The past has come knocking
Here’s the first draft of a speech written for presentation at the CIPMN Essay Competition Awards Ceremony to be held at Oriental Hotel, Lagos, on 14 December 2017. [Please note that the second draft is radically different, hence this publication].
Knock! Knock! Knock!
Ladies and gentlemen, the past is here and it is knocking. While we revel in the grandness of the Information Age, while we think of ourselves as modern men having a feast on the Kilimanjaro of civilisation, while we compete among ourselves about whose university is the greatest, whose suit is the finest or whose ethnic group is the wisest, the horrors of the 18th century have come knocking. Can you hear the knocking sound? It is the whoosh of the whip landing on naked skin; the childlike cries of grown men. It is the raised voices of owners of and dealers in men, the muffled whimpers of free men shackled by circumstances and the resurrected calls for the abolition of daylight slavery. Wake up, Africa! the past has come knocking.
But why? Beyond the fact of Western interventionism, why is this happening? Beyond the meddling of American and French forces, why do we have this Libyan disaster on our hands? Why are African lives the least valued in today’s world, even by Africans themselves? Why are our brothers and sisters sold for as low as $400 or even less — half the price of one iPhone 7, or better still, why are they being sold at all?
No doubt, this crisis has been strengthened a great deal by our collective failure as independent nations to fend for our citizens. Just as we will have no question about a Mexican wall today in the United States if all Mexicans feel fulfilled in their country, there will be no illegal black immigrants if Mother Africa took good care of her children. Before a sane man can decide to cross the hellish Sahara and sail through the tumultuous Mediterranean Sea, to risk living his life as a second-class citizen, in fear and humiliation, then he must have considered his situation hopeless.
The problem is even worse in Nigeria. Here, it is not only the dregs of the society, the lowest of the low, who have lost hope in the system, even those at the helms of affairs no longer believe in the Nigerian project. And so, everyone is just looking for a way to milk the available resources, get a slice of the national cake and escape to greener pastures. For the rich, our education system is not good enough, our hospitals are not good enough, our tourist centres are not good enough. The only thing good enough for them are our cemeteries — and even these are only good enough after their death.
For the poor who cannot afford to go to Germany for medical attention, Dubai for vacation or South Africa for honeymoon, solace is sought in visa lotteries, fraud and illegal migration. They get a student visa and refuse to come back. They marry a white man or woman not out of a state of love but out of love for a state. The owners of the land abuse them, arrest them, assault them or even murder their friends; but they bear all these. They remain, because home is not an option. Home is not homely. Home is a farce. Besides, is a diamond with rough edges not more valuable than a pebble, no matter how spotless?
At home, every man is his own government. Everyone is out for himself, seeking to profit from the loss of his neighbour, to reap where he has not sown and to seek pleasure to the detriment of the nation. And so the education system is in shambles, the economy is in anguish, the civil service is in a state of tragedy, the polity is in a state of stagnation and, worst of all, the people — government and followers alike — are in a state of denial! The government does not give a hoot about its citizens, home or abroad. Just last month, 26 Nigerians were given a stately burial by the government of Italy and no official of the Nigerian High Commission was present. And this is just one instance out of countless. Ngugi Wa Thiong’O rightly proclaimed in 1972 that there are only two tribes left in Africa: the haves and the have not’s. The true line is not drawn between the Igbo, Yoruba and Hausa, or the Muslim, Christian and Traditionalist. It is drawn between the rich and the poor.
In short, ladies and gentlemen, if we must be honest with ourselves, things are bad. And though saying things are bad will not make them any better, it is the first step towards a turnaround. The second step is identifying a solution. Yes, Rome was not built in a day. But it was built daily, day-by-by. We have not even started. Yes, it will take time. But please, let that time start ticking fast and properly, for it seems ours is moving anti-clockwise. With my little understanding of history, politics and even the natural order, our chance of not just developing but surviving rests in the future. And the custodians of the future are none other than the youth. So in answering the question, how do we salvage the future of Nigeria, we must ask, how do we salvage the youth from the problems of the present Nigeria.
We have a number of young persons who are focused, progressive and impacting their communities; but the vast majority is not. Their kites have been swayed by the winds of NaijaBET, Big Brother Africa, political thuggery, online fraud, drug abuse and trafficking, and many other activities that add no value to their lives. The book racks in our university hostels have been turned into shoe racks, our school and public libraries have become museums for antiquities, and the social media has become a medium for anti-social behaviour… So what solution do I propose? One word: intellectualisation. By this I mean we need to place the education of our population, young people especially, at the centre of our culture and politics.
Gathered here today are experts in managing human beings, the best of the best of human resources professionals in Nigeria. We, therefore, all understand that the role of the individual is crucial, and in fact indispensable, in any company and to any economy. We understand that the greatest, most sustainable wealth a nation can possess is a population that is intelligent, working and productive. If this is so, and if it is also true, that the median age in Nigeria is 18 and young persons between 0 and 35 years make up 77% of the population, then we cannot but agree that we must begin to prioritise the education of our youth.
I must at this juncture commend the Chartered Institute of Personnel Managers for doggedly organising the writing competition for at least six consecutive years. The same thing cannot be said of many other intellectual competitions, especially ones organised by government. I participated in the second edition of the National Orientation Agency essay competition in 2013. And during the award ceremony for winners in Oyo state, I was told they were already deliberating on topics for the third edition. But that was the last we ever heard about the competition. Similarly, the Nigerian Communications Commission has abandoned its writing competition for two years.
