I consider it a rare privilege to be here today and I want to thank you for finding me worthy of this important moment. I find it particularly enchanting to talk to young people; to share my little experience in life and to learn from what I have always considered an amazing deposit of talent and imagination in the Nigerian youth. So, once again, I thank you for this moment and for always.
Now, when I received the invitation to this occasion, I spent a few moments thinking about what to say to you, what should make sense to you. It is not so much a question of not knowing what to say but essentially of establishing an instant connection with the audience; having immediate impact and all. So, in the end, I chose to talk about the Nigerian youths. I chose to talk about you and your friends. Talk about who you are and what you mean to your country, Nigeria.
By the way, has anyone cared to look at the youth wings of Nigeria’s political parties? Well…the guys there are anything but youth. What about the youth wings of socio-cultural organizations like the Ohaneze Youths, Afenifere Youths, the Arewa Youths? Our National Youth Policy defines youths as individuals between 18 – 35 years. The United Nations’ definition of youth is even shorter. It defines youth as persons between 18 – 24 years. Yet in these organisations, you find men and women in their late forties and early fifties still struggling to fit into that little bracket referred to as youths. That is how we are. We love to live in denial! We love to fish for excuses, to mitigate our shortfalls. Someone is always the reason why we didn’t make the mark! We never take responsibility!
Quite interestingly, a long glance into both history and our contemporary times reveals that a number of people whom we idolize today actually made their marks when they were young. Mark Zukerberg was 20 when he stitched the world together into one little village called Facebook. Bill Gates was also 20 when he co-founded Microsoft. Steve Jobs was 21 when he set up Apple. Closer home, First Republic statesman, Mathew T. Mbu holds the record of Nigeria’s youngest minister at 23. Chimamanda Adichie published her riveting debut novel, Purple Hibiscus at 26. Chinua Achebe gave Africa her most widely read novel, Things Fall Apart at 28. The Igbo hero, Dim Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu led Biafra to a war of self-preservation at 34 and General Yakubu Gowon went to a war to save Nigeria from disintegration at 33. And just the other day, right here in our own neck of the wood, my friend Mark Okoye became a commissioner on his birthday at 30. I think my boss; the governor of Anambra State, Chief Willie Obiano deserves an applause for that symbolic gesture to the Nigerian youths. All these men and woman made their marks within the legal definition of youth. Is youth still an alibi? What are you waiting for? Are you waiting for the government?
Well, we all should know better than that by now. In Nigeria, the dumbest thing for any forward-looking youth to do is to wait for anybody. The journey to a brighter future starts from within. As Franz Fanon said in The Wretched of the Earth, “Each generation must discover its mission, fulfil it or betray it, in relative opacity.” The basic question that should stir the curiosity of any bright young man or woman of today is, “what are the major themes of the time?” they must be clear to us. If we know what the basic challenges of the day are, we will be better able to project into the future. So, we must discover our mission, appropriate it and animate it. It is unwise to wait for anybody. We must answer the questions; what does Nigeria mean to me and what am I to Nigeria?
My own little effort to define my time as an adult Nigerian has shown me that the greatest challenge that my country faces today is the challenge of leadership. Ladies and gentlemen, I have not said anything you haven’t heard before. What might sound a little fresh, if you ask me, is that Nigeria has done almost nothing to lay a realistic foundation that would help her overcome her leadership challenge. By the way, isn’t it strange that we are quick to shout that the youths are the leaders of tomorrow yet we do little to prepare the youths for the acid test of leadership? How in the world are we going to extract the aching toot of bad leadership without a visit to the dentist? I always find it disheartening to realise that often times, when you turn on the television, there are advertisements for all manner of talent hunts sponsored by big multinational corporations but not a single programme for leadership. Nigeria has a surfeit of those initiatives that will further enervate us and strip us of the resolve to take charge of our destiny. In the past ten years, we have seen Project Fame, Voices, Naija Sings, Nigerian Idols, Big Brother Nigeria, West African Idols, Nigerian Idols, Gulder Ultimate Search and such things that will sedate us to stupor but nothing to prepare our youths for the onerous task of leadership.
