Lagos, Nigeria (CNN) — Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari is facing a backlash on social media following remarks he made about the nation’s youth at a Commonwealth event in London.
President Buhari was asked a question after a keynote speech at the event on Wednesday, his aide said.
In his reply, the president said: “We have a very young population. More than 60% of the population is below the age of 30. A lot of them haven’t been to school and they are claiming that Nigeria has been an oil-producing country, therefore they should sit and do nothing and get housing, healthcare, education free.”
Many Nigerians inferred from the comments that he was branding the nation’s youth as lazy.
Using the hashtag #LazyNigerianYouth on social media, Nigerians expressed their anger with the comments, which many said did not reflect the entrepreneurial drive of young people in the country.
Young people in Nigeria face chronic unemployment and underemployment, so the president’s remarks have hit a raw nerve in a country where many are struggling in a tough economic climate.
Some said Buhari, 75, missed an opportunity during the panel to sell the potential of Nigeria’s human capital and largely young demographic to an overseas audience.
“It was (a) pure undiluted gaffe especially with a foreign audience you are telling to come and invest in your country,” Uche Enechi said in a Facebook comment. “Normally, a president will say, ‘come and invest here because we have a youthful, skilled and hardworking labor force that you need, plus a secure and business friendly environment.’ He just said the opposite.”
Buhari’s media aide, Femi Adesina said the president’s remarks were misinterpreted to mean he had taken “all Nigerian youths to the cleaners.”
In a statement, Adesina said: “… elementary English recognises a wide gulf between ‘a lot of’ and the word ‘all.’ How can ‘a lot of them,” suddenly transmogrify to mean ‘all of them?’ Mischievous and unconscionable!”
“There is no way President Buhari, father of the Nigerian nation in every sense of the word, who equally has biological children of his own in the youth age bracket, pass a vote of no confidence on all youths. It can only exist in the imagination of those who play what the president has described as ‘irresponsible politics’,” Adesina added in the statement.
Others seized the opportunity to highlight how they are forced to work two or three jobs to make ends meet.
Lakinbofa Goodluck, a PR consultant and doctoral student at a Nigerian university, says he needs to have several jobs to pay his bills.
“It’s good to have multiple streams of income,” he said. “But why would you want to be spreading energy across five different streams if there’s one stream that provides everything you need?”
“One has to do other things to be able to pay his bills and save some money.”
The continent’s largest economy is moving out of a recession caused by tanking oil prices but Nigeria is still one of the most dangerous places to give birth and the country’s very young face chronic malnutrition, according to research by the Gates Foundation.
Although the country recently moved up 14 places on the World Bank’s ease of doing business ranking, most of its businesses remain in the informal sector where there is little help and loans are hard to come by.
President Buhari is seeking for re-election next year and will now face a tough battle to get the support of the nation’s young people, who voted overwhelmingly for him at the last election.
Nigeria, like most of the continent, has a huge youth bulge with 60% of Nigeria’s 180 million population aged under 30, according to President Buhari.
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Buhari’s political opponents have been quick to capitalize on the backlash against the president.
The governor of Ekiti State in southwest Nigeria, Ayodele Fayose, urged the nation’s youth to vote Buhari out next year.
“Contrary to the morale-killing comment of the president, Nigerian youths are hardworking, intelligent and enterprising,” he said in a statement.
“Their future was mortgaged by past leaders like President Buhari, who had everything at their beck and call as youths. I imagine the youths of today having half of the opportunities available in the 1950s and 1960s.”
Atiku Abubakar, a former vice president in the country and a wealthy businessman who is expected to run against Buhari in the 2019 elections, tweeted his support for young people, saying they formed the majority of his workforce.
“I will never refer to Nigeria’s youth as people who sit and do nothing. They are hardworking. I should know, I have thousands of youths working for me all over the country who have been the backbone to our success,” he said in a tweet.