By Obadiah Mailafia
IT was the great nineteenth century British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli who described the youth as “the trustees of prosperity”. I would also add that they are also the trustees of posterity – nay, of civilisation itself.
The simple point I wish to make is that the arduous task of nation building must of necessity embrace the youth as its foundation.
Nigeria has some of the smartest young people in the world. If you are in doubt, ask Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook. He visited our country last year and had nothing but superlative things to say about the resourcefulness and creativity of our youth. Some people prefer to condemn our youth while others believe our role is to pamper them.
An ancient Irish proverb says, “Praise youth and it will prosper”. Our task this morning is neither to sing the praise of the youth nor to condemn them. Our task, rather, is to instruct, encourage and inspire.
We are told that the Greek philosopher Diogenes used to go about with a lamp in broad daylight in the streets of his native city of Athens. When he was asked what this was all about, he replied that he was looking for an honest man. Diogenes also taught that the foundation of every state is the education of its youth. I also happen to believe that investing in the young is the key to our prosperous future.
The question that immediately comes to mind is this: who are the youth? According to our National Youth Policy document 2001, the youth are defined as anyone within the age range of 15 to 35. This definition departs from the universally accepted United Nations definition which specifies ages 15 to 24 as the ages of youth.
Whether our definition of youth ends at 24 or 35, one thing is clear: youth is a state of mind. And if I may quote one of the great thinkers of the twentieth century: “Youth is not a time of life; it is a state of mind; it is not a matter of rosy cheeks, red lips and supple knees; it is a matter of the will, quality of the imagination, a vigour of the emotions; it is the freshness of the deep springs of life.”
For my part, I have to say that I very much prefer the UN definition. The Nigerian one extends the youth age up to 35, which is neither particularly African nor a universal one. Among the Igbo people when a boy hits 21, he is already considered a man able to take his place among his age-grade. Among the Jews, a boy celebrates his Bar-Mitzvah at 13. At that age, he is considered to have attained the age of moral and spiritual responsibility.
Nigeria’s demographic population currently stands at an estimated 190 million. Out of this population, young people are the overwhelming majority. Some 70 percent of our population comprises of those within ages of 1 to 30. Ours is one of the most youthful populations on earth, with all its advantages as well as disadvantages.
Nigeria’s life-expectancy is currently estimated at 53 years. It is a tragic figure, because the average life-expectancy in the Japanese island of Okinawa is 100. Most advanced countries life-expectancy hovers above 80 years. In Nigeria, by contrast, life is the way the English political philosopher Thomas Hobbes characterised the state of nature – nasty, brutish and short. This state of nature affects our youth more than most other segments of the population. They are the ones that suffer violence, unemployment, poverty, disempowerment and marginalisation.
School enrolment in Nigeria is still a low 57.6 percent. However, the good side of the story is that youth literacy in our country is a relatively high 75.6 percent, well above the national adult literacy rate of 51.1 percent.
According to the UN, Nigeria’s Youth Development Index, a measure of the youth benefitting from social development interventions, is at a mere 0.41, placing us at 140 out of 170 countries.
More recently, the Global Slavery Index reports that some 875,500 are victims of our modern day slavery. Modern day slavery includes things such as trafficking in children and young people, forced labour, forced prostitution, trafficking in human organs and so on. I am sure many of you have seen the gory images of young people drowning in rickety boats in the Mediterranean Sea.
I used to live in the North African city of Tunis. Our next day neighbour was a senior naval officer. We became firm family friends. He confided to me that every single day, his men pick up dead bodies of young Africans in their coastal waters. Given that one out of every 5 Africans is a Nigerian, one is left in no doubt that a good number of these victims are Nigerians. Same goes for the chain gangs of modern slaves that CNN reported in Libya. Many of them are Nigerian youths. These images represent what Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka termed “the open wound of a continent”.
The youth of Nigeria face enormous challenges. For one thing, our system offers them little hope and little or no opportunities. To be young is to be hopeful. The youth, by definition, are endowed with tremendous energy. That energy, psychologists tell us, must find an outlet one way or the other. If it cannot find outlet in creativity, it will find it in destructiveness. But find an outlet, it must.
This is the crux of the problem. Our youths of today have no pride in their country whatsoever. Most are scheming how to leave the country for so-called “greener pastures”.
They have been brainwashed into believing that the streets of Europe and North America are paved with gold. Those of us who have lived abroad never tell them the other side of the story – the story of racism, fascism, Nazism and violent discrimination in the advanced industrial nations. We shield the fact of Global Apartheid from their consciousness.
Another challenge afflicting our youth is drugs and narcotics. It is estimated that up to 30 percent of our youth nationwide are into one form of substance abuse or the other. Over 20 percent of northern youth, for example, are into codeine, Benylin, Emzolyn, Drohpnoyl, Tramadol and other drugs. According to a recent report: ”There is the case of a new bride whose husband discovered under their bed, a carton of Tutolin, usually abused to induce intoxication and supposedly boost sexual drive. Even before then, during the wedding, the loss of a necklace had prompted a search that led to the astonishing discovery that women at the occasion, mostly housewives, had varieties of cough syrup containing codeine in their handbags”.
(Being the Text of a Keynote Address at the Youth Summit Organised by the Youth for Peace and Leadership Organisation Held at the Royal Choice Inn, National Christian Centre, Abuja, Saturday 5th May, 2018).