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THE NIGERIAN YOUTH: Taking Possession Of Tomorrow From Today - James Eze.

An Address Presented by James Eze, Chief Press Secretary to the Governor of Anambra State at the Law & Economics Summit organized by the Law Students Association of the University of Nigeria (UNEC) on April 28, 2018.


I find it infinitely pleasant to have been invited to address such a youthful audience at a time when the Nigerian youths have become the topic of conversation. I sincerely couldn’t have hoped for a better time to be here. 

There’s so much despair, so much pent-up anger and so much disenchantment among the youths that I personally think that the political class should engage the youths more. We must find time to speak to you, to counsel you, to share our experience with you. Perhaps, that way, we may avoid a repeat of the horrors of Libya and the bloated bodies floating in silent indictment on the Mediterranean Sea. And this is why I think that the Law Students Association of the University of Nigeria deserves an applause, no, an “accolade,” for organizing this Summit. 

Now, I have been advised to speak on the important skills and staying power needed to succeed as an economic leader in Nigeria and beyond and I consider it a very timely topic for obvious reasons. But I also think that it is one topic that requires a very tactical approach in order to distil its various fragments down for easy absorption. It is for this reason that I seriously think that to even talk about the skills we need to survive, we must first understand the geo-political space called Nigeria. So, just how well do we know Nigeria? 

Understanding Nigeria

Well, I don’t know what anyone thinks but to me, Nigeria has always been a fascinating mosaic of dreams and nightmare, hope and despair and of course promise and fail! Nigeria can be whatever you want it to be. It is difficult to describe Nigeria. Nigeria offers diversity in a manner that other countries cannot fathom. Nigeria’s diversity is quite often the reason why it is difficult to describe her. Apparently struck by Nigeria’s immense diversity and her deep fissures, one of the founding fathers, Chief Obafemi Awolowo is reported to have described Nigeria in 1947 as ‘a mere geographical expression.’  Speaking in the same year, another founding father who eventually became Nigeria’s first Prime Minister, Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa had also dismissively observed that “Since the amalgamation of Southern and Northern provinces in 1914 Nigeria has existed as one country only on paper …. It is still far from being united. Nigeria’s unity is only a British intention for the country.”

Lions and Lionesses, these comments were made in 1947. That was thirteen years before Independence. But has anything really changed about Nigeria since then?

In trying to understand Nigeria too, it is also important to understand the dominant passions that ruled the hearts of our founding fathers at a time when it would be fair to assume that the struggle for independence hard started to gather steam. It may be startling to notice the sharp contrast between their private fantasies and their public ambition of ousting the colonial masters. 

In The Trouble with Nigeria, his slim but seminal book published 35 years ago, Chinua Achebe sought to draw our attention to the lack of intellectual rigor that marked the political thoughts of our founding fathers. Quoting James Booth, ‘a perceptive student of Nigerian politics’ who had studied the biographies of the Great Zik and Pa Awolowo at the time, Achebe argued that quite unlike their contemporaries like Nkrumah, Nyerere and Mboya, our own Great Zik and Pa Awolowo had exhibited a shallow grasp of the daunting task of providing leadership to a young country in their early days as was captured in their biographies. Achebe reported that in 1937, the Great Zik had vowed that - 

“Henceforth I shall utilize my earned income to secure my enjoyment of a high standard of living and also to give a helping hand to the needy.”

Pa Awo was even more effusive in his own avowal. He was reported to have pledged thusly – 

“I was going to make myself formidable intellectually, morally invulnerable, to make all the money that is possible for a man with my brains and brawn to make in Nigeria.”

If these two quotes were to be taken seriously, we may not have to look too far for where the rain began to beat Nigeria. The two comments are not only narcissistic but embarrassingly narrow.  They are bereft of the big dreams and grand visions of founding fathers which should serve as a mirror in which the citizens could locate themselves at any moment in time. These two men, along with Sir Ahmadu Bello were Nigeria’s finest minds in their time. But their declarations had no deep philosophy, no clear idea of society or even a simple silhouette of what an independent Nigeria should be.
Achebe therefore concluded that “an absence of objective and intellectual rigour at the critical moment of a nation’s formation is more than an academic matter. It inclines the fledgling state to a disorderly growth and mental deficiency.”

Lions and Lionesses, I am pained to observe that Chinua Achebe may be right in his conclusion. Nigeria’s growth has remained disorderly from independence and there is a continuing absence of rigour in our national polity that has blighted all aspirations to greatness to date. There’s almost always a rivulet of blood running through the country’s deep geographical split carved out by the Niger and the Benue. Nevertheless, at this moment, I think it is still realistic to say that even with all the gloom and doom that assault our sensibilities on a daily basis, greatness has not eluded Nigeria.
And to succeed in Nigeria, we must live in full awareness of our internal contradictions and how they limit our chances of success. 

