Being text of keynote address delivered by Dame Comfort Obi to the 14th Annual International Congress of World Owerre Peoples’ Congress, WOPC, at the Nashville Airport Marriot, Nashville, Tennessee
LIFE is a relay race from one generation to the next. For this reason, the youths represent the hopes of society for a brighter future. That is why the generation before us endeavoured to give us the best education that our country could afford at the time. They wanted us to uplift our society, and make them proud by our achievements in every area of enterprise. We may not all agree that we have lived up to the expectations of our elders.
However, as grateful beneficiaries of such a noble legacy, it is our duty to pass on the vision to the ones coming behind us. Regrettably, it does not appear as if our teeming Owerre youths are ready to carry on the torch of progress that we are holding out to them.
But the problem is not peculiar to Owerre people alone. It is general in character. A general malaise affects the Nigerian society. Some people describe it as the get-rich-quick syndrome. Unlike their elders, contemporary Nigerian youths are less willing to sweat today for a sweet tomorrow. They scoff at the virtues of hard work and probity which inspired us.
They want quick and huge rewards for little or no work, and even more for dishonest and illegal activities. Worse still, they are unwilling to take responsibility for their actions. Everyone else is to blame: Government, their parents, school heads, and other authority – figures who should have made things easier for them.
Of course, at times, embarrassing corruption and inefficiency in the Nigerian system are aggravating factors. The net result is a continuous surge of barely educated and unskilled youth escaping from Owerre and other parts of Nigeria to seek their fortunes abroad. The sure target of these desperate youths is to get rich quickly by any means, or die trying.
Unfortunately, some of our people who live abroad, in the US, for example, have not made it any easier for the youths. They paint a rosy picture of life in America. They tell unbelievable stories. When they talk, it is like dollars are picked in the streets of America. They go to high rise buildings take photographs, and claim they are their offices and/or apartments.
They stand by Limousines and take photographs and claim they are their cars. They don’t tell stories of their dignified struggles and sufferings to survive. They don’t tell stories of keeping more than one job. They don’t tell stories of the long hours they endure at work to keep family. They don’t tell stories of how they work and go to school, both at once, in order to secure a better future.
Securing better future
When our youths hear these stories and see photographs, they are focused on nothing else but travelling to America to live big. When you get them a job, they are reluctant to take it. As a Commissioner on the Police Service Commission, I get slots when the police are recruiting. Some of our youths, when you ask them to apply, the question they ask first is: How much will they pay? Till date, I have recruited over 80 of them from across Imo, and the South east. Those that applied, and are lucky to be recruited have no regrets. They are paid well. They are building houses and shops for their parents. They are buying cars for them. And I get all the blessings, thanks, and prayers from them.
Dear brothers and sisters, the point I’m making here is that those of you who live abroad should tell our youths back home the truth, which is that: It is not easy anywhere. A sharp and ever increasing crime wave reigns over Owerreland and many parts of Nigeria.
Some of these crimes are worsened because of the unemployment rate. Some are because our youths want to get rich quick. They have lost every sense of our traditional value. We need a moral rebirth. We need to go back to our long cherished traditional values. From drug trafficking and advance fee fraud in the eighties, we have progressed to hostage taking, human trafficking, ritual murder and paid-for-assassinations in the new millennium. Kidnapping started in the South-south. Once our people got a hang on it, it became worse, especially, in Owerre land. Why? In Owerre zone alone, the Nigeria police has over 30 black spots. Why? Many of us in this audience are afraid to travel home because of the security risks involved. Quite a number of us may have been victims of kidnap or robbery attempts back home. Many more have taken the expensive precaution of hiring private guards or policemen when they visit homes.
The indifference of our youths to the age old values that make our Owerre people such proud, hardworking achievers should be of great concern. To worsen it, parents no longer ask questions. Nor do the elders, traditional rulers, or even Churches. When our youths with no verifiable means of livelihood suddenly, so suddenly get very rich, we should worry and ask question. We should not pat them on the back with chieftaincy titles. The true worth of this gathering is that we have chosen not to give up on our youths and the society. The theme of our deliberation underscores this resolve.
