Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari came under fire on Thursday for criticising youths who he said “do nothing” and want everything for “free” in the oil-rich country.
Buhari, who declared earlier in April he is seeking re-election in 2019, made the remark on Wednesday at a business conference in London.
“A lot of them haven’t been to school and they are claiming, you know, that Nigeria has been an oil producing country therefore they should sit and do nothing and get housing, health care, education, free,” said Buhari.
The comment touched a nerve West Africa’s largest economy, which suffers from high unemployment and lacks basic government services, including running water and electricity.
Most business and homes rely on private generators for power and buy water privately, while many Nigerians make their living in the informal sector, working as small business owners.
Nigeria’s former vice-president Atiku Abubakar, who is also running for president for the main opposition Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), lambasted Buhari.
“I will never refer to Nigeria’s youth as people who sit and do nothing,” the 71 year old said on Facebook, adding that youth were the “backbone” of the country.
Another presidential hopeful Adamu Garba said Buhari was being “humorous with our national pride”.
The Daily Post newspaper said the 75-year-old former general was “attacking” youth while the Daily Trust accused him of calling them “lazy”.
On Thursday morning, the hashtag #LazyNigerianYouths was trending on Twitter, with young Nigerians blasting the government.
“The government never created anything for me, I feed from my hustle and yet they say we are lazy,” said one tweet.
– Buhari off message –
Despite the uproar, Buhari’s comments are unlikely to play any serious role at the presidential polls next year, political analyst Saheed Animashaun said.
“First, a huge section of youths who are going to vote are not going to be aware of that comment,” Animashaun said.
“Two, when the election time comes next year, they will have forgotten about this”
Buhari has previously veered off message when speaking off the cuff on overseas trips.
In 2016, Buhari told Britain’s Daily Telegraph that Nigerians were difficult to “accept” abroad because of their reputation for criminality, specifically human and drug trafficking.
Later that year, Buhari said that his wife Aisha “belongs to my kitchen” on a visit to Germany, after she suggested she would not support him if he sought a second term of office.
The remarks earned him a stoney glare from German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
“The president has not had a media chat in a while, and I’m sure it’s deliberate, he has a tendency to say something off mark, so his aides will try as much as possible to avoid free speech,” Animashaun said.
Nigeria’s combined youth unemployment and underemployment rate hovered around 50 percent in late 2017 following the country’s worst economic recession in 25 years.
The country came out of recession last year but growth outside the lucrative oil sector remains tepid, constrained by a lack of education and infrastructure.
Nigeria is home to more than 180 million people, with 63 percent of the population living below the poverty line, according to the IMF in a March 2018 report.