It all happened on the 20th of December, 2013. At the civic center in the ancient city of ibadan.
I had a chat with Funmi Iyanda before the gala where she told me about the open letter she was going to release at the event. I was shocked and awaited the release of the so called letter.
Owing to the abysmal emergence of open letters from all corners of the nation at that time, I thought Funmi was about to follow suit with the latest fashion of open letters. Little did I know that she was about to give one of the most inspiring key note addresses I have heard on such a close proximity.
Enough of the introduction. Below is the open letter of Funmi Iyanda to the generation rising. It’s a must read for all.
An Open Letter To
Nigeria’s New Generation – Funmi
“The thing about age is, it is catching. It’s like a
hysterical jester lying in wait for the fool.
I want to tell you about Mrs Okoro. Before l
turned nine, school was a vaguely irritating
distraction from the pursuit of happiness in
play and adventure. Every school day, I’d wear
my red checked dress and burgundy beret
uniform and passively submit to school. l was
not a rebellious child. I was a bored child who
daydreamed through classes until lunch when
the school served asaro and chicken with
bananas and ground nuts as snacks. That was
until l got to Mrs Okoro’s class.
Mrs Okoro made letters become words, words
which became stories, stories which became
my life. I loved her dearly, perhaps it was
transference as l’d recently lost my mother but
at nine, l started going to school because she
was there. One day walking out the gates after
school, l saw Mrs Okoro getting into a bus
ahead of me so l ran across the road to get into
the same bus. I didn’t bother checking for
traffic. The next thing l remember is thinking
heaven looked rather like Akoka road. I had
been hit by a car and was staring up at the
concerned faces of Mrs Okoro and others. The
driver was distraught; he was a student at
Unilag and in the moment before pain cut
through my adrenalin, l remember being happy
l had been hit by a grand university student not
some infernal danfo bus driver.
He took me to the university health centre
where the nurses gave me a large cone of ice
cream to comfort me before treating me and
putting me in the big university bus home. My
heart was swollen with pride as the shiny big
bus drove down our dirt street in Bariga. Not a
dime was exchanged, no one called my father
at work, there were no mobile phones and we
had no phone at home. There was no need; the
system took care of me. It was Nigeria 1980.
Recently on my way out of Nigeria, the Murtala
Mohammed airport was thrown into chaos,
people were sweating and swearing, passengers
stranded as all electronic equipment had
stopped working. The place stank because
there was no water to clean the toilets. I
watched the white airline crew walk by with
barely contained derision as they
gingerly sidestepped the mess. The problem
wasn’t that there was no electricity at the
airport, that’s normal; it was that someone had
not supplied the diesel to run one of the
I sat in a corner, observing people; those
who fascinated me most were the band of men,
mid thirties to late forties, Nigeria’s emerging
business and political elite. I recognised them
by their Louis Vuitton luggage, logo jacket and
velvet slippers, disguising their social anxiety
with an unabated desire for the pointless.
Seemingly oblivious to their environment, they
strutted about backslapping and rolling their
r’s, being cocky, rude and dismissive to
What stuck me most about these preening
peacocks though, was their total lack of shame
at the state of things. They are the band
of new-Africa-rising, proudly Nigerian jingoists,
living in a glass bubble as far removed from the
Nigerian reality as you can get. For them
patriotism is not a recognition of failure and a
determination to redress it, but a slogan to be
worn, tweeted or liked.
Later on, crammed into a rather unsanitary first
class lounge, I watched them posturing for
furtive young female travelling companions,
clearly under instructions to pretend not to
know them. The odd thing is that these are no
corn farmers made good from my native Ida
ogun, these lounge dwellers are very well
educated and uncommonly well travelled
Nigerians. A defective fraction of the immense
amount of brainpower and knowledge Nigeria
has produced. They help prevent their peers
fulfilling their potential and a pool of brilliant
thinkers, explorers, scientists, innovators and
artists is lost, squandered by a nation that
strangulates its best.
I often hear foreigners perplexedly comment
that Nigerians are some of the best educated,
urbane and confident black people they have
ever met, so how come the country is so, well,
One reason staring them in the face is that, the
best-educated, urbane and confident elite they
delight in meeting has failed us.
The question therefore should be, what is it
about the country that makes it impossible for
its bright, hard working, resource rich
population to organise itself into collective
prosperity? What is it that turns some of
Nigeria’s brightest technocrats into hand
wringing, head-scratching incompetents when
they achieve power?