How well do you know yourself?
Surviving in the world today and making a success of one’s chosen career requires a considerable level of self-knowledge. American author, Rachel Simmons once observed that “Self-knowledge is the foundation of real success.” Indeed, experience has shown that one of the keys to living a happy life is to know oneself. No two blades of grass are the same. We are individually different. We carry different sparks of genius, distinct personalities, different aspirations and unique worldviews. Sometimes we are vaguely aware of this and most times we are not. That’s why you find people trying to force themselves into shapes and frames that were not built for them. But Bill Copeland, American poet and historian advises us to always “try to be like the turtle; at ease in your own shell.” Besides, experience has often shown that there is no faster route to career failure, lack of fulfilment and profound unhappiness than making a wrong choice of career. That is why we must be familiar with who we are and what we can comfortably do with the right passion and zeal. In all honesty, your life has not truly begun if you have not discovered your passion. So, it helps to know what we are passionate about. But it also helps to be familiar with our own story and to develop a unique way of telling it.

Once in every while, a serious job interview starts with the seemingly unserious question, “tell us about yourself.” To answer this question with convincing sincerity, the candidate must know his or her own story. He must be familiar with his or her strengths and weaknesses, his innate desires and passions, his unfulfilled dreams and aspirations. Self-knowledge is a very important first step on the road to self-actualization and contentment.
The Imagination will never fail you
Lions and Lionesses, to my mind, no meaningful conversation with the youths can ever be complete without mentioning the importance of the use of the imagination. An unknown thinker once observed that ‘imagination is the strongest nation on earth.’ And the great Albert Einstein reinforced the argument when he observed that ‘Imagination is more important than knowledge.’ The Spanish painter, sculptor and poet, Pablo Picasso agreed when he declared that ‘everything you can imagine is real.’ The word ‘Imagine’ is therefore the most powerful word in the world today. It is the word which continues where ‘creation’ stopped; for imagination is what we see when our eyes are firmly closed. All the wonders of science and technology are products of the imagination. Similarly the greatest artistic expressions; from the Renaissance through Neoclassicism to Romanticism and down to the Contemporary arts which stand today as monuments to the human genius were once figments of the imagination.  So, the imagination is everything. And we must learn how to use our imagination to open new doors, expand the boundaries of nature and nurture and create a happier world for ourselves and others. Lions and Lionesses, there is in fact no better time to tune our minds to the use of the imagination than now that you are young, uninhibited and fearless!

Take the Path Less Trodden
Brothers and sisters, more often than not, life offers us an array of choices. But there are no short cuts to success. There is always a story to every success. When you put the two together, you have a “success story.” The trouble with most of our youths today is that we want success without a story. And that is absurd. That is why we have many youngsters who want to pluck their fruits before they are ripe. I think we should all worry about that because a life on the fast lane has a predictable ending. Just before I left my house this morning, I remember reading Robert Frost’s poem titled “The Road not Taken.” I remember that the final stanza of that poem always fills me with bubbles of hope. And it goes like this – 

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I – 
I took the one less travelled by,
And that has made all the difference
Lions and Lionesses, we are talking about the Path Less Trodden. Do you want to travel the well-worn path where everything SEEMS rosy and a feast appears laid out for you? Or would you rather take the road less travelled like Frost and see what difference it will make in your life? Think about that. But while you are at it, please remember that there is a great sense of fulfilment when we boldly decide to, in the words of Martin Luther King Jnr, ‘hew out of a mountain of despair, a stone of hope.’ There is no doubt about it; Nigeria is today surrounded by a mountain of despair. But only those who can hew out a stone from its rocky surface will travel far into the horizons. Fellow citizens, there is something infinitely wrong with achieving success without a story or success which story we cannot tell with pride. If you look around you today, there are so many of your fellow students who own state-of-the-art cars. On many university campuses today, there are students who are living the life that some bank CEO would envy. This is so because, I am told that the sand has since shifted from Yahoo-Yahoo to Yahoo-Plus. The question is, after all the fast cars and the bling-bling, what is next? What would happen if tomorrow comes? My only joy is that, students who conceived the idea of this lecture and have sustained it for years cannot be numbered among these “big” boys and girls. 

Live in the Present
I am often fascinated by the pace at which technology evolves. It is as though when we close our eyes in sleep every night, something new slips into the technological atmosphere. At the moment, there is actually a glut of technological offerings out there that to acquire a mastery of a fraction of them presents a challenge of its own. But in this increasingly intense digital environment, we cannot afford to be left behind; for to be digitally cut off is a new kind of death that leaves one marooned in a dark tunnel without the slightest hint of light. So, we must not only strive to live in the Present but also anticipate the Future.