Ladies and gentlemen, the good news is that in spite of all these, the world still believes in the inherent capacity of the Nigerian youths. For instance, a 2010 study by the British Council and Harvard University says that by the 2030s, youths, not oil, will be Nigeria’s most valuable resources. But even this is not a given. It requires adroit planning. The bad news, however, is that Nigeria does not have a good plan for her youths. Of course there have been tame efforts like the moribund Citizenship and Leadership Training Centre in Jos, but that scheme never quite took wings. We have also seen youth empowerment schemes like YouWin and SURE-P from the Jonathan administration. However, there has been no serious thinking about how to arrest the scourge of bad leadership by equipping the youths with the fundamental philosophies of leadership.
At the same time, I have quite often wondered whether the National Youth Service Scheme (NYSC) is not a poorly conceived idea in the first place and if it hasn’t failed woefully in achieving the objectives that informed its birth. NYSC exists to 1. Inculcate discipline in Nigerian youths by instilling in them a tradition of industry at work, and of patriotic and loyal service to Nigeria in any situation they may find themselves. 2. To develop a sense of corporate existence and common destiny of the people of Nigeria.
Quite frankly though, do these objectives speak to Nigeria’s leadership question? I don’t think so. Rather, what stares us in the face is the fact that the stated objectives of the NYSC indicate an abysmal reading of the Nigerian condition. It shows that we have yet to realise that nations rise and fall because of leadership and that we can only take charge of the future by preparing our youths today for leadership roles tomorrow.
Brothers and sisters, a country that cannot diagnose its own ailments is bound to surfer the indignities of history. The state of Israel offers us an interesting study in how a country should interrogate itself and make hay while the sun shines. Unlike Nigeria, Israel was smart enough to figure out that if it must continue to exist amidst hostile neighbours, there must be a steady supply of properly trained youths that would sustain its military prowess in the region. So, what did Israel do? It set up Gadna; a programme that prepares young people for military service in the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF). Gadna was set up in 1949 before the Israeli Declaration of Independence but the Knesset, subsequently passed a law making it compulsory for young Israelis to serve in the Military from the age of 18. The males serve for three years while the females serve two years. That is how a serious country rises to the call of posterity! Israel rose to carve out a future through a visionary military plan. Nigeria should treat her leadership embarrassments the way Israel treated her safety and security needs in the vortex of hostilities. The NYSC scheme should be redesigned and refocused to feed Nigeria’s need for a more purposeful leadership. So, rather than spend one year roaming the length and breadth of the country in a pretend effort at national integration, NYSC members should be posted to what I call Leadership Incubation Centres where they will be educated in the fundamental principles of leadership, citizenship rights and obligations, the real meaning and benefits of diversity and other high ideals that will lead to a balance in a plural society. The private sector should be encouraged to cooperate with governments to facilitate this. They must be made to realise that, leadership skills and temperament are just as relevant if not more relevant than the musical skills they have nurtured in our youths for so long. That way, we can prepare our youths to be good leaders and citizens who fully understand their obligations to the state, to themselves and to humanity.
In conclusion, I have two messages for this audience – one to Nigeria and the other to Nigerian youths. To Nigeria, I say; refocus the NYSC scheme to speak to your need for value-driven leadership. And to the Nigerian youths I say, take charge of your lives! The lives of many great men and women in history were constructed in their youths. Know yourself, know your ability and align your talents to suit your vision of life. Always remember that as Henry Van Dyke puts it, “the woods would be silent if no birds sang there except those that sang best.” But most of all; remember that YOUTH IS NO EXCUSE! And please never forget that in the words of the Great Zik of Africa in whose shadow I stand in this great university, “in the final analysis, you are the captain of your fate and the master of your own destiny!” Thank you.
James Eze is a writer and senior special advisor to the governor of Anambra State on media. This article is a speech he delivered at a Youth Seminar Organised by the Faculty of Management Sciences of the Nnamdi Azikiwe University, Awka on Thursday, July 13, 2016. He can be reached by email HERE.
The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author.