This is probably the most distressing time to be a youth in Nigeria. It is also probably the most interesting time to be a youth in Nigeria. To paraphrase Charles Dickens, this is the best of times and the worst of times. Insecurity, poverty and hopelessness stalk the landscape. At the same time, hope, opportunity and prosperity beckons. The pessimists will argue that things are so bad that they will get worse. Nigeria is going to hell, he will conclude. The optimists will say that things are so bad that they will only get better. Nigeria is breaking through he will conclude. Is Nigeria going to hell or breaking through? I will like to invite the Nigerian youth to be pragmatic optimists. I believe we are at the cusp of a great thing. Something is about to be birthed. We are going through the excruciating birth pangs. But we can go past the birth-stool or have a still-birth. It all depends. And what it depends on will be the gist of this conversation.
What the Heck about Youths?
I want to talk about the importance of young people and what Nigeria should do to make the best use of its young people. Why would anyone care so much about young people? From a public policy perspective young people are the engine of economic growth since they constitute largely the workforce and the consuming class in an economy. The productivity of labor and the quality of consumer demand are the two critical drivers of economic growth from the supply and demand sides. Countries with aging population worry about their ability to sustain their economic growth on account of their aging population. A highly skilled youth population enhances the global competitiveness of the economy by boosting gross domestic product. The youths are also the highest consumers of goods and services, and therefore investment boosters.
There are also socio-political reasons why we value the youth. Young people, through their liberalism, dynamism and idealism reinvigorate and sometimes reinvent institutions of the state. Their activism helps the states to overcome the pathologies of entrenched institutions and ginger political leaders to establish new institutions that respond to fresh challenges. The liberalism and dynamism of youth is the reason why the face of the change in the world today is youth. Young people are on the blocks deciding the destiny of the human race. It is arguable that at no time in the past have we seen a greater degree of youth activism in different aspects of life than this moment. Young people are to be empowered. We owe this empowerment much to technology. The technological revolution brokered by the digital computer, the internet, the broadband and the mobile telephony system have changed the way we live, think and talk. With the innovation of facebook and twitter we have fully unleashed the power of youth. We have altered the power equation in the remaking of the world.
The world has gone digital, reducing drastically the cost of communication and abridging vistas and making instantaneity the essence of globalism. We are now in the real global village. Life now fully resembles art. The transformation of the world through new technologies has implications for power and politics. The new media, riding on the back of new technologies, reconstitutes the landscape of power relations intra and inter polity. It has also restructured the dialectics of power relations, privileging those who control the means of modern communication and dissolving the hierarchies that define who gets what, how and when. If politics is the art of the possible, it is those who control today’s means of communication that define what is possible. Young people have inserted themselves at the control room of social change by hugging the new tools of communication.
In a way, young people are the new masters of the universe. From the United States to Europe and the Middle East we see young people on the streets negotiating the nature of the world they live in. The emergence of a 40-something old man as the leader of the British Labour Party is evidence that young people are not just reshaping the world from the street. They have inserted themselves in the cockpit of statecraft. But the most interesting phenomenon in the remaking of the world is how young people are using new technologies to reshape the ethical and political contours of globalism. The collapse of corrupt autocracies in what is now memorialized as the ‘Arab Spring’ signifies how the combination of youthful vigor and smart technology extends the possibilities of establishing democracy. The young activists in Arab streets fought to establish democracy while their counterparts on Wall Street fought to reinvent a fading democracy. These momentous events tell a lot about young people. Young people are important because they have the potentials to help us chart new ways out of the several incubuses we are trapped.
Down home in Nigeria, can we hope that young people can foster a new debate and invigorate politics in a way that leads to true transformation? Are we hopeful of our home-made ‘Arab Spring’ and can young men or women emerged in the presidential villa and gubernatorial mansions in Nigeria to reset the institutions of governance so they produce wealth and happiness for the citizens of Nigeria? Can we the young people of Nigeria dream new dreams about a country founded on the simple thesis of citizen rights and make that dream happen? I think there is reason to believe that the young people in Nigeria can rise to the game.