And let me say this here, it is a source of worry to me personally that my generation and the generations before me left the inventive fire of our fathers to die without a fight. What do I mean by this? Lions and Lionesses, our fathers fought the most horrendous Civil War in this part of Africa. And in the midst of adversity and the heavy blast of artillery fire, their creative genius found expression in the array of military hardware that they rolled out to stave off the heavy assault on our people. I have been to the War Museum in Umuahia. I have climbed down the famous Ojukwu Bunker. I have witnessed the remnants of the home-grown inventions that flowered during the war. I have taken selfies with the legendary “Biafran Babies” aircraft flown by Swedish Carl Gustaf Von Rosen and felt with my own palms the numb metal of the famous Ogbunigwe launchers. Now, the question is, if our fathers could churn out all these marvellous inventions in the heat of the war, 50 years ago, what excuse can we give for dropping the baton in peacetime? If our fathers could lend such a weighty hand to technological advancement in wartime, how do we explain our inability to walk in the shadow of their greatness in peacetime? 

I have listened to different excuses which often blamed the Federal Government for abandoning the Biafran scientists after the war. That is a fact. But valid as that argument may sound, it is no longer sufficient in the light of what we know now. At least we know with a surfeit of evidence that where there is no government support, technological know-how can still be acquired by entrepreneurs who desire to make a difference in the society. Nnewi is a living proof that technology can grow without the usual hand-out from the government. Indeed the Nnewi industrialists have been at it for decades now, rising against all odds to astonish the world with their never-say-never spirit. The first job I ever did when I left secondary school was as a hydraulic machine operator at Edison Brake Pads and Linings at Uruagu Nnewi. I was waiting for the release of my high school results and rather than idle away my time at home, I choose to work in Edwin Obichebendu’s factory where we manufactured brake pads and linings long before Innoson came around to give Nigeria her first indigenous automobile. My brief stay on the hydraulic machine is still fresh in my memory today. Nwanne, otegokwalu Awusa n’uta o!   

My sadness however is that Nnewi remains an island of success in a wasteland of woes. A sad reminder of what happened in Egypt where questions have been raised as to why the elevated science of building pyramids was not replicated in other surrounding countries which would have strengthened our claim to the great civilizations of Pharaonic Egypt. Why has Nnewi remained an oasis of ingenuity and daringness in a region that once astonished the world with high calibre weapons half a century ago? Obu na nwa mgbeke amarozi isi akpu, ka obu na aguba adirozi nko? What have we all been waiting for? I should like to know.

When you realize that we have produced a lot more engineers, scientists and technologists since the war ended than we had during the war, you can’t help but wince in pain. When you also realize that most of the great men and women shifting the technological paradigm in Nnewi may not have chains of university degrees, the irony becomes even more telling. So, Lions and Lionesses, the time to re-enact the wartime technological exploits of our fathers is finally here. And you must lead that charge. ‘A lion does not proclaim its lion-hood.’ I am not trying to echo somebody but this great university must lead from the front. The field of ICT offers us a rich minefield to discover hidden treasures. If India can attain such outstanding mastery of the ICT world and China can assume leadership of the industrial world, surely a region that showed a great technological promise more than half a century ago can still spring awake from its prolonged slumber. And this is my silent hope! 

The Obiano Promise
There is a glimmer of hope in the horizon. About a fortnight ago, Governor Willie Obiano of Anambra State, inaugurated the Board of Directors of the newly formed Anambra Creative Economy Agency. The thinking behind the establishment of this Agency is to finally create a warehouse where all the numerous creative, inventive and artistic talents that abound in the state can be harnessed for the greater good of the society. The Creative Economy Agency is the first attempt by any government in this hemisphere to give a sense of validation to people who have a gift of the imagination. I think Governor Obiano deserves applause for this. So, slowly but steadily, our political leaders are beginning to look at encouraging the inventive genius that once flourished during the war. And Nigeria shall be the better for it.  
Before I end this address, I have one more advice to give – 

Don’t cover up your Ignorance
In my interactions with some youngsters, I have come to realize that many of them find it difficult to admit that they are not knowledgeable in some things. They often make desperate efforts to cover up whenever a crack on their polished surface reveals the emptiness within. Sometimes, their spirited effort at face-saving speaks even more poignantly to the void within. This attitude often gets in the way of learning and mentoring. I am a proud beneficiary of long interactive sessions with cultural icons like Chinweizu, Chimamanda, Obumselu, Osundare and several other accomplished scholars and thinkers that are far too many to mention here. We are all learners at different stages and different situations in life. The field of knowledge is so vast and so immense that sometimes it is safe to say that we know only what we know. Even Albert Einstein who could be said to have singularly split the atom of knowledge and explored its innards had the humility to say “I have not eaten enough of the tree of knowledge, though in my profession I am obligated to feed on it regularly.” If Einstein could approach knowledge with such humility, why would anyone feel uncomfortable to admit their ignorance? 

In conclusion therefore, there are no extraordinary skills to learn and no superhuman staying power to acquire in order to succeed as an economic leader in Nigeria and beyond. What stands us out is what we know and the passion we invest in everything we do.

Thank you .

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