OOPL: Dialoguing with Nigerian youths
Let me start with a straight forward incontestable development maxim: The Nigerian youth constitute the singular most important democratic and development capital that the leadership has ignored for far too long. We pay strenuous lip service to the importance of the youth in nation building—we even call them the “leaders of tomorrow”—but in spite of our best effort, the statistics of youth unemployment and the widening gulf between their expectation and their frustration keep growing at an alarming geometric rate that belies our supposed commitment to them. Yet everything has been falling apart for Nigeria in terms of deploying her youthful energies and entrepreneurial creativity productively. The Nigerian youth are not only unemployed, those who manage to escape are leaving the shores of the nation in droves and turning their energies into achievements on behalf of other nations.
This dire situation tells us a simple fact—that we have not sufficiently taken Nigeria seriously. And this is all the more so because Nigeria is, like Africa, right in the midst of her once-in-a-while demographic youth bulge that could be turned into a considerable productivity opportunity. Taking Nigeria Seriously, to deepen Odia Ofeimun’s book title, simply means taking the youth and youth development seriously. And this translates, in the final analysis, into the first condition for transforming Nigeria into a developmental state. A developmental state is known by its critical engagement with social policy. Social policy refers to policy initiatives, social relations and institutional arrangements which energise human well-being. It constitutes a deliberate attempt, on the part of government, to intervene in the redistribution of resources among its citizens as a means of achieving welfare objectives that empowers the citizens.
Articulating a vision of social policy however goes beyond just guaranteeing a minimum level of policy requirements for social well-being. On the contrary, social policy represents a deeper development agenda that translates into good governance.
This is where the Youth Governance Dialogue initiative, by the Youth Development Centre of the Olusegun Obasanjo Presidential Library (OOPL), becomes a significant intervention in the ongoing attempt at reintegrating the youth back into the governance dynamics of the nation. And this, tragically, is against the historical trajectory of our colonial agitation which saw radical youth in the vanguard of nationalist struggle for a fatherland they truly believe in. I can sincerely associate with this gesture. As a former permanent secretary at the Ministry for Youth Development, I was significantly instrumental to the strategic planning process that conceived and delivered a Youth Development National Strategy and Action Plan in 2013. But since then, I have become fully aware of a significant point: Whereas there are in place sufficient strategies and action plans for taking youth development to the next level, one can exercise legitimate doubt as to how far these strategies and frameworks have succeeded in undermining the youth challenge. What is clear is that Nigeria has many agencies and organisations involved in youth-oriented activities, but we still cannot outline in concrete terms the impact of these agencies. For one, these agencies have failed, for instance, to achieve significant buy-in among the youth who see them as essentially self-serving or even highly politicised. This realisation has then inspired the advocacy we embarked upon, especially with the birth of the Ibadan School of Government and Public Policy (ISGPP).
The first issue, which makes this initiative of the Youth governance dialogue unique, is understanding what the youth challenge is. Let’s take some statistics first. The African youth demographics are worse in terms of the relationship between youth empowerment and national development. And this is all the more so because more than 65% of Africa’s total population today that are under the age of 35; there is a further 35% that stands in the demographic gap between 15 and 35 years (this makes for about 200 million people between age 15 and 35). These figures are expected to double by 2045. However, close to 75million of the youths are unemployed. Those who are employed are trapped in unproductive jobs that promised no future advancement. The vast army of the unemployed is otherwise engaged in the thriving informal criminal economy which deprived the continent of their productive energies. And regularly, close to 10 million—a figure which continues to rise—youths are offloaded to the labour market every month. And in Nigeria as at 2011, unemployment rate in Nigeria stood at 23.9% while youth unemployment stood at over 50%. Added to this is the grim statistics that there is an alarming 16% growth rate of unemployment. Thus, when we think of the youth, what the sociological observation forces into our minds are the miscreants and garage touts (“area boys”), the loafers, drop outs, the almajiris, the unemployed, and all those who have been socially abused, humiliated and deprived of an sense of meaning in life.
Thus, in spite of the cacophony of youthful voices screaming their frustration across the social media, it is obvious that the Nigerian policy makers have still not woken up to institutional predicament which has continually failed to give the youth access to democratic processes that will help them make informed choices about their roles in Nigeria’s democratic experiment, and as viable component in the search for a viable development paradigm. Consider the following essential questions that bear out this reflection about the state of the youth in national thinking:
. How many political parties in Nigeria have a youth wing that contributes to internal party policy?
. How many civil society groups are committed to youth development beyond the mere lip service to their significance?
. How many religious organisation, for that matter, look to the spiritual rejuvenation of the youth beyond the mere number that attends the church or the mosque?
. How many organisations are dedicated to youth empowerment in Nigeria?
. In what sense have the youth been integrated into national decision making process?
. Is there any longer active student movements that would challenge national injustices and political brigandage?
The OOPL Youth Governance Dialogue is therefore confronted with the fundamental challenge of how Nigeria can move from the pessimism of the gloomy youth unemployment statistics to a future of proactive demographics that will generate policy and governance dynamics which can enable Nigeria to harness the boundless creative energies of the ambitious and adventuresome youth. The fundamental issue is therefore to forcefully interrogate the policy intent of the Nigerian government towards the youth.
The noble intent of the Youth Governance Dialogue is meant to explore ways by which the Nigerian youth can be successfully factored into the governance framework of the Nigerian state. I suspect that this objective can be further enlarged and deepened if tied to a more inter-generational dialogue which locates the youth and their malaise in a wider historical and socioeconomic and political trajectory. This dynamic trajectory derives from leadership and generational deficiencies over the decades since Nigeria’s independence. In dialoguing with the past, the Nigerian youth can therefore engage and query the tokenism that has characterised their enlistment into the political system in Nigeria as personal or special assistants or even as thugs; interrogate the leadership of the country and their anti-progress and anti-development policies; engage with their own complicity in a system which exploit and subjugate their aspirations; attempt to undermine the orthodox national narratives, and in-the-box thinking, which call them “leaders of tomorrow” but prevent their democratic participation; and generally we all can also help create an additive culture, rather than an extractive one, that exalt the value of what we can add to Nigeria and not what can be taken away through corrupt enrichment.
If we would not allow a Nigerian Spring to burst on us as a result of our lackadaisical attitude and policy listlessness, it is now time to really move away from all the lip service and rhetoric flourish that characterise our relationship with the Nigerian youth to a more institutionalised structure of democratic participation and political succession which allow the Nigerian youth bring their expertise, creativity and knowledge to the development table. If the youth constitute a significant portion of our development, then we have kept them out of that equation for far too long. It is now time to start redressing that lopsidedness.
(Being statement by Dr. Tunji Olaopa, Executive Vice-Chairman, Ibadan School of Government and Public Policy – ISGPP at the Youth Governance Dialogue organised by the Olusegun Obasanjo Presidential Library (OOPL at Abeokuta.)