So, I’ll get right to it. My sister, Ikoru Cotterell, died at 52 years old. She was very ill for a long time but died suddenly. Her death got me thinking about life, family, giving, altruism and kindness and related questions. How much help is reasonable when a person is alive and healthy? How much is enough? How much is too much? How much help is reasonable when they’re unwell? How much is enough? How much is too much? At what point does the saying ‘I’ll give anything to save his/her life’ become necessary or relevant? I wish I knew the answers to these questions. I have lost two siblings in the last three years. I keep asking myself, would all of my income have made a difference? Did I do enough to help save them? If I could have put in all of my income, would I have succeeded in saving them? Trevor Noah reflected on related questions in his book ‘Born a Crime’ and it resonates so much with me.
In her lifetime, my late sister was a serial grassroots political mobiliser and organiser. From as far as I could remember, she had been mobilising for leading political parties. The Social Democratic Party (SDP) of the early 1990s and later the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) of the late 1990s. She was one of the foot soldiers on the fringes of Nigerian politics. The foot soldiers who mobilise at the lowest levels, the organisers at the last mile, who participate in the politics of hope, both theirs and those that they seek to mobilise for their candidates and parties. At some point, she was ward women leader. My late sister was one of many young people who joined politics in the hope that it would offer them a better life. Better lives for themselves, their families and communities, either through political ascendance or through fulfilled promises that offered them economic opportunities. But in a system that thrives on trickle-down, rent-seeking and patronage, none of these pathways is feasible unless with the help of a political gladiator.
My late sister belonged to this generation of young political organizers whose hopes have been dashed over and over again by a political system that is largely driven by ‘stomach infrastructure’, a system fueled by the pursuit of individual gain, that does not aspire to the greater common good. My sister was just one of those young people who experienced failed promises, false starts and broken hopes but yet continue to thrive and remain resilient. They remain resilient despite several systemic failures. Of promised cottage industries never built or abandoned mid-way. Of failed vocational training programs that offered no valuable skill and translated into no jobs. Some of these programs oriented towards self-employment offered no real skills in neither the core competencies nor needed business management skills nor soft skills. These young men and women roam many towns and villages across Nigeria and eventually get sucked into warped interpretations of cultural practices that essentially extend histories of rent seeking behavior of their parents’ generation and a sense of entitlement that runs so deep that these things become ascribed as ‘rights’.
Mourning and Tradition
Many cultures have detrimental approaches to mourning in Nigeria. Some of them are outrightly harmful, physically. Others are emotionally draining and extends a person’s pain and grief beyond the loss itself. In some cultures, mourning women, widows, are forced to shave their hairs, made to drink water washed down from late husbands’ corpses or compelled to marry their husband’s male family member. These are all terrible, harmful practices, and women suffer the consequences of these, including but not limited to risks of diseases and the emotional turmoil that they can have.
As a child, I had become aware of a practice where you’re fined for not attending community events and other people’s funerals, when your loved one dies or if the dead person didn’t participate in these things. At the heart of the practice, it all looked like a harmless way to encourage cohesion and community where people connected with others beyond their immediate families and did not isolate themselves. What this meant was that if you participated in all of these, you were excluded from such fines. Fast forward to 2020, this is no more the case. Everyone is fined, regardless, unless of course you’re powerful. As one of the youth said to my hearing ‘we’re the youth in this community, since no one cares about how we eat, this is our chance’. The narrative of ‘chance’ and ‘right’ has fueled the instrumentalisation of a harmless social sanctions system meant to foster community into a system of rent-seeking.
This extends a family’s pain beyond measure, as youth, often unemployed and unskilled mill around the funeral process, threatening to, or actually disrupting the proceedings, if the family fails to comply with their demands. The extortion continues until the very minute that the corpse is put on a boat to be transported to the place of final interment. As the person on the receiving end of all this, and despite being somewhat shielded by my nephew, my sister’s eldest son, it was not easy to deal with. They come and see you crying, leave, come back and threaten to disrupt the funeral process or dump the corpse in the sea if you don’t oblige. Unfortunately, we are all at risk as long as we keep fueling this economy. Disaster looms. This practice is no longer about social cohesion or community. It is now essentially about lining the pockets of a few powerful actors, youth and leaders, who feel entitled to the spoils of other people’s tragedies.
Like I said, my sister was a grassroots political organizer. She grew up in the village and lived there for at least 40 years before she moved to the city. She was part of the community organizing, she was part of the women’s arm of the political party there and she was present at numerous funerals – both as a participant and as an active collaborator, helping those who had experienced loss, cooking with them, and doing whatever she could to help. She continued this until she got really ill, despite moving to the city. However, in the final analysis, none of this was sufficient to spare her family the pain of restless youth desecrating their mourning and local leaders insisting on unearned recognition in the funeral protocols.
The Tragedy of a Generation
Despite the pain that I felt, and still feel, I could not help but notice that the real tragedy is that as a country, we are failing our young ones, and we are building an army of ‘youth’ who are unskilled, uneducated and hiding on the fringes. We are grooming future generations of bandits, political thugs and citizens whose only understanding of living and survival is through extortion, rent seeking and political patronage. There are plenty examples of ‘grass to grace’, ‘nobody to somebody’ stories that have emerged through these means and youth are now made to see them as legitimate pathways to success. What I call ‘making it’ in my academic research, where someone ‘strikes gold’ by simply becoming a political official or pressuring a resource extracting company to pay ‘compensation’ for damage done to ‘ancestral shrines’ or appropriate community resources to themselves. As a child, I heard plenty of those stories whenever we were in the village.
Scholars have long postulated the link between idle youth and conflict. Whether in analyses of the youth bulge or the so-called demographic dividend or conflict or understanding urban life, and many more bodies of work, there has been an emphasis on the risk that a high number of unengaged youth with no skills or employment or hope or opportunity poses to a society. In fact, some analyses of youth agency, like Vigh’s work on social navigation, have shown how such youth can appropriate misfortune to their own good. Nigeria has many problems, including unending conflicts across the country. What I saw this weekend tells me why these conflicts may continue. We have a high and growing number of youth who have been failed by the system, and their only means of survival is to appropriate socially accepted normative practices to their personal advantage. That is the real tragedy, and that is where we need to act, and fast.
My sister is dead. Failed by a system that could not help her to achieve her dreams of a successful life. My personal pain knows no bounds. What can I do? She’s gone. My sister was a shining star. She died full of hope for a better world. For herself, for her six children and two grandchildren, for her eight siblings and her father and for her community. But that was not to be. The system needs to change. For the sake of my late sister and many believers like her. The system needs to inspire more hope for the young people who still believe in change, in a politically apathetic world.