By Morenike Taire
On the 1st of October, 1960, thousands of Nigerian school children as well as other young persons trooped into the streets in celebration of the Nation’s independence. The country had spared no expense in providing free food and refreshments for the teeming army.
It was a period of great hope and optimism, particularly for the youth at the time. For them, the outlook was sunny, the future bright and the horizon beckoning more seductively than it had by the indulgent shackles of colonialism. There is perhaps nowhere quite as beautiful as a newly independent nation.
The crop of driven men and women who had secured the independence was itself young – educated, exposed, and burning with nationalism and idealism and energy. On the forefront were Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, Anthony Enahoro, Nnamdi Azikiwe, Obafemi Awolowo, Sir Ahmadu Bello and other single minded men and women who preferred to take their fate in their own hands. By 1960, all were in advanced middle age. Enahoro was in his mid forties, while the others were closer to sixty years of age, but what is significant is that they all had spent their entire youths fighting for the actualization of independence, with Enahoro first moving the motion for this while a mere 30 years of age.
British Mornarch Queen Elizabeth II, who became Queen of Nigeria as Nigeria was a constitutionally a monarchy until 1963, was herself just 34 years old and clearly open to fresh ideas.
Constituting a veritable nexus between the old and the young; the old and the new, our fathers of independence were however driven not so much by their knowledge and what they had experienced, as by fierce patriotism and what was yet to be experienced in our nationhood.
This level of nationalism and patriotism was aspired to in the wake of the 4th Republic, when the nation managed to shake off military dictatorship with the death, in 1998, of rabid despot General Sani Abacha at 55. A new crop of young politicians seemed to have arisen. Salisu Buhari, the Speaker of the House of Representatives, was 29 years old before resigning in disgrace after having falsified his age and school certificate. Unfortunately, the many young and youthful politicians of the era failed to raise the stakes for the youth of Nigeria and while young Nigerians have continued to do great things in other parts of the world to the benefit of their hosts, Nigerian youths continue to languish at home.
It would be naïve to propagate the prevalent argument of the day that a more youthful or young government would result in a better country overall. Yet it can definitely not be argued that the current sad state of affairs for a vast number of Nigerian youth is the direct result of poor or poorly articulated youth development policies, bordering on severe neglect. We neglect the youths at our peril.
According to a 2016 report by Bloomberg, Nigeria’s population reached 182 million that year with more than half its people under 30 years of age, putting a severe strain on a nation suffering from a slowing economy and declining revenue to provide enough schools and health facilities.
This estimate is based on the population of 140 million recorded in the last census a decade ago, using an annual growth rate of 3.5 percent weighed against other variables such as rising life expectancy and a declining infant mortality rate.
The 2009 Nigerian National Youth Policy defines youth as between 18 and 35 years, with the Youth Development Index placing us at 140 out of 170 countries.
According to the policy paper it aims to promote the enjoyment of fundamental human rights and protect the health, social, economic and political well being of all young men and women in order to enhance their participation in the overall development process and improve their quality of life.
It focuses on 18 priority areas, including education, health, agriculture, women & girls, peace-building, HIV/AIDS, migration & human trafficking, poverty and participation. As a member of the Commonwealth of Nations, Nigeria is also signatory to the Commonwealth Plan of Action for Youth Empowerment (PAYE) 2006-2015.
The fate of the 2009 Youth Policy was to be similar to those of earlier attempts (1981, 1999) – plagued by weak implementation mechanisms as well as an inconducive socio-political environment.
In reality, accelerated falls in educational standards has been a direct attack on the youths of Nigeria and their future. This has been accompanied by the dearth of proper and traditional skills acquisition mechanisms, putting Nigerian youths at the disadvantaged position of bystanders and net consumers in an increasingly technologically advanced world.
It is no wonder then that the youths constitute good percentages of the swelling army of Nigeria’s unemployed and underemployed.
The amount of potential energy stored up in the youths of Nigeria would, if deployed in the building of an explosive, be more than sufficient to blow up the entire world. Yet, the country is full of dire need for which a relatively low deployment of energy is required: roads in every state that need to be fixed in order to move goods and services; crops and animals that need to be cultivated in order to achieve food security and increased exports; charity works that need to be done in order that the less privileged and otherwise disabled would enjoy an enhanced quality of lives; lives and property that are in dire need of protection, especially those of women, children ,the old and the infirm. If the quality of leadership is measured by the ability to match human need with available resources, then leadership in recent times appears to be diminished.
The relationship between mass unemployment and insecurity is well known, but of a far more covert nature is the growing indifference of the youth to our very nationhood. Over the years, the various pockets of unrest and insurgencies that have challenged our continued unity from the Egbesu Boys to IPOB and others, have been constituted by youths.
Fortunately, the Nigerian youth still has the power of suffrage- the right to vote from the age of 18 years and the right to be voted for at different levels of politics and governance. This is perhaps the most effective tool they will ever be given in order to forestall further youth neglect.