Nigerian youths constitute at least 65 percent of the estimated 165 million citizens of Nigeria. We are a very reproductive country. And because mortality rate is very high our population will remain largely young for a long while. So, a robust and meaningful youth policy should be a strategic anchor of a sustainable agenda for transformation.
What should be Nigeria’s Youth Policy?
If young people are critical resources for economic and social transformation we need to think clearly how we can better husband these resources. We need to know the challenges and opportunities young people face and design policies and programs that address these challenges and opportunities. Maximizing the potentials of young people to improve themselves and improve their environment should be the focus of a national youth policy. Here, I don’t intend to examine Nigeria’s national youth policy document. I will simply outline what the challenges I think the young people in Nigeria face and paint broad strokes of the initiatives that can address those challenges.
It seems clear to me that the first challenge of young people in Nigeria today is survival, I mean physical survival. Young people want to be alive. This is not pedestrian considering how cheap life has become in Boko Haram Nigeria. Many young people on national service to their fatherland have been killed in the coldest of blood. Because young people are more mobile and egregious they are mostly the victims of the repeated bombing of churches and public places by Boko Haram terrorists.
Young people are afraid to live in the Nigerian state. Human beings are territorial. And once we have exited the state of nature someone should be responsible to guarantee our physical life. It is the Nigerian state. It is that entity that possesses the exclusive use of legitimate force that should protect the life every Nigerian youth. So, the Nigerian youths expect the Nigerian state to fight hard to make sure no young person is killed by a miscreant or a misguided religionist.
If you cannot guarantee life to Nigerian youths, you cannot guarantee human dignity and social welfare. The Nigerian youth needs to be safe and secure in a territory called Nigeria before they can dream great dreams and think creatively. It was Hannah Arendt, the Jewish American philosopher, who alerted the world to the reality that human rights only make sense within a right-based political state. If people don’t have a secured territory and enjoy the rights of a citizen it makes little sense to speak about human rights.
So, the Nigerian youth needs assurance that he can wake up and go about his business without undue fear of loss of life. In present times this assurance should not be taken for granted. President Jonathan is right to note that insecurity in Nigeria is grinding governance. The first imperative of a national youth policy should be that we do everything to secure a social space where the Nigerian youth wakes up in the morning, goes to work and return home safe to have fun with family and friends. That is not too much to ask. But today, that is becoming a luxury.
The Nigerian state must rise up the challenge of terrorism and indiscriminate killing of Nigerian citizens. We should end the impunity that fuels the urge to kill the other person in wonton pursuit of crazy ideas and beliefs. As a matter of urgency, a law derived from the constitutional provision of citizenship should put it beyond doubt that every Nigerian who has lived in any part of Nigeria to a reasonable period of time and pay his taxes has the full rights of any other Nigerian in that part of the country irrespective of ethnic or religious identity. The Nigerian government should affirm, backed with actions, the simple thesis of a modern state: that every citizen has a right of complete safety and freedom everywhere in Nigeria. The Nigerian government should invoke its force of arm to hunt down any person who kills any other Nigerian anywhere in Nigerian in the pretext of religion.
We have to unashamedly declare that the religion of the Nigerian state is the protection of the life of every Nigerian everywhere in Nigeria. This is not a matter of pious declaration. Executive orders should be issued to all the law enforcement agencies to always do everything necessary (sparing no cost) to make sure no Nigerian youth is a victim of extra-judicial killing by a law enforcement agent or self-appointed ethical or religious enforcer.
The other component of security is social. Young people want to be delivered from fear of untimely and brutal death. But they also desire freedom from fear of want. The great American president, Theodore Roosevelt talked about the four freedoms, including freedom from fear and want. Very needy people are rarely free. Roosevelt’s vision of a world without hunger and misery has crystallized into international recognition for social and economic rights of all persons. The Nigerian constitution recognizes the right of every citizen to a life of dignity, defined as equal access to the social and economic amenities of life. It provides fundamental conditions of economic welfare for Nigerian citizens under the rubric of directive principles of state policy. Although lawyers generally perceive these principles as unenforceable by courts of law they are commitments that should be rigorously pursued in social and economic policymaking.
The shorthand for these rights is the MDGs. The global MDG movement is becoming something that many people are beginning to think could be a scam because their fanfare produces little visible results. A lot of financial resources are wasted in the promotion of MDG yet few countries have significantly released millions from poverty. And the one or two who have done so were not enamored with MDGs rhetoric. The fundamental objectives and directive principles of state policy in Chapter 2 of the constitution is prior and more sensible than the MDGs. It really provides directive logic for governance in a developing country. If we consciously dedicate governance to catering to the human and social security of young Nigerians, we will achieve the MDGs without making a carnival of them.
A starting point in providing a future of wellbeing for the Nigerian youth would be to constitutionally mandate these rights in a language that obligates courts and other public institutions to promote and enforce them. In this we can learn something from South Africa that made these rights enforceable in its post-Apartheid constitution.
The widespread unemployment of Nigerian youths should be seen as an affront to the notion of socially secured Nigerian youth which Chapter two of the constitution guarantees. There are many reasons unemployment rate is high in Nigeria. But if we care about young people we have to tackle unemployment with care, courage and competence. Providing meaningful work to young people is one way of enhancing their life-skills and weaning them away from the life of drudgery and crime. The old saying remains true: an idle mind is a devil’s workshop.
The present initiative on job creation and entrepreneurship, YouWIN, is a good start. But a lot should be done. For one, it is not just the federal government that should be serious about youth employment and entrepreneurship. The states should be the main drivers of youth employment since they have the primary responsibility of promoting the welfare of residents of their territories. Few states, if any, have a well considered and strategic initiative on job creation and youth entrepreneurship beyond procurement-focused public works. The federal government can incentivize states on job creation by creating programs that predicate significant financial grants on the basis of well considered and implementable entrepreneurship and job creation program.
A good strategy to create jobs should be anchored on a smart entrepreneurship development program. It is obvious that our over-bloated public service cannot provide good paying jobs to satisfy the ever-increasing army of job-seekers. The private sector is underdeveloped to create the desired thousands of jobs without far-reaching transformative economic policies. Job creation strategy should focus more on turning job-seekers to job creators. This is no mean feat. It requires unleashing the creativity of the Nigerian youth. We can see evidence of incipient creativity in the quality of art, music and video that come out of the Nigerian market. What is wanted is a systematic and value-chain initiative that discovers, nurtures, harnesses and commercializes the creative energies of young people.
May be there should be a ministry focusing on job creation and entrepreneurship. We can be like smart countries of the world that create ministries to reflect the challenges and priorities they face. If we cannot create a new ministry we can restructure and rename the present Ministry of Youth Development to focus on job creation and youth entrepreneurship. This requires wholesale change of the mission and human resources of that ministry. Starting from the Minister, everybody there should be someone who understands the policy dimensions of job creation and entrepreneurship. The ministry’s work will be to develop policies on youth entrepreneurship; organize boot-camps, spot talents, incubate them and link them with resources and markets that help them to become business owners. Between the creative idea and its commercialization lies a chasm that only wise grandfathering can abridge. The ministry should grandfather the creative genius of Nigerian youth.
The new Ministry (restyled Ministry of Youth Entrepreneurship) will also have the responsibility of annexing industries to youth skills development. This requires that instead of public sectors training youth for various skills without caring about what the market wants, the ministry will ensure that skills acquisition programs are comprehensively annexed to specific industries that will absolve such skills to ensure that the skills are those that the industries need and can remunerate.
