By AKPAN H. EKPO
Recently, I was invited to speak to youths from different tertiary institutions in Nigeria at the Benson Idahosa University, Benin, Edo State. The event was organised by the Students’ Economic Forum under the theme: Rethink, Redesign, Rebuild and Rebrand the Youths. The event re-awakened my conviction that all is not lost for Nigeria’s emancipation. These youths were well organised. They divided themselves into various committees to address issues of small-scale industries, infrastructure, finance, agriculture, co-operative societies, corruption, and governance, among others. The youths were preparing themselves for the future and to take over the running of the country eventually. The expectation is that the youths will perform better than their elders.
I was impressed that these young men and women were discussing and articulating ideas and practical policies that will move the country forward. The youths refused to become either a lost or wasted generation like the ones before them. They were positive in their analysis, meticulous in deliberations and business-like in making recommendations. There was no discussion of violence, thuggery, cultism or negative tendencies. They came from a mixed background, regarding ethnicity and class. They believed in Nigeria.
Broadly defined, youths are persons between the ages of 17 and 35 years. Therefore, all things being equal, they are supposed to be strong as well as be able to give and take the best that society offers. It is, therefore, not surprising that during the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, those who were shipped to America and Europe to work under inhuman conditions were basically youths. The hard infrastructure built in the US, for example, was undertaken with slave labour.
The theme of the Economic Forum: “Rethink, Redesign, Rebuild and Rebrand the Youths in Nigeria” is timely and appropriate, given the country’s economic trajectory. Nigeria is having several unnecessary human challenges. On October 1, last year, Nigeria celebrated 50 years of independence, 50 years of very marginal improvement in the lives of millions of Nigerians. After 50 years of independence, the country cannot boast of the provision of basic amenities like running water, electricity, health, adequate housing, quality education, among others, to majority of its citizens. After 50 years of independence, good governance is elusive as most of our leaders at virtually all levels are unaccountable to the people and lacking in transparency while looting of the treasury remains the order of the day.
The youths are living in an economy in which none of the booms (commodity, petroleum and financial) experienced in the economic history of the country was ever linked to the real sector. Today, government (federal or state) receives congratulatory messages for providing roads and health facilities to a very tiny segment of the population. One is tempted to ask: What then is the role of government? The economy’s growth rate is put at eight per cent; the rate of inflation 12.5 per cent and the deficit/gross domestic product ratio is around the acceptable range of four to five per cent while the available foreign reserves are enough to finance at least 12 months of imports.
These indices may signal satisfactory macroeconomic performance. On the other hand, the official rate of unemployment is around 23 per cent – even higher among youths and other vulnerable groups. So, where is this growth emanating from? Employment generation is not a target outcome of any macroeconomic objective. Banks are still not lending enough to the real sector; the country’s infrastructure is in disarray while the economy runs on generators.
The social indicators show that the economy is really not doing well. Life expectancy among adults is about 52 years for women and about 50 years for men. Infant mortality rate is very high while the country has one of the highest rates of women dying during child delivery. In general terms, health facilities are nothing to write home about. All levels of education are completely bankrupt, quantitatively and qualitatively. Those who manage to graduate from tertiary institutions can, commonly, search for employment for about eight years.
The Nigerian elite pride themselves in sending their children to schools abroad, even just across our borders to Ghana. The public school system has been abandoned and this is very dangerous for the economy. In most of our universities, we are producing more educated illiterates. It may seem that we have given the impression that everything about Nigeria is moving in the wrong direction. It is good to be honest and let the youths know that after 50 years of independence, there is really not much for us as a nation to show them. It is better for the youths to have a reasonable knowledge of the state of the economy they are expected to take over and groom to new production frontiers.
The youths need to be clear in their mind that the process of rethinking, redesigning, rebuilding and rebranding themselves implies a break in continuity, that is, abandoning the old ways of doing things. It indicates the importance of leapfrogging into a new era, an era in which things are done differently. It is with that era that one can then truly say Yes, this is a “New Nigeria”. That “New Nigeria” will be knowledge-based, and shall compensate and reward ideas and innovations. That “New Nigeria” will market ideas and define the country’s role in the global system. It is those youths who are committed and determined that can bring about the new dispensation.
As part of being determined and committed to transforming Nigeria, the youths must keep the hope alive. Youths are the hope. The future carries the hope and youths remain that future. How that future will look like depends on how the youths start the process of transformation now. How that future will affect youths as individuals, as family, as community, as a nation and as humanity, depends on how the journey begins. But to embark on that journey, it is important that our youths understand that economic development has always been propelled by classes and groups interested in a new economic and social order amidst the opposition of those who desire to sustain the status quo.
As youths rethink, redesign, rebuild and rebrand themselves, they need to probe deep into social theories and discover for themselves whether what they have been taught could stand the test of time. They must acquire knowledge, for knowledge is power and with knowledge youths can turn dreams into great realities, and, with knowledge, they can positively change not just their own inadequacies but also those of millions in the larger society. What is more, during Nigeria’s struggle for independence, youths were part of the nationalist movement and took positions on either side of the struggle. Today, they must abhor violence and thuggery. Yes, the future belongs to them but they must claim it. That future will not be given on a platter of gold. Youths must work hard, be focused, be curious, be probing and ready to sharpen their intellect and create ideas that must be revolutionary for them to claim the future. As these youths rethink, redesign, rebuild and rebrand themselves and the nation, they must remember that there can be no progress without struggle.
• Ekpo, Professor of Economics, is Director-general, West African Institute for Financial and Economic Management, Lagos.