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Southern Nigeria in poverty of elders

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[FILES] A community lavishing in poverty

From Ibadan to Abakaliki and from Warri to Uyo, elders are traditionally a respected clan whose wisdom and sense of history hold the pillars of society in place.

The Yoruba would say as long as there are elders in the marketplace, the head of a newborn cannot be badly moulded back home. Away from all forms of denials, Southern Nigeria is in a crisis of eldership and the chaos that the region is fast becoming is not independent of that crisis.

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To state it mildly, the house of Southern Nigeria has become empty of elders. If it were not so, the squeaking of the hinges of its doors would not have got so bad that it allows no one to sleep in peace. Those who are supposed to be elders have abandoned the industry of statecraft for parochial personal and ethnic politics and the heads of our newborns have become malformed, badly disfigured. While the region is not in want of people who bear a heavy burden of age, it lacks elders in the true sense of the word. It lacks elders who will stop at nothing to seek the interest of the region. Come with me and I will show you how lack of elders brought the region into its present shameful state of existence.

Southern Nigeria is now populated by young people who hold in deepest disdain those who were to occupy the region’s office of elders. No event illustrates this claim better than the recent #EndSARS protest which was hijacked by hoodlums who left the region in ruins and pains. While the protest was brewing, the young people involved drew a clear line that left older generations outside their struggles. They called themselves the #SoroSokeGeneration to distinguish themselves from the current generation of elders that has lost the potency of its voice to political patronage and ethnic sentiments. The protesters grew in force and were going to shut down the entire region until their requests were met by the government. It is on record that no elderly person from the region had the tact it takes to beat wisdom into the passion of the young people, even when it became obvious that deployment of federal might had become inevitable. The region did not have at least one person whose track record of selfless engagement with polity could earn him or her the respect of the protesting young people. Under our watch, the protest ended in blood, in denial, and in frantic efforts to rewrite the stories of the vicious treatment of young people who were simply asking that their right to life be protected by a government that swore to do exactly that. The #EndSARS protest ended the way it did not only because of failure of political leadership but also because of absence of elders who should have stood in the gap between protesting young people and the political leadership.

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If the aforementioned reason does not convince you that absence of elders is a major precursor to the chaotic situation in Southern Nigeria, perhaps you will be convinced by a more structural reason. A brief background is necessary to aptly situate the point I want to make here. Northern Nigeria is more ethnically diverse than Southern Nigeria is. This needs to be stated because an average person from the South is unaware of this fact. As diverse as the North is, its elders found the will to band together in response to the challenges of their region. We often see Northern Elders Forum (NEF) take positions on issues that affect the region or its interests in other regions. From Paul Unongo to Ango Abdullahi as its leaders, the forum places religion and ethnicity aside in the pursuit of the interests of the people it represents. But here in the South, there is no equivalent of Northern Elders Forum. What we have are socio-cultural associations such as Ohanaeze in the East and Afenifere and the Yoruba Council of Elders in the West, all equivalent of the Arewa Consultative Forum in the North. In 60 years of post-independence existence, the South has not found from its constituent sub-regions people who can rise above ethnic sentiments to present a formidable eldership front on behalf of the region. That is the tragedy of a region whose house began to collapse before its foundations were laid. When the idea of Nigerian Forum of Elders was mooted, the North was represented by NEF while the South was represented by Ohanaeze, Afenifere, and other groups. Does one need to think too far to realise why the idea has remained in hibernation?

No, the situation is not any better among those who occupy the traditional leadership positions. There is a council of traditional rulers in each state. At the national level, there is the National Council of Traditional Rulers co-chaired by the Sultan of Sokoto, Sa’ad Abubakar, and Ooni of Ife, Oba Adeyeye Enitan Ogunwusi. Back home the North has Northern Traditional Rulers Council but here in the South, we have no such structure. That is why there has not been a united front among Southern traditional rulers on the crises that are rocking their base. Terrorist herders, abductors for ransom, and abductors for rituals are fast taking over kingdoms in the South but traditional rulers only speak in units when the troubles arrive at their individual doors. Even at the sub-regional level, their voices have become hushed. While the traditional stools remain and even increase in number from time to time at the will of Executive Governors, their influence and relevance now appear long gone. It is true that the subjugation of traditional rulers to the whim of elected politicians deal a great blow to their ability to pursue the interest of the people they lead; it is equally true that the traditional rulers’ penchant for political gains deals a greater blow to their relevance. It appears that, in the South, the stools have become useful only for keeping political doors open to those who occupy them. Traditional rulers in the North and South operate within the encumbrances of the same flawed 1999 Constitution. Given their current realities, one needs not wonder why the North seems to always find its way through while the South always appears to be lost in the labyrinth.

To state it more categorically, the elders in the South have abdicated their positions when the region needs them the most. They have gone after either personal or ethnic interest when the lives of the people they are supposed to lead are threatened on all fronts. The likes of Sunday Igboho and Nnamdi Kanu are occupying the illustrious positions meant for elders and the caps do not fit them at all. To rise above the forces currently threatening to submerge the region under insecurity and other kind of troubles, the South needs to raise elders who are willing to put their lives at stake in the interest of the region. When we have such elders, we can put where they belong those who are hitting hard at the foundations of the house in which we all live. In Southern Nigeria, there are vacancies in the office of elders. Where are those willing to step in now that it matters the most?.

Oladapo wrote from the University of Ibadan.

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