The private sector is not left out of this. In modern economy the private sector is the creator of jobs. Federal government’s job creation strategies should include providing incentives in the form tax relief and other fiscal incentives to companies that create jobs and provide opportunities for youth entrepreneurship and mentoring. We need to send a consistent and strong message that government rewards value creation by the private sector. Presently, private sector is getting the message that it pays to free-ride on public funds. Government should adopt carrot and stick measures to wean the private sector from food-is-ready relationship with the public sector and burden them with responsibility of supporting national development.
The prospect of job creation and youth entrepreneurship is dependent on the quality of education in a country. There are many stages of economic development, the extractive, industrial and innovative stages. Nigeria is still trapped in the extractive stage. And worse, we are not effectively investing the proceeds of natural resources extraction on drivers of economic and social development. The history of economic development in the world concludes that reliance on extraction of natural resource will not launch any country into the orbit of developed economies. This is for many reasons, including the reason that natural resources wealth induces to waste and perverse incentives that nib away the incentive and value of creative work that produces real and sustainable wealth. Natural resources dependency comes with rent-seeking that destroys the commitment to value creation. Economic development is about multiple value creation.
It is largely the prevalence of some kinds of skills that determine whether a country is largely extractive, industrial or innovative. At the innovative stage of economic development, a country has the high-end digital and analytical skills that lead to creation of innovative products and services. This is a product of the education of young people, both formal and informal. Youth entrepreneurship in Nigeria is dependent on the quality of education in Nigeria.
I don’t want to waste much time on the collapse of education in Nigeria. It is now folklore. But I need to say that the real cause and character of this failure may miss out in the widespread tale about failure of education in Nigeria. It is not just infrastructure and morale of teachers that have collapsed. The value system that sustains education has collapsed. The failure of education and the failure of the Nigerian state can correlate in many ways. Just as military dictatorship put the Nigerian state in reverse, as Afrobeat King, Fela, put it, the military also reversed the ethical framework of education. First, by discounting the value of education in attaining important economic and political high offices, the military put a knife at the heart of the education system. By creating a system where people attain great wealth without valuable work, the military ridiculed for ever the culture of hard work. Even admission to elite schools was no longer the result of any mental exertion but the reward of inordinate exercise of power.
When the she-goat is chewing curds the kids watch keenly. The Nigerian parents have eaten sour grapes and the youths have aching teeth. The Nigerian youth have learnt that knowledge and learning are not valuable in Nigeria. They have learnt that sitting down and sweating out a valuable creation is not the way to make it big in Nigeria. They witness everywhere funerals of honesty and hard work to know it is not the way to thrive in Nigeria. The high level political corruption and the high honors that have been awarded to charlatans and fraudsters etch indelibly in the consciousness of young Nigeria about what their country values.
Therefore, arresting the collapse of the education is less about rebuilding the physical infrastructure and more about rebuilding the ethical landscape of the education system. Educational institutions, especially universities, should be urgently delivered from the culture of mediocrity, immorality and nepotism that saturate them. The worship of ill-gotten wealth and immoral power by universities in Nigeria destroys the idea of a university as a creator of knowledge and the custodian of values in a society. The National University Commission (NUC) may be right to close down unaccredited universities. But I hope someone is accrediting the moral strength of Nigerian university and will soon wield the hammer.
The reform of education system has become pressing in order to enhance the global competitiveness of Nigerian youths. This is tied to the idea of job creation. The Nigerian youth is caught in a vicious fight for survival in a world that, in the world of Thomas Friedman, is becoming increasingly flat. The world is flat because of changes in technology has changed the way business is managed. A business in London or New York may have its critical operations executed somewhere in Accra or Bangalore. The outsourcing and off-shoring of jobs are possible because with new technology the idea of business has been significantly altered.
In this new world there will be winners and losers. Winners will be those who have the skills to play in the new order. Losers will be those who don’t have such skills. The strategic policy of every government that wants its youths to excel in the new world is to provide opportunity for them to acquire the skills that will allow them to win the competition with the best anywhere in the world.