The Debaters, one of the greatest reality TV shows I have ever watched, made the following post on their Facebook page: “Hello Everyone, we know you cannot wait for the next season, thank you for your messages and support. Please stay tuned to this page as something really exciting is coming your way soon. Oratory … the power to change.” But this post was made on the 5th of July, 2011, and it was the last we heard from them. The legendary Zain Africa Challenge suffered the same fate of miscarriage after four seasons. On the other hand, Nigerian Idol has been organised since 2010 till this day, MTN Project Fame has been organised since 2008 till this day, and Big Brother Africa has been organised since 2003 till this day.
My eyes are not shut to the business advantages of these programmes, nor am I suggesting that they be scrapped. But must we feed our stomachs to the detriment of our brains? Has any nation ever become powerful because it has won most Grammy Awards, because its footballers are the most skilful or because its models are modelled with clay from heaven? Not at all. Rather, nations have become great because of advances in literature, in science and technology. We saw this truth in the ancient Mesopotamia, we saw it in China, we saw it in Europe during the Renaissance and we see it in the United States of America.
Fellow Nigerians, let us build up our youth with the right ingredients so that they may build up the nation to the right extent. Let us declare a state of emergency in our schools, as proposed by Professor Wole Soyinka as far back as 2011. We are far behind. We are so far behind we cannot even be said to be part of the race; we are merely spectators. It is often said that the future is here; the future is now. But for the developed world, the future is not now, it was yesterday. And we are not even trying to catch up. We are preparing our youth for the future with an education system rooted in the past.
Georg Hegel must have had Nigeria in mind when he said, “The only thing we learn from history is that we learn nothing from history.” Let us take a second to imagine that for the budgetary year of 2018, our government is still proposing 7.04% for the education sector when the global average is 14.13%. How can we reasonably expect prosperity if we cannot even pay tithe to education? According to a report by Tijani Oluwamayowa, a columnist for The Cable and mentor, this takes us back to the ratio in 2004. It is apparently lesser than the budgeted percentage of 7.4 in 2017 and 8 in 2016.
According to the 2015 International Trends in Higher Education report, at present only one Brazilian university — São Paulo — appears in the top 300 universities worldwide in the THES rankings, despite a 205% increase in the education budget between 2003 and 2013. Oh, but Nigeria’s education budget has been taking a downward turn, yet we say we seek change. I checked the proposed budget for 2018 and discovered that the amounts budgeted for the purchase of four vehicles by the National Universities Commission outweighs the capital budgets for some tertiary institutions, yet we seek change. As a country, we spent $48 billion on education from 1970 to 2014, the United States spent quadruple — $209 billion — on same in 2017 alone. Yet we seek change.
While we fight over whose university is the best, while we quarrel over who is better by far or who is the oba awon university, the sad reality is that we are all nowhere to be found on the international stage. Only the University of Ibadan is ranked among the top 800 universities in the world according to Times Higher Education World University Rankings, but we still have a long way to go. While the world is discussing new tools and models such as virtual learning environments, flipped classrooms, blended learning, digitisation of manuscripts, artificial intelligence, design thinking and open access resources, we are still battling with elementary problems such as shortage of power and water supply, public address systems in our classrooms, classroom congestion, low teacher-student ratio, and so on.
About two weeks ago, the University of Ibadan celebrated the fact that there are 22 postgraduate students from the Republic of Benin receiving a preparatory training in English language, when countries like Germany are aiming to have 17% of its student population to be international students in a few years. Please understand that this is not a failure of the university or most others with similar circumstances, it is a national failure. And we will continue to fail and complain, we will continue to suffer and smile, until we place our youth on the red carpet of limelight and their education on the high table of importance; and until we realise that by doing this we are not just helping the young ones, we are helping them to help the nation.
We must understand that having quality education will not only give us fully baked graduates, it will increase our productivity, internationalise our services and boost the economy, it will provide the corridors of power with good, visionary leadership, and it will in fact greatly lessen the problem of insecurity. This is because, from my findings, insurgent groups such as Boko Haram and IPOB have as their strategists and foot soldiers young Nigerians who either have nothing productive to do with their time or are frustrated at the government for its many shortcomings.
So let us give education its due. Let us pay more attention to the development of the youth. Let us invest heavily in our schools, as individuals and as government. Let us sponsor more essay competitions, more debate competitions, more quiz and spelling competitions. Let us resuscitate dead intellectual television programmes. And little by little, one step at a time, we will shift the focus of the youth to the things that matter; we would have rescued the young ones from the fangs of idleness, commotion and frustration and placed them at the forefront of the struggle for national development.
Ladies and gentlemen, the past has come knocking. Our brothers and sisters are being sold into slavery because they are refugees in their own land. Yet we fold our hands. As individuals, we may not be able to rescue those who are in chains or drive rescue boats across the Mediterranean. But we can at least do something about those at home, who have sought employment but cannot find, who have sought legitimate sources of income but have not found, who are frustrated. We can make Nigeria good enough for Nigerians and attractive enough for others. And the only way I know to achieve this is through an intensive investment in the youth, their education, their growth and development. As we sit in the gloom of the present, the future stands by the door patiently waiting to be welcome and the past is about to forcefully jump in through the window. We have reached the crossroads of history, presented with the regrets of the past and the prospects of the future. The choice is ours.