By Obadiah Mailafia
A FEW weeks ago, a BBC documentary by Ruona Meyer, titled, “Secrets of Nigeria’s illicit codeine trade revealed”, brought the Nigerian epidemic of drug addiction to the forefront of world attention. It is a national tragedy of grave proportions.
In the North, codeine addiction has affected so many of our young people; undermining the moral fabric of society. The anti-drugs agency NAFDAC temporarily closed down two major pharmaceutical firms that had allegedly profiteered from the mass epidemic of codeine addiction.
Drugs and narcotics often go hand-in-hand with societal vices such as crime, prostitution, fraud and other forms of deviant behaviour. Denied opportunities and jobs, and taking succour in drugs, some of our youth have turned to prostitution, cultism and violent criminality. Far from being citadels of enlightenment, our universities have become dens of sin and iniquity.
Not all hope is lost, however. Nigerian students the world over are known for their brilliance and prodigious academic achievements. Some of the creative industries are driven by youth. During my visits to such Caribbean countries as Trinidad & Tobago, St. Lucia, Grenada and Suriname, I was astonished to find that young people there were very captivated by Nigerian popular music.
I was pleased to discover that in the East African nations of Kenya, Uganda and Tanzana and the far-flung the islands of the southern seas film stars such as Omotola Jalade and Genevieve Nnaji and musical artistes such as Tiwa Savage and Tu-Face are household names.
They form part of the soft power that has given our country such enormous influence in recent years; boosting our image as a creative, forward-looking and can-do nation. We need to encourage that spirit of creativity in our youth.
A major challenge facing our young people is unemployment. Much of this derives from low educational opportunities and the mismatch between jobs and educational curricula. I have heard that some of our “graduates” have difficulty filling the relevant forms for the NYSC scheme.
There is so much rot in our universities that a student can matriculate, leave some considerable sums to the dean and return four years later to collect his or her degree certificate. He would have gone through the university without the university having gone through him! When such “graduates” leave the university and complete their obligatory national service, they are thrown into a job market with no skills and with the barest literacy and numeracy competencies.
The Swiss historian Jacob Burkhart, in his remarkable studies of the emergence of the political state in renaissance Italy famously described the state as “a work of art”. It is a work of art in the sense that it does not happen by chance. A state is built by creative men and women working arduously in the manner as Michelangelo painted the Sistine Chapel or as Leonardo da Vinci painted the immortal Mona Lisa. Nations are built by visionaries.
They are a labour of love – chiselled out with vision, courage, creativity and panache. Nations are invented traditions. The ability and capacity to fuse diverse peoples into a single nation with a common sense of destiny requires statesmanship of the highest order.
Nation-builders who know their onions give close attention to the youth. The mobilisation of the youth is the key to effective nation building. It has to begin in the home by moulding children with the time tested verities of piety, virtue, filial love, hard work, honour, respect, loyalty and patriotism. It then continues in the school system.
Teachers exert a powerful and enduring influence. The old saying is so true: “nobody forgets a good teacher”. The teaching of history and civics is particularly important in imbuing love for country and patriotism. I do not know those who advised the excision of history from our school curriculum. I consider it to be the original sin. Those who did that are enemies of our people. I am glad the study of history has been restored in our schools.
Nation building projects need to be incorporated into our various youth policies and social development interventions. While the NYSC scheme was a great success in its heydays, I am no longer convinced it is serving the original purpose.
I would counsel us to borrow a leaf from Israel, where every young man and woman of 18 is called up to active military service. For boys, it is two years while the girls have the option of serving for only a year. Those crucial years of military service give these young people a sense of patriotism, loyalty and commitment to service. When they enter university nobody can deceive them to join a cult. They tend to be more focused in their studies.
And the friendships formed during military service are often carried into the marketplace where they set up ICT companies and other successful businesses. This is partly why Israel has a global reputation as “the Start-up Nation”.
Other countries that have obligatory military service include Argentina, Australia, Barbados, Belgium, Canada, China, France, Singapore, India, Japan, Mauritius, Pakistan and Tanzania.
If our system were not so inclement to talent we would be celebrating a bountiful harvest of geniuses in all the fields of human endeavour. Unfortunately, Nigeria has a way of dealing with gifted people. If they don’t kill you they will drive you mad. This is why the correlates between our gene-pool and national development are so diametrically opposed.
Failure to find creative outlets for the energy of our youth is partly why we have rampant criminality, Boko Haram, rampaging herdsmen, rural banditry, kidnapping, brigandage and nihilistic violence. We have lost our moral compass.
Our biggest challenge, going forward, is to invest in our youth. British wartime leader Winston Churchill prophesied that “the empires of the future will be the empires of the mind”. Without investing in our youth – in science and innovation — the African people will never overcome their millennial servitude. And the African Renaissance of our dreams will become a mere phantasmagoria.
We must create an ecosystem that enables young men and women to flourish. And we must incentivise talent while building a merit-based society. I’m told that in Brazil a Nobel laureate by statute is entitled to the same pension benefits as a former President. This sends the message that we do not all have to be politicians in order to attain greatness. Society must adequately recognise and reward all men and women of excellence.
We also need accelerated action to boost investment in human capital so as to create a US$1 trillion economy within the coming decade. Investing in health, education and human development, particularly for the youth segment of our population, is a key driver for growth. At the same time, young people of talent should be encouraged take up politics as a vocation. In the words of the Greek philosopher Plato: “One of the penalties for refusing to participate in politics is that you end up being governed by your inferiors.”
To my young friends, I say: never give up – never, never, never give up!
(Being the Text of a Keynote Address at the Youth Summit Conference Organised by the Youth for Peace and Leadership Organisation Held at the Royal Choice Inn, National Christian Centre, Abuja, Saturday 5th May, 2018).