This raises question about education reform. What should be the goal of public education in Nigeria? From this perspective, it should be to educate citizens who have the skills to attract high-paying jobs anywhere in the world. This means that the curriculum for our schools should be reviewed to align up with the character of the emerging world. If we continue to teach our youths the skills of the old world then we are disabling them from competing and winning in the new world.
Our education is not working. The victims of its malfunction are young people who cannot get the best jobs. It is no longer secret that some Nigerian companies prefer to employ from neighboring countries in the stead of Nigerian because they lack confidence in the quality of education. A former Governor of Central Bank of Nigeria once argued that many Nigerian youths are unemployable. The problem of education is not just what we think it is. It is not just about infrastructure and funding. It is also about ethics. The most performing countries in public education are also those who have mainstreamed the ethics of excellence in public education. With the collapse of ethics in Nigeria, dating from the ruinous era of military generals in government, our education sector is a place where the ‘worst are full of intensity’ and character and competent are devalued, just like our politics. If certificates and diploma are buyable what remains of public education? How will the products of such an institution cherish the fundament idea that it is work that produces wealth and prestige? And if we destroy that simple certainty how will our youth prevail in the world of high skill and hard work?
So, what should be done about education in Nigeria for the sake of young people? First, government should prioritize education as the springboard of economic and social development. Yes, this translates to more funding for the education sector. But beyond increasing funding government should increase accountability of resources in the education system. Every Naira should count. Corrupt school administrators should be severely punished. Incompetent school administrators should be removed immediately even if they are indigenes of host communities. Teachers should be paid well but also properly tested and retrained. Merit should be the basis of admission into important institutions of learning, at least those owned by the federal government. Curricula of institutions should be examined to ensure compliance with the paradigm shifts in a digital age (we should no longer graduate people who can neither attract good paying job or create one). We should train against world standards because our youths will compete with everyone everywhere in the world.
The Nigerian cities have a role to play in nurturing ethics, creativity and entrepreneurship of the Nigerian youths. Cities are now the sites for creating of wealth in today’s world. We talk more of the global competitiveness of cities of the world. Cities are branding themselves on account of the infrastructure they provide to nurture a particular way of life that is desirable. Some cities are becoming tourist attractions and huge entertainment centers; others are becoming coveted conference centers of the world. Dubai is a huge shopping mall and now a sporting arena. Boston/Cambridge is the human biology center of the world such that countries are upgrading the consulates offices in Boston to stay close to breakthroughs in human science from MIT and Harvard. Even Accra is becoming the conference center of the West African sub-region.
Where does the Nigerian city stand in providing the social amenities that promote a life of creativity and entrepreneurship? Abuja, Nigeria’s star city does not boast the minimalist infrastructure that caters to the social needs of young people. There are no quality libraries and public internet kiosks where young people can gather and socialize in a manner that engenders creativity and innovation. Policies for urban renewal should not just be about demolition of homesteads of the poor and the underprivileged. It should be more about constructing cities that nurture creativity and entrepreneurship. Providing a good social-economic base for human security requires in the minimum the promotion of an economic system that provides quality opportunity for quality education and healthcare for the young people.
We need to develop a new vision of cities as incubator of innovations and drivers of entrepreneurship. May be a credible award should be presented to the most innovative city in Nigeria based on metric that show consistent effort to promote a creative and peaceful living environment. I hope the Nduka Obiaeghana’s of Nigeria are listening.
Youths and Pathology of Social Amnesia (Or How Can We Make Young People Read and Read the Right Stuff?)
If young people are those who will make Nigeria work then they need to understand why their country is not working. They need to know what ails Nigeria. As the venerable Chinua Achebe wisely and pithily remarked, “there is nothing with the Nigerian character. The problem with Nigeria is simply and squarely the failure of leadership”. Even with such emphatic declaration, one still needs to know how this ‘failure of leadership’ manifests in order to reverse this failure.
