Dear Young Nigerian,
I am honoured to celebrate and mark the 2015 International Youth Day with you. The theme, ‘Civic Engagement’, resonates with the Vice President and I for the roles that millions of you played during the last general elections. Civic engagement is at the heart of what it means to be a citizen and today I want to talk about what you and I, what governments and citizens can do to develop a better Nigeria – a Nigeria that delivers on our aspirations and dreams for progress, peace and prosperity.
I try to read for my personal development for at least an hour a day, lately with my schedule, I am lucky if I get 30 minutes. A few days ago I re-read excerpts from Lee Kuan Yew: The Man and His Ideas and I was struck with 3 things that I want to share with you.
- If the history of man has been a history of his need to get access to more resources, to satisfy his needs’– then the responsibility of governments is to create a more enabling environment for citizens to work towards meeting their needs.
A more enabling environment would be one where the obvious deficits in our infrastructure are addressed. It would also be one where ‘irrespective of wealth, background or status, you (all) enjoy the same opportunities from primary school to university’. Though blessed with many natural resources, we have found ourselves incapacitated by the ‘Dutch Disease’ and have wasted a lot of our resources instead of investing wisely for our common welfare. The good news is that we know that we cannot continue to rely only on revenue from the petroleum sector.
Work is a touchy subject in a country with an unemployment rate of over 34%, where 50% of the unemployed are people within the ages of 15-24 and where up to 55% of the unemployed are female. People want to work but there are no jobs.
In 1968 Singapore faced existential economic issues due to its expulsion from Malaysia and Britain’s possible military withdrawal. Job creation was imperative. Someone said to Yew ‘look if you need to create jobs, why don’t you make fishhooks? It takes labour and skill and…it’s high value added’.
What are our fishhooks? What are the best opportunities for use of labour and skill in Nigeria? Where are the opportunities for developing skills we do not have or do not have in sufficient numbers to create a competitive advantage and where can we best add high value to what we and the world already have?
We must create and expand opportunities in technology, agriculture and trade.
Apart from the obvious challenges with the petroleum industry, I ask myself – do we have enough young people trained to take over half the jobs currently being undertaken by expatriates? Do we have enough Nigerians who can build and maintain oilrigs, make the pipes, drills and bits that are needed in this industry? How many related patents have Nigerians filed since crude oil was first discovered in the Oloibiri oilfield on January 15 1956?
Our creativity in the arts is celebrated worldwide. It makes us proud. I know we have equal and maybe even better talent in the sciences. Technology is changing daily and I worry that the world is leaving us behind. How best do we strengthen our STEM curriculums and how can we get organizations such as the Petroleum Development Trust Fund thinking beyond the foreign doctorate and masters programs to create a viable research and development hub right here in Nigeria?
We all agree that we have not scratched the surface of our potential in agriculture – the story of Malaysia and where they got their palm kernel seedlings from is legendary to our shame. Now we can add loss of ground to Ghana and Japan in exporting yams – when everyone knows our yams are the best. We must get to work.
I am pleased to announce one fishhook that the 36 governors have all signed up to: a project to ‘make farming cool’ designed by PAT Farms and to be executed in collaboration with the National Directorate of Employment and the Federal Ministry of Agriculture. Each local government will commit 10 hectares for the creation of greenhouse farming estates which will be serviced with built in irrigation and technical support. 10 hectares gives us 100 greenhouses, which gives us a total of at least 77,400 greenhouses. Eligible young Nigerians of no more than 35 years will under terms and conditions that ensure the enterprise is mutually beneficial to them and the states, be given 5 years to operate. Each cluster will employ at least 125 people directly – when we get this running, this project will employ thousands; a mere scratch on our unemployment numbers but it is a good start and fulfills some regional obligations under the Youth Decade Plan of Action (2009-2018) and the Ouagadougou 2004 Plan of Action on Employment Promotion and Poverty Alleviation. Details of the project will be formally published within a few weeks.
- ‘If you have a system where the chap who cuts corners is a man who gets rich and the man who studies hard is the chap who’s a mug then you will fail’
Unfortunately, this is how we have operated in Nigeria over the last few decades but we can change this with the right incentives and deterrents. We must create a society where only hard work and enterprise is rewarded and where what distinguishes you is how productive you are.
Aspiration is human. Wanting better things is what drives most and when you work hard there is absolutely nothing wrong with being able to afford the good things of life. What is important acknowledging the balance between our satisfaction and our responsibility to our communities and appreciating the connection between our welfare and happiness and the welfare and happiness of our neighbours. Let us work hard, earn an honest living, pay our taxes, and spend our hard earned earnings on things that will enrich us and let us start planning for the day where most of our spend is on items that are made in or assembled in Nigeria.
- ‘A well-kept garden, is a daily effort and demonstrates the people’s ability to organize and to be systematic’.
Yew shared how hard it was to build a garden city in a country of only 718 km2 – smaller even than the city of Lagos at 999km2. Worrying about landscaping and how best to recycle water for the lush green lawns which did not come naturally due to the climate in Singapore would not have seemed like a priority when the country was worried about economic survival but with planning and commitment, Yew made it happen. One key lesson: small things matter. The same dedication we pay to generating revenue, fighting corruption and securing our lives and properties, is the same dedication we must pay to keeping our streets clean, maintaining our offices and preserving public spaces. Take nothing for granted. Everyone in society has a role to play in building the country we say we want – from the street cleaners to the generals, from the receptionists to the nurses – everyone is adding value to the nation doing what they do and we must undertake every task with dignity and attention to detail. If we can’t take care of the small things well, we will never take care of the big things well.
If today I have focused predominantly on employment and work ethics, this is not to trivialize the many other obligations government has to Nigerian youths. It is because tackling unemployment was one cornerstone of my campaign and I believe getting more people working will reduce the tragic numbers of Nigerians endangering their lives to migrate to Europe in search of a better life.
As the months go by, you will hear more about our initiatives to improve education, health, research and development and job creation. The ongoing initiatives such as YouWin, the graduate internship scheme, vocational training schemes, etc. will be reviewed for their effectiveness and strengthened as appropriate. I urge you to share your thoughts and your ideas about possible ‘fishhooks’ at the specially created portal of the Presidency’s website at www.asorock.org
I end with a favourite quote of mine by James Baldwin which I have adapted for obvious reasons. “ I love Nigeria more than any other country in the world, and exactly, for that reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually”.
But don’t just criticize – do something. Be relentless in your attention to detail and to your civic responsibilities and never tire of trying to make Nigeria the country of your dreams. Keep demanding, keep asking, keep calling the attention of your federal, state and local government – to things that should improve. Do not forget to say where things are going well – it is human to enjoy praise and those in government are very human. This will encourage us to continue to put in our best. In the quest for a better country for us all – we all have roles to play, and we must take responsibility for our part.
God bless Nigeria
*This is an imaginary speech given by the President on August 12 2015 International Youth Day, first installment in the ‘Can drive, have no car’ series by Ayisha Osori.