Daniel, the Stowaway and the West’s Lost generation By Ayo Olukotun

Intense discussion, conveying admiration, rebuke, outrage as well as apprehensions concerning air travel in Nigeria trails the heroism bordering on the suicide mission of Daniel Oikhena, the 15 year-old boy who hid himself in the nose wheel apartment of an Arik plane for the duration of a Benin to Lagos flight recently. Daniel, a junior secondary school pupil assuming that the plane was headed for the United States, had taken along some personal effects and either outwitted airport security officials or was actually helped by conniving personnel to position himself dangerously in one of the wheel compartments of the aircraft.

As aviation experts have pointed out, had the plane been going to the United States, the land of Daniel’s dreams; the boy’s daredevil pranks would have ended in tragedy as he would not have made it to his destination. Even for a short trip, given Daniel’s location on the plane chances of survival were narrow but he was providentially delivered from the wages of an overwrought imagination riding on the abiding lure of overseas travel for young Nigerians. 11 out of 12 Nigerian youths you speak to would like to travel outside the country, preferably to Europe or the United States and take up permanent residence there, if possible. What exactly would you be doing out there? “Anything”, the unfailing answer comes back, “I just want to get out of this country and make a living”. Several of course have definite plans to advance their careers and hopefully realise their aspirations of a better life.

This generational disillusionment with a country that has by default of governmental incompetence excised its youths finds voice in protest lyrics composed by young Nigerians. A rap artist some years back sneered ‘Nigeria jagajaga’ (Nigeria is deformed, wearing an ugly face). Another young musician exploded some years ago in pungent, depressive melody rendered in his native Yoruba (Egba) dialect: “O ye white men please give me a visa; I am sick and tired of this country; please give me a visa; there is no future; there is no security, please give me a visa”. These poetic laments of the Nigerian condition enshrined in memorable songs are counter narratives to a managerial perspective of a nation, a land of opportunity transforming into an economic powerhouse and a gradually consolidating democracy. But what happens when the European and American embassies don’t grant visas to young, often stranded Nigerians? They resort to stowaway exploits by sneaking like Daniel into the wheel of a plane, or they settle for a desert odyssey that will see them journeying through the forbidding expanse of the Sahara desert through the Maghreb into the southern fringes of Europe, the promised land. But even there the prospects are far from promising, inviting a reflection on the Yoruba wisecrack – ile nle wa; ona nna wa (we are driven away from home; we are beaten black and blue in a foreign land).

A magnificent feature narrative on Cable News Network earlier this week entitled ‘Europe’s lost generation’ depicts grippingly the plight of young European graduates between the ages of 19 and 26 with no jobs. As is well known, Europe is currently going through its worst youth unemployment crisis in European history resulting in 26million young folk without jobs. In worst hit countries like Spain, youth unemployment rate is close to 60% triggering a wave of migration to better off countries like Germany. One report informs that most European graduates would have made 60 or more applications for a job before they finally get one and what they get maybe frustratingly below expectation as the majority of those employed do not have decent jobs.

How about the United States, the land of Daniel’s romantic dreams? It is a country in the throes of mass youth unemployment and underemployment as more than 10 million Americans under 25 are out of work. There is over 16% unemployment rate affecting youths between the ages of 16 and 24; among Blacks and Latinos the rate moves up to 36% and 28% respectively while in some cities like Chicago the youth unemployment rate among Blacks is 90%. Described as an economic emergency, the desultory job market in the United States features many college graduates in low skilled and low wage jobs such as serving tea or coffee while many have their careers frozen in internships with no remunerations. In other words, many youths in what is increasingly called the ‘generation jobless’ are not building up human capital assets either through experience at work or time spent in profitable study.

This, then is the other side of the coin of the dream country of Nigerian youths where racial discrimination and other difficulties associated with immigration may wreak additional havoc. It is not clear whether Daniel and the generation of his older brothers and sisters have bothered to refine their images of foreign lands derived mainly from Nollywood and Hollywood portraits of a land flowing with milk and honey with this side of the story; hence, the desperate hustle to escape the social frying pan which admittedly Nigeria had been turned into by its visionless leaders. Prof. Wole Soyinka it was who created the expression ‘the wasted generation’ in the context of the bedevilling throes and travails of Nigerian citizens caught in the nightmares of postcolonial brutality. However, between Nigeria’s wasting generation of youths for whom rudderless governments have no plans and ‘Europe’s and America’s lost generation’ of teeming unemployed youths, there appears to be little to choose if we comprehensively reiterate the inconveniences of living in foreign lands without adequate support. Of course, there is a countervailing attraction of efficiencies associated with an industrialised culture in contrast to the well known lags and woes of the Nigerian environment. No doubt, travel can be fun and indeed constitutes an important part of education and cultivation of the mind; what is frightening and disabling is the Daniel-like attempted plunge into the uncertainties of a foreign land without either the compass of enlightened stock taking or the fall backs of a cushioning material order; more so, at a time of global economic depression approaching the scale of the great burst of the 1930s.

As a university teacher, I’ve had the good fortune of mentoring several Nigerian youths who started out in lowly circumstances but ended up doing very well for themselves. One of them for example, who started out as an office assistant received a doctorate several years ago at the University of Lagos where he had been employed as a lecturer and will this month defend his dissertation for a second doctorate at a university in Australia before returning to his job at Unilag. But that is a story for another day.

Our youths should be motivated and taught that even though they, like their elders live under the wings of a state that has orphaned them, there are escape windows even in Nigeria that can prevent them from taking suicidal adventures on the scale of the Nigerian stowaway in which they embark on journeys from which there may be no return.

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In the beginning...Let there be Light

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