I want to believe that there might be a silver lining around the dark skyline. This year, a major Nigerian newspaper gave its annual Man of the Year Award to, guess who? The Nigerian Youth! The choice arose from the sterling triumphs of Nigerian soccer teams at international competitions, the stunning impact of Nigerian pop music and yes, Nollywood, on the world scene. There is no denying that our dear Owerre youths share in the unusual accolade and spotlight that the newspaper showered on their age mates and compatriots. Indeed, Owerre youths were very much part of the success story of the Africa Cup of Nations and the FIFA Under-17 Championships, where mercurial Kelechi Iheanacho won the most valuable player, MVP award and the silver boot. Nollywood is essentially our story and the likes of Stephaine Okereke-Lynus, Ann Njemanze, Blessing Sylvanus, among several other umu-Owerre, have helped to make this peculiar film industry a Nigerian success story.
The great challenge of the Nigerian economy today is the continuing rise in unemployment. Owerre must rank among the zones in the country with the highest rate of unemployed, but educated and skilled youths. The acute lack of employment opportunities is a cause of the increasing disenchantment of youths for higher education. Their argument seems to be, “Why strive for a fancy education, when you can’t use it to better yourself?”
Sadly, entrepreneurs of Owerre origin have been less than keen to site projects in Owerri and increase the stock of available jobs at home. Their locations of choice include, Lagos, Abuja and even far-off towns like Kano, Kaduna and Sokoto. Lately, a bongo musician, took the matter up in a song decrying the shocking lack of industries around Owerri.
“Úkwú nø anyi mba ari anyi nma,” he sang, “Yø kpua yo n’uyo…” There is no indication, so far, that Owerre entrepreneurs are listening. The federal administration currently has marked a huge outlay of funds for small scale industrial development. For all the fanfare and publicity it has generated, the programme is hamstrung by traditional banking regulations that make it difficult for investors to access the funds at the required speed for rapid economic development.
Nevertheless, many youths are doing their best to rise above the immorality and apathy of their peers. These youths have refused to join the great brawn drain wherein Nigerian youths leave home without the necessary skills and qualifications to assure them of gainful and legitimate employment abroad. The individual efforts of these more enterprising youths indicate that our hope for the future lies in a creative harness of their abilities and talents.
Since the return to civil democracy, politicians and administrators have introduced several economic empowerment and poverty alleviation schemes to address the problems of youth unemployment. However, these programmes are spread too thin and are not self-sustaining in the long run. A motorcycle only provides subsistence living for the recipient. A young boy or girl with a lone sewing machine can scarcely compete in the modern garment industry by which the Asians flood our country with cheap clothes.
The creative solution to engaging our youths for a better appreciation of their role in society lies in fashioning a future more hopeful, and safe for us and for them. We need thousands of cottage industries to free the massive, but trapped energies of our young people. The Nigerian economy is swamped by cheap, imported goods that can be produced in Nigeria from locally abundant raw materials.
As little as $40,000 can fund a modern palm oil processing, and other agro-allied, mills. But where are the takers? Rather than local manufacture, our entrepreneurs find it more convenient to import tooth picks, plastic toys, biscuits, table ware, and more. Many of them complain about the unreliable energy supply in Nigeria. If Nnewi can power its growing industrial stature on the unpredictable Nigerian energy sector, so too can Owerre. But Owerre lacks the courageous investors.
All said, the future and safety of our society is rather bright for your sakes. Owerre people in the US, Europe, and all over the world constitute a veritable resource base for our future progress and development. This conference can seek ways of tapping your individual expertise and energies into a collective financial and investment powerhouse for the industrialization of Owerre and environs. With the right management strategy, cottage industries that depend entirely on local raw materials can be run on turn-key partnerships with our local women or youths.
The template may be as follows: the folks at home provide the land, the investor installs the machinery and also institutes managerial capacity. After recouping his investment, the investor hands over to the local groups, or maintains a continuing partnership with them.
Essentially, this is how Ndigbo made the giant strides in education and business that earned them a pride of place in the colonial and immediate post-independence years. When they found that education was the key to advancement in the colonial administration, village and town unions competed among themselves to provide scholarships to their more brilliant youths.
Trades and businesses
People who did well in trades and businesses would introduce their kinsmen to the enterprise, such that particular businesses became the specialty of people from specific areas. In just two decades, Ndigbo began to dominate the high strata of the colonial administration and the business sector in Nigeria.
If we put our minds to it, we can do it again for the rapid industrialization of Owerre, and create a brighter future for our grossly disillusioned youths. Therein also, lies the collective safety of Owerre people. So, now, having come to the end of this address, let me do what I should have done before. I’m delighted by this invitation. I am honoured, privileged and humbled for this recognition. And, I am very proud to be your sister.