Toyosi Akerele-Ogunsiji, a youth leader, and CEO of Rise Networks, is one young Nigerian woman with an unmatched passion for human capital development. An internationally-recognized social entrepreneur whose work cuts across entrepreneurship, education, youth development and public leadership, the 35-year-old is an alumnus of the Harvard University Kennedy School of Government. In this interview, Akerele-Ogunsiji bares her mind on women aspiring for Nigeria’s apex job (presidency) and speaks of her recent empowerment of 100 youths in Lagos State with N50,000 each to boost their small businesses among sundry issues.

By Josephine Agbonkhese

About six women aspired for presidency in the coming general elections but scarcely under mainstream political parties; what do you make of that?

Of course the main stream political parties are threatened by progressives; they’re not going to let them. The tokenism that greets women’s participation in politics is nauseating in this country. I was Guest Speaker recently at the Nigerian Bar Association’s conference and you won’t believe that they have never elected a female president apart from Mrs Priscillia Kuye who was there for about a year and half. We are talking about the umbrella organisation for lawyers who are supposed to be the common conscience of the people, and which has existed for almost 100 years. These people are supposed to be the custodians of our ethics and legal framework as a nation. Why then do you think any mainstream political party will give power to women in Nigeria?

It’s such an irony but globally, we are seeing rapid developments in countries that are investing in young people and women. Saudi Arabia is putting more girls in school, you can tie Rwanda’s development to the fact that it has got the highest women parliamentary representation in the world, and Iceland has just passed the first equal pay law in the world. I can go on and on. Nigeria is not ready; when it is ready, leaders will show up.

Toyosi Akerele-Ogunsiji

What would you do if you were to aspire for presidency or any other public office?

Personally, I won’t join any of the small parties. I will rather go into the big parties because you don’t change systems from outside; you’ve got to infiltrate those big parties because they are the ones who have presence in all the 774 local governments of this country. Our ambitions and dreams as women have to operate within the ambits of reason. We’ve got to be realistic. Less than six months to election a new party with no presence in my mother’s village wants to win presidency? A new party without councilors and local government chairmen? Who are the people who will do the ground work? It doesn’t work that way; we’ve got to be realistic. I know a lot of people are not going to like what I’m saying but it’s the truth even though it hurts.


N143billion was budgeted for the 2019 general elections…

(Cuts in)The reason for all these is because Nigerian citizens are extremely docile. They don’t ask questions. The ones who ask question, once they are called to a corner and given a few contracts, given cars and put on a few international trips, they keep quiet. It is unreasonable, preposterous and criminal for any nation to be spending that amount of money on an election. I expect to see more citizens asking questions about what is going on. I mean, our 2018 budget is N9.12trillion and you want to spend N140billion on an election? How much are we earmarking to power and education? That just shows you that we have politicians in this country and not leaders; that’s why the Not Too Young to Run bill is a good thing. But more than Not Too Young to Run, young people need to wake-up and smell the coffee, and know that it’s not enough to be allowed to run for an office. How do you run for office when the nomination forms are in millions of naira?

Nigeria needs to build a system that demands and provides consequences that create actions when people do the wrong things. We don’t hold people accountable enough in this country. I mean, I remember the story of the Singaporean Minister who collected bribe and committed suicide when the Prime Minister found out. That minister would rather die than wait to bear the consequences of what the prime minister will do to him. But in Nigeria, when you steal, you are moved from one ministry to another.

As an advocate of youth empowerment, how would you say empowering young people can reshape our polity?

Ekiti is a good example; you saw the brazen purchasing of votes. In fact, recently, the Independent National Electoral Commission, INEC, told the Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project, SERAP, that they can query the people who bought votes but cannot prosecute them. When you don’t empower people, exploitation and manipulation becomes a viable tool in the hands of the political elites against the poor people of our country. When people are poor, they cannot make the right choices and will remain therefore at the mercy of politicians. Empowering people is very important to the sanitization of our political system.

Was that what inspired the Local Governments SME Competition you carried out across Lagos State, giving out N50,000 each to 100 youths recently?

Partly, but most importantly, to grow that crucial role that SMEs play in the society. That was an exciting three weeks event put together for youths by Rise Networks with the support of the Lagos State Government. The idea of the SME Competition was basically to create some level of empowerment for young people at the grassroots level. We decided that more than just focusing on the educated ones, we should be able to look at the roadside petty traders who, very little money will be able to improve the scale of their businesses.

We are very grateful to the Lagos State Government for supporting that programme even though we wrote and designed the concept of the three-part programme. That was the first time there will be an SME Competition at local government level in the state and the testimonies have been awesome. We will love to see more states learn from this; not just giving money to youths for politicking. We are definitely going to take this initiative to many other states in Nigeria.


What was the criterion for the selection of beneficiaries?

What we did was to do road shows across 20 local governments cutting across all the five Ibile divisions of Lagos State for people aged between 18 and 40 who have businesses situated in Lagos State whether they are from Lagos State or not. We did an audit of their businesses and interrogated what they needed the money for. We received about 10,000 applications across the entire state and our fliers distributed were in Pidgin English, Yoruba, Hausa and Ibo Languages; we didn’t do twitter and facebook because these set are people cannot be reached there.  We discovered young ladies who have salons and have no drier, young men with barbing shops but whose clippers are blunt, people on the street sides who are petty traders and whose lives N50,000 will transform. You would have thought they were given N500,000 when they got these monies credited to their accounts at the final ceremony held at the Onkian Youths Centre.

Like I was saying, we made them applied by SMS for ease. We did that between the third week of July and the first week of August. We opened the competition on the 6th of August with the Ikeja Division at the Agege Stadium; on the 7th, we went to Badagry Division, did Ikorodu Division on the 8th of August; did Lagos Island Competition for all the local government under Lagos Island Division same 8th of August, and on the 9th, we were at the Epe Youth Centre where we did the last Division. We had a Mega Youths Conference and then a Concert in which we had artists like Alabi Pasuma, D.J Neptunes, Idowest, DJ Jimmy Jatt, Wizkid, and more. The entire concept was in fact in commemoration of this year’s International Youths Day.

Unemployment rate in Nigeria is growing dangerously…

(Cuts in) Any country that doesn’t invest sustainably on human capital development is definitely going to continue to experience very increasing level of poverty. One of the areas that Nigeria needs to critically look at is the area of manufacturing and industrialization. When you think about economies like Japan, Singapore, China, Rwanda, United States and the United Kingdom, you will see that industrialization is playing a very crucial role in not just developing the economy but in creating huge amount of jobs. You need to also look at the kind of institutional and infrastructural gaps that impede economic development and make it difficult for the private sector to be able to create jobs.

Government needs to make sure that the environment is conducive for private businesses to be able to thrive and look at the tax situations and tax regime, and make sure businesses are not over-taxed. It’s not the job or responsibility of government to create jobs; it is the job of the private sector. But if you stifle the private sector, then it is difficult for them to create jobs. It is the therefore the citizens that become beneficiaries of the poor internal procedures and methodologies of government, in the form of unemployment.



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