Decoder

Explaining a word and the culture that uses it.

Age and the Agbayas

One word perfectly captures the clash between Nigeria’s leaders and its booming young population.

By , a features journalist covering West Africa.
Illustration of Agbaya
  Osaze Amadasun illustration for Foreign Policy

Amid the global protests of 2020, a generation of young Nigerians took to the streets out of frustration with the country’s leadership. In August, tens of thousands of protesters called for #RevolutionNow and in October to #EndSARS, referring to the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) police unit notorious for extrajudicial killings. President Muhammadu Buhari responded with a violent crackdown, deploying the military against the #EndSARS movement. At least 56 people were killed, and the authorities jailed protesters and froze activist leaders’ bank accounts.

The mass protests pitted Nigeria’s Generation Z against its aging political elite. In August, a presidential aide dismissed the activists for their supposed youthful inexperience. “A revolution is always a mass thing, not a sprinkle of young boys and girls,” he said. The comments led some people to label the aide an agbaya, a Yoruba word that means “bad elder”—or an older person who acts like a child—and has come to describe an educated but selfish adult wielding power.

No other word so perfectly captures the clash between Nigeria’s leadership and its booming young population. In the response to the #EndSARS protests, demonstrators saw a glaring example of elite indifference to ordinary suffering. “The Nigerian [government] has turned its back against real issues of human security and become a full blown agbaya—running after citizens standing up for civic issues,” Ayo Sogunro, a writer, tweeted in the aftermath. An op-ed in Nigeria’s Guardian newspaper argued that the “youth may understand how to lead more than those in power.”

Amid the global protests of 2020, a generation of young Nigerians took to the streets out of frustration with the country’s leadership. In August, tens of thousands of protesters called for #RevolutionNow and in October to #EndSARS, referring to the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) police unit notorious for extrajudicial killings. President Muhammadu Buhari responded with a violent crackdown, deploying the military against the #EndSARS movement. At least 56 people were killed, and the authorities jailed protesters and froze activist leaders’ bank accounts.

The mass protests pitted Nigeria’s Generation Z against its aging political elite. In August, a presidential aide dismissed the activists for their supposed youthful inexperience. “A revolution is always a mass thing, not a sprinkle of young boys and girls,” he said. The comments led some people to label the aide an agbaya, a Yoruba word that means “bad elder”—or an older person who acts like a child—and has come to describe an educated but selfish adult wielding power.

No other word so perfectly captures the clash between Nigeria’s leadership and its booming young population. In the response to the #EndSARS protests, demonstrators saw a glaring example of elite indifference to ordinary suffering. “The Nigerian [government] has turned its back against real issues of human security and become a full blown agbaya—running after citizens standing up for civic issues,” Ayo Sogunro, a writer, tweeted in the aftermath. An op-ed in Nigeria’s Guardian newspaper argued that the “youth may understand how to lead more than those in power.”

Around 70 percent of Nigerians are under the age of 35, but this isn’t reflected in government. Buhari, who entered office in 2015 after serving as a military head of state in the 1980s, is 78—meaning he has lived more than 20 years longer than the average Nigerian. Legislators are also disproportionately older. Few young people have the financial capital to run for office, and big donors prefer to back older candidates. Although the age disparity between elected officials and their constituents isn’t particular to Nigeria, putting older people in power is in line with local custom: Nigerian elders are highly regarded for their wisdom.

Until the end of military rule in the 1990s, the word agbaya was mostly used among family members. Its derogatory use against political figures reflects the despair of Nigeria’s young generation.

In Nigeria, it is frowned upon to address someone older by their first name, much less insult them. Until the end of military rule in the 1990s, the word agbaya was mostly used among family members. Its derogatory use against political figures reflects the despair of Nigeria’s young generation, who have grown up amid a decade of violence and economic uncertainty. Lacking representation in government, they are now standing up to seek accountability from their leaders.

Nigeria’s population is on track to surpass the United States’ by 2050, and there aren’t enough jobs to support this surge. The coronavirus pandemic compounded successive governments’ failures to invest in job creation. Rising poverty and food inflation have exacerbated long-running security problems: Boko Haram in the northeast, kidnapping for ransom in the northwest, and separatists in the south. A 2018 survey by the Pew Research Center found that 45 percent of Nigerians planned to move abroad in the next five years.