You see, Nigeria was founded as an economic
proposition to collect and remit resources to
the empire, with the British government
entrenching a feudal, centralized, western-
education-phobic elite in the North and a
westernized, Judeo-Christian, anglicised elite in
On departure, these elites with their distinct
cultural differences but common goal of
avarice became the new imperialists. Imbued
with a servitude underpinned by self-loathing
and a voracious appetite to mimic their former
bosses, they confused westernisation for
civilisation and like all counterfeiters
concentrated on the surface of things. Thus, to
their thinking, the more resources of the land
they could coral, the more trappings of the
west they could possess and the more civilised
they could become.
That unwelcome process continues today.
For this elite, the rest of their kith and kin fill
them with unease and even disgust and they
condemn them to poverty and a passive
consumption of other people’s science,
innovations, religions, art and technology as
though such achievements are beyond us. They
also condemn their own children to future
poverty not just material but emotional and
cultural. Notably the stolen wealth hardly
outlives the first generation.
Each time the elite is replaced, it is by a new
generation similarly afflicted and culturally
insecure with the same desire to
fraudulently acquire a large share of the
common wealth themselves.
This is self-loathing in action. It is a terminal
Our common humanity and civilisation should
be guaranteed by carefully protected, ever
evolving structures, systems and processes,
which reflect all our highest values and
aspirations. Kajola ni Yoruba nwi.
The system designed by the British was to serve
the big empire. It was not designed to work for
us and never will.
We all know this and every so often the
government of the day will propose a state
sponsored jamboree to endlessly chew the cud
of that vexatious issue of reform, only to
artfully spit it out when the people are
sufficiently distracted by the increasingly
circus-like, mad-max dystopia we are living
The dysfunction at Nigeria’s heart
remains because it serves the interests of
whichever big man muscles or cheats his way
into power. (Note; I said man, the system will
never allow for a woman, at least not a woman
who won’t do the needful.)
But what about the people? What about the
The subtext of Obasanjo’s recent letter to
Jonathan is what they used to call two fighting
boy and boy in the streets of Shomolu. The
people can sense this it is not their
fight; they are as disconnected from the elite as
the elite are from them.
They know their place is to submit and dream.
They want to be the next big cat. They have no
real distaste for those who have stolen their
future; often they just want to replace
them. The grudging admiration seeping through
their envy fuelled whimpers of protest reveals
fragile egos easily stroked by association with
those who have raped them, then thrown them
a bit of Vaseline and warm towels.
They desire to be the ones at the airport with
the designer bags and unplaceable accent. The
one’s who are gearing up to follow the path of
those before them. To flaunt luxuries but live in
situations so far removed from the vision of life
those luxuries where designed for. When Karl
Lagerfeld designs each Chanel bag he cannot
possibly envisage it may end up in a place
where the carrier can be dragged out of a car
and raped in daylight with witnesses and no
repercussions. Yes that happened. The baubles
do not make us civilised, a country built on a
political structure that allows the creativity,
innovation, and talent of all to thrive does.
Nigeria in 1980 was by no means a perfect
place but would my counterpart in Shomolu
today have a Mrs Okoro or such access to
public health care?
Let us sound a warning to our “betters,” as they
push and pull the country one way and
another in their hustle; it is untenable, there
will be a snapping, one, which no one can
So what shall we do? What will the young
intellectual elite of today do differently?
A youth cultural revolution of ideology and
values perhaps? Jettison the hypocrisy, the
pseudo religious, anti women, anti children,
anti poor patriarchy. Turn away from the
bigotry, the megalomania, and the cultural
bravado. Free yourselves and your future.
Speak the truth to power and each other, not
just on twitter, to face. Refuse to participate in
the racket, the hustle, and the lie. Be better
than that which is on offer.
Thatcher, a deeply polarising figure, but
outstanding leader once said;
“Watch your thoughts for they become words.
Watch your words for they become actions.
Watch your actions for they become habits.
Watch your habits for they become your
And watch your character for it becomes your
What we think, we become. ”
Start now before you become the company
CEO, the minister, the commissioner, the
senator. Lead from within and without.
Abraham Lincoln once said of citizens desiring
change; make me. Make your elders and
leaders take you seriously. Help the few good
men and women in power by showing there is
a generation who can and will stand with them.
Insist on the structural and constitutional
changes that which will free our collective
creativity, innovation, science, ideas and
Civilisation is neither westernisation nor
exclusive to other climes. It is building a society
on values and institutions designed to protect
not the strongest but the weakest as we are
only as strong, as honourable, as respected and
valued as the sum of our weakest parts.
Now what? My job is to tell stories with
context, sometimes l don’t know the end. Write
your own ending. Shape history.”
* * * * * * * * * * * * *
“If we fail to appreciate the path of the elders and our father, we will never discover our own.” – Harkheindzel Kenny O.