlapping each other, can be destructive of the same demographic they purport to nurture.
Recently, Redeemer’s University was reported to have expelled Debo Adedayo, a final year student on the cusp of graduation for posting social media messages they considered disrespectful to the management of the institution. A university expelling a student is the highest form of punishment that can be meted out but Nigerian tertiary institutions apply it to transgressions that should merit a mere reprimand. At another time, for failing to show up at the university chapel while they were preparing for their examination, Covenant University expelled some 200 students (the second time in five years!) Not too long ago, the same Covenant University expelled a student because he was said to have watched pornography and listened to secular music. Serious universities devote intellectual and material resources to the study of pornography because it is considered an inextricable part of the social culture but CU’s puritanism will not even engage it.
So, what is the point of universities that treat youth energy, exuberance, and agency with heavy-handedness? Where is freedom of speech, dissent, and association for their infantilised undergraduates? Where is the “universe” in a university that refuses to allow room for a contradiction of their moral diktats and exploration of other thoughts? If the founder of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg, had been a Nigerian, he would probably have been expelled for violating several codes in the process of creating Facebook. Harvard did not expel him; they saw through his resourcefulness. Our society, fixated on hierarchies, destroys our children to maintain a façade of law and order. Unlike the time our elders urged us to conform to set social ideals using the moral suasion of fables, universities today exert a near-fascist tendency to keep students in line.
The effect of the undue focus on respect hurts our culture badly. Elsewhere, youths are bold enough to break new grounds in leadership by bypassing hierarchies. Unfortunately, when Nigerian youths join politics, they merely carry goatskin bags to political meetings for their “Daddy” and “Babas” in the name of respect. If Sebastian Kurz of Austria or Emmanuel Macron of France were Nigerians, they would have been told to queue behind the village clowns in their party.
Did it ever even occur to Redeemer’s University that the letter they issued the expelled student is bad PR in the age of the Internet? By telling Adedayo he could be forgiven if he was remorseful, repentant, and underwent a “Recovery of Destiny” programme, they show the extent of their ridiculousness. Why attach his destiny to cutting him down to size and toeing path of “good behaviour” as you define it? Does the scenario not re-enact the whole Galileo vs. the church encounter of the medieval ages. The neoliberal privatisation of education in Nigeria is degenerate enough but turning students to zombies who conform to every rule in the book is counterproductive.
Let me make it clear that I do not advocate disorder for its sake; I know that society needs its rules and a sense of order to be productive. However, I am also against excessiveness, especially where what is at stake is the human imperative for freedom, exploration, and sometimes, youthful exuberance. A university should be accommodating of difference and dissent, not treat students – especially youths in their formative stages – like circus animals who must follow cues, ever afraid to break the mould they use to factory-process their behaviour. We should not let them sell us the lie that our society falls short because youths are devoid of morals and that some self-appointed custodians of virtues have the moral duty to straighten us with harsh rules. No, our social failures run deeper and are systemic too; the elders who want respect and whom we are told to respect are also to be blamed for the conditions in which we are forced to exist.
Finally, Nigerian universities, particularly religious-based ones, need to get rid of the modern-day Pharisees in their midst; all those who regulate behaviours from the loftiness of their seats in the Ivory towers need to imbibe the spirit of Jesus Christ. Jesus, in his day, was an iconoclast who frequently upturned traditional institutions and after he had displaced the religious hierarchies, instituted a democratic means by which man might access God. While on earth, he refused to kiss a ring but actively contradicted the traditions and powerful forces of his time. He was disruptive of the social order; his words were unsettling, his message radical, and that is why he outlasted his traducers. Universities need to enshrine the spirit of Jesus into their culture. After all, many flagship universities in the world today were once started by churches, but along the line, they threw out stifling religiosity and embraced diverse and liberal ideas.