If I can take liberty to revise Achebe, I will argue that the problem with Nigeria is not primarily the failure of leadership, but the failure of memory and understanding. That is, the failure of the would-be change-makers to understand the nature of the failure of leadership. An Igbo proverb laments that when a man loses one eye and his wife loses one year it amounts to one corpse. If the leadership is benighted and its challenges have no idea of what is wrong, then salvation is far away. What you don’t understand you cannot reverse.
The more disheartening and enduring tragedy of the Nigerian state is that the Nigerian youths who carry the hope of reversing the failure of the Nigerian state do not familiarize themselves with the nature of the crisis that confront their state. This is a shame. Even with the ubiquity of social media and social communication, real social consciousness among Nigerian youths is non-existent. True, this problem is not limited to young people (even Nigerian leaders, who create the ugly these histories, do not understand what they have done because they neither write nor read the account of politics). But because youth means renewal the political amnesia of young people is a major hindrance to transformation.
The problem of political amnesia of Nigerian youth takes two visible forms. First, there is very little reading beyond the paltry academic reading that goes on in the campus. Second, even those who read rarely read treatises about politics in Nigeria. This goes to the quality of political consciousness of citizens. How many Nigerian youth will ever take the time to read a good book on Nigerian politics written by a Nigerian author? Those who are visible on social media, how many of them are consciously engaged in political discourse? Even such postings in facebook and twitter how many of them are reasoned reflections of the existentialist challenges of modern Nigeria? How many young bloggers are delving into history to inform their today? If you ask me, there are less than countable.
I am haunted by the absurd logic of how a people can change their circumstances if they don’t gain rich insight into their predicament. A foreigner once said that Nigerians are largely an indifferent people; in Hausa language, ‘Baakwomi’. It is not that Nigerians don’t complain. They complain and criticize a lot. But they make no strenuous effort to understand why they are suffering. No quality change happens if people merely go through the motion. What connects us to our travails are memory and understanding We just must remember our political history. But memory is not enough. We must understand, as they say, where the rain started to fall on us. And why it did.
The problem is that we have neither memory nor good understanding of our politics. And this is not good for redemption. Just take one example. Recently, students of the former University of Lagos protested against the renaming of the university after Chief Moshood Abiola, the winner of the June 12, 1993 presidential election. Many of the student and civil society activists urged government to give befitting memorial. When I considered the matter further I wondered how many of those protesters remember whatever June 12 represents in the struggle for democracy in Nigeria. While we clamor for a befitting national recognition for June 12, do we understand the story about how Nigeria’s presidential election results were annulled by a military dictator and the role played by polarized political class?
It is in consideration of the necessity to connect memory, understanding and social discourse among Nigerian youths that I have designed a project to donate book by Nigerian authors on Nigerian politics to Nigerian university. The idea is to provide incentives for Nigerian social activists and commentators to write about political development in Nigeria so that there will be enough reading materials for those who seek to understand the Nigerian situation.
It is good that Nigerian youths are hot on the new media and social landscape. We have so many fashion shows and beauty pageants. We need to unleash the soul of our youth. But we also need to unleash their intellect, especially their political intellect. A good society does not emerge from heaven prepaid. It does not spring up from imagination and daydream. It is the work of men and women who pay keen attention, think hard and creative and get to work in a smart way to create the fruits of their imagination.
It is good that Nigerian youth are foremost in Africa in internet and facebook usage. It is good that many of our youth are twitter nerds. We may need them for our Arab Spring. It is also good that many of them are reading up the Onitsha Market equivalent of motivational and can-do books. All these activities hopefully prepare them to do the main job cut out for them. That is to engage the Nigerian project with courage and strength.
It is time to wake up and begin to build. But the challenge is how to know what to build. What version of Nigeria is not working? What version of Nigeria will work? As the late great poet, Chris Okigbo, counseled, except by rooting no one can harvest yam. We need to read our history to build a memory and an understanding for transformative work. The real challenge of restoring the Nigerian hope begins with Nigerian youths who are thoughtfully engaged in understanding and transforming the Nigerian state.
It begins with memory and understanding