Fed up with this poor outlook, the young generation sees older political elites as failing to live up to the sage ideal. “Nigeria is on its knees because some agbayas took public decisions … not in the national or public interest,” said Samson Itodo, the executive director of the Abuja-based Youth Initiative for Advocacy, Growth, and Advancement Africa, which promotes youth participation in politics. Democratization and social media have enabled citizens to call out officials more brazenly. Many young people are disregarding tradition and instead demanding that Nigerian politicians must earn their respect.


The #EndSARS demonstrations, which erupted after a video showed police allegedly shooting and killing a man, were the most sustained in Nigeria since 1945. But the large crowds also illustrated sheer desperation. Looters found pandemic food aid stockpiled in government warehouses and in politicians’ homes, eroding trust in the government. For the protesters, the misappropriated aid and the crackdown only reinforced the image of Nigeria’s political leadership as agbayas: a bullying older elite unwilling to protect its citizens.

The protests forced the government to disband SARS, but that didn’t address the root causes of youth discontent. Oil revenue makes Nigeria Africa’s wealthiest economy, but tax compliance is low, and the national income has stagnated since its peak in 2001. Young Nigerians find themselves paying out of pocket for public services, while agbaya elites misuse public revenue. As the coronavirus crisis worsened last June, the government cut its education budget by 54 percent and health care spending by 42 percent.

Lawmakers’ attempts to address the economic crisis have only drawn criticism. In January, the government launched a job creation program for 774,000 young people—the biggest in Nigeria’s history. But the job placements will only pay $49 a month, less than minimum wage. Critics say the program is a short-term fix, and recipients have complained of delayed payment. “These kinds of issues, they breed resentment and anger on the part of young people. There is so much inequality, and there is no deliberate attempt on the part of the state to bridge the gap,” Itodo said.

Buhari’s administration has mounted legislation to tamp down on youth dissent.

Meanwhile, Buhari’s administration has mounted other legislation to tamp down on youth dissent. A draft law would give authorities arbitrary power to limit access to social media, calling for prison time for sharing so-called fake news. Youth advocates fear the government could use it as another arbitrary legal tool against activists. A second bill aims to combat hate speech, but rights organizations suspect it is directed at dissidents. The proposals have unleashed more criticism, with one commenter comparing the government to an “agbaya tyrant who snatches a social media toy from kids because he can.”

Buhari reinforced this image in June, when he banned Twitter without legal backing. The move came after the company deleted a tweet by the president that threatened secessionists in the southeast for violating its abusive behavior policy. “Many of those misbehaving today are too young to be aware of the destruction and loss of lives that occurred during the Nigerian Civil War,” he wrote. “Those of us in the fields for 30 months, who went through the war, will treat them in the language they understand.” The threat of prosecution didn’t keep young Nigerians from accessing Twitter via virtual private networks to call out the “agbaya administration” for moving toward dictatorship.

As young people’s anger against agbaya leaders grows, Nigeria’s political landscape is slowly shifting. A 2018 law reduced the age limit for presidential candidates from 40 to 35 and for representatives from 30 to 25. Youth candidacy increased by 63 percent between the 2015 and 2019 elections. Itodo, who led the campaign for the law, cites success stories such as 29-year-old Cephas Dyako, elected in 2019 as a minority whip in the Benue State House of Assembly in the central north. But in 2019 young people still made up fewer than 6 percent of elected candidates, even though 51 percent of registered voters are between 18 and 35, according to Itodo. “This is not where we want to be,” he said.

Conditions for young people are only likely to get worse. The slump in oil prices caused by the pandemic triggered Nigeria’s second recession since 2016, and government revenue has dwindled. Buhari continues to blame the youth for the economic troubles. “If they want jobs, they will behave themselves,” he told a local news channel in June. The next elections, in 2023, are still far away. But calls are growing for the president to resign. It was young Nigerians who led the country to independence in 1960. The new generation’s discontent with agbaya leaders could usher in another era of reform.

This article appears in the Summer 2021 print issue.

Nosmot Gbadamosi is a features journalist covering West Africa, focused on human rights, the environment, and sustainable development. She was previously the Africa features producer for CNN International. Twitter: @nosmotg

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