By Obadiah Mailafia
FORGIVE me — forgive us. We have failed you. We have failed you miserably. Literally every single day of my life I receive a text or email from one of you pleading for help — in desperate search for a job – any job. About a million of you leave the school system every year.
Thousands leave our tertiary institutions annually. Thrown into an ever-shrinking job market. In our day, it was unconceivable that someone with First Class Honours or a 2:1 could be jobless for six months.
Not so in your generation. Many of the best are still wandering the streets after five years of post-graduation. There is massive discrimination in the job market. Silent recruitment has been taking place in the public service at federal and state levels, not on the basis of merit and ability but on the basis of whom-you-know; and whether your father is a “chief” or a Senator. We have turned your hopes into a nightmare.
When some of us were graduating in the late 70s, life was different. If you excelled academically the world was your oyster. Many of us had job offers before completion of our national service year. The luckier ones had three or more such offers.
I had not only several job offers, I was given a full scholarship to pursue graduate studies up to doctoral level at Queens University in Ottawa, Canada. As a twenty-one year old graduate, I loved Nigeria too much and I declined the scholarship offer. I went back to Ahmadu Bello University to teach. Our Nigeria of those days was far from being a rose-garden; but it offered expanding opportunities for the young. Merit and excellence were accorded their rightful place.
We older folks often want to believe that we had a better education than you younger ones. In our time, the Academic Staff Union of Universities, ASUU, was not a highly unionised political organisation that it later became. Strikes were rare. As soon as you matriculated you could plan your life and career because you knew with accuracy precisely when you would graduate. Our citadels of higher learning still maintained high standards. There were no secret cults, unless you consider the Palm Wine Drinkards’ Club a secret cult.
The libraries were well stocked; the laboratories well-equipped. If you needed a book that was not available in the library the university bookstore would order it from abroad within two weeks. Our universities were at par with the best in the world. Throughout my years as an undergraduate, there was not a single incident that I know of involving a lecturer or professor who extorted sex or money for grades. Such iniquity was never heard of.
Alas, the glory has departed. Many of you spent more than five years before graduation due to incessant strikes by university dons. Cults became the norm. Sex and money for grades became common-place. The libraries disappeared; the laboratories empty. Standards fell abysmally. Without scholarships, many of you suffered untold hardships. While we had full grants, you had to hustle in all sorts of ways to feed yourself and make ends meet while studying. The young women took to the seedy streets.
You came into the job market barely equipped. And you entered an economy that has pursued a de facto strategy of de-industrialisation; a casino-economy run by bankers in the interest of bankers. The real-economy has shrunk, leaving the space to speculators, sharks and contractors. We have left you with no hope and no opportunities.
As a consequence, a good number of you have become Okada-riders and petty traders. Many young men have postponed marriage and family due to lack of means of sustenance. When Dangote Cement Plc advertised for truck drivers thousands of you with masters and PhDs applied in sheer acts of desperation. Some have taken the Long Trek across the hazardous Sahara in a vain attempt to make it to Europe.
Thousands have perished in rickety boats in the treacherous Mediterranean Sea. We are told that 2,000 of our young doctors leave our shores every year. We have become a country that never values its best. Some of you not brave enough to risk your lives on those terrible misadventures have taken refuge in Man U, Chelsea, Barca and La Liga.
Today, Nigeria stands at the crossroads of history. If we continue in our path-dependence of folly, the life-chances of our nearly 200 million people will become a nightmare. Our nationhood is mortally imperilled. The duty of a new generation of leadership is to give hope to the hopeless; to recreate our country as a compassionate, just and progressive democracy based on the rule of law, equal opportunities and positive science.
Far from being lazy, indolent and dependent on freebies, the Nigerian youths I know are hard working, charitable and generous. If in doubt, look at Nollywood, Tu-Face and Tiwa Savage. When given fair opportunities, you will always excel.
I speak to you of excellence, because you are young, because you are gifted, and because you are beautiful.
I speak to you of excellence, because in the purity of your young hearts I divine the promise of greatness and the vision of a new, better tomorrow.
I speak to you of excellence, because I know that you will honour your fathers and your mothers and the heritage into which you were born — even the heritage of the fear of the Lord, which is the beginning of wisdom.
I speak to you of excellence, because like Shedrack, Meshack and Abednego, you will live apart from the debaucheries of our confused and illiberal age.
I speak to you of excellence, because you are the hope of our future, the ones for whom the bells of the New Millennium have tolled.
My friends, we must never forget that excellence is measurable not by intellect alone. It has been said times without number that manners maketh the man. By excellence of character I am referring to the simple time-tested virtues. Character is destiny. Our path in life, our entire trajectory, is largely dependent not only on our abilities but also on what we are as individuals and as human beings. I know many a brilliant and gifted young man who fell by the wayside simply for lack of character.
Honesty, truthfulness, modesty, politeness, humility – these are simple virtues that will carry anyone a very long distance indeed. Even if such a person were born in a log cabin like Abraham Lincoln, they would make it to the pinnacle of achievement.
Excellence of character requires not only honesty, modesty and virtue; as civil rights leader, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., reminded us, it also requires commitment to duty. “If a man is called to be a street sweeper, he should sweep streets even as Michelangelo painted, or Beethoven composed music, or Shakespeare wrote poetry. He should sweep streets so well that all the host of heaven and earth will pause to say, here lived a great street sweeper who did his job well.”
The pursuit of excellence has to be a continuous, lifelong pursuit. In a world that is changing with breathtaking rapidity, you may have to change professions at least once or twice in the course of your working lives.
Be prepared to learn new skills. Always seek to be adaptable and flexible. Give yourself over to a life of thought; and from thinking, learn to act. And let it be said of you, as it was said of Daniel of old, that the spirit of excellence dwelt in him.
If I forget Thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither!