OUTSIDE THE BOX BY ALEX OTTI
On Saturday November 7, 2020, I had the privilege of presenting a keynote address at Umuahia, Abia State on the occasion of the 2020 Diocesan Youth Day Celebration, organised by the Catholic Youth Organisation Of Nigeria. I crave your indulgence to share the speech with you today. I can only add that given the situation the Nigerian society finds itself today, there is a compelling reason to pay greater attention to the youth and the challenges of engaging them to greater relevance and development. This must start with a single minded focus on education. If we fail in this endeavour, it will be a very grave and regrettable outcome for us and our future.
“Education is the great engine of personal development. It is through education that the daughter of a peasant can become a doctor, that the son of a mine worker can become the head of the mine, that a child of farm workers can become the president of a great nation. It is what we make out of what we have, not what we are given, that separates one person from another.” Nelson Mandela
I thank the organisers of this conference for finding me worthy to be the keynote speaker at the Diocesan Youth Day Celebration for this year, whose theme is “YOUNG MAN, I SAY TO YOU, ARISE”. It would not be out of place to contextualise the word “youth” for our purpose here. This is because the term has been used differently by different people. The United Nations defines youth as ‘young people between the ages of 15 and 24’. The Nigerian National Youth Policy, 2019 classified youth as ‘people between the ages of 15 and 29’. Whichever definition we choose, anybody 30 years and above cannot be genuinely considered as youth, even if they look youthful.
Then to the main issue: How do we handle this discussion? There are two ways of handling an assignment like this. The first is to say the usual perfunctory nice things about the youth, like, “the youth are leaders of tomorrow” or “any society that does not pay attention to the youth is doomed” and get an applause from the audience, share a meal with you and leave. While these statements may not be false, I also know that I would have added little or no value to the conference if I went in this direction. The second approach is to tell you the truth no matter how bitter it may sound and hope that “the truth shall set thee free”.
I have chosen the second option, and in that wise, I have also modified the topic I was assigned from “Entrepreneurship and Empowerment” to “Take Back Your Machete and Give Me Books”. We believe politicians have bastardised the term ‘empowerment’ and we intend to stay away from that word as much as possible. We also believe this topic is appropriate as people living in Abia can relate with it. Many people here will remember that in April 2015, just over 5 years ago, some politicians in this state armed some youths with machetes and deployed caskets in major junctions threatening hell and brimstone if their preferred candidate who actually lost the election was not declared winner. The rest like they say is now history.
God created man equal and before Him, everyone is equal. The youth should not accept any narrative that makes them look inferior to other humans. Yes, they may be young but not inferior. That someone has cornered public resources or is lucky to have a lot of resources at his disposal does not make him smarter or better than you. Time and chance happens to them all, says the holy scriptures. A situation where our youths succumb to picking crumbs or peanuts for less than dignifying roles in the society should be discouraged. A situation where you are recruited as thugs to rig elections and attack opponents reduce you individually and collectively. It is not just that the politicians regard and treat you as touts, but you aid them to cheat you and your hapless parents.
You worship them as if they were gods and do their bidding just for pittance. Anytime someone pays you to render less than noble services to him, you become a slave to him. You lose the moral right to complain when he is doing the wrong thing because he has settled you. You forget that the money they pay you is your money. You forget that when you collect N1000 to rig elections or sell your votes, it translates to N250 per year for the four years. Is that what you are worth? You forget that the children of the politicians are not here, yes, that includes mine.
They are not part of the touts. They cannot be thugs, even though that does not guarantee that they do not become dysfunctional. They cannot be used for elections. You don’t ask, why are we only relevant during election seasons? Yes, in between, you default to armed robbery, kidnapping and arson, given that you have weapons in your hands, but is it an enduring trade? You tend not to ask: why do they arm us with machetes and dangerous weapons every four years? What future do we have? For how long would we do these jobs?
It was Thomas Sowell who said “No one will really understand politics, until they understand that politicians are not trying to solve our problems. They are trying to solve their own problems – of which getting elected and re-elected are number one and number two. Whatever is number three is far behind”. Are you still wondering why things are the way they are in Abia and Nigeria? It is therefore for you to “shine your eyes” and understand what is in your interest. Anyone who is interested in you will equip you to be successful. The equipment you need are not guns and machetes and dangerous weapons even if you have chosen hunting as your profession.
The time for “empowerment” by your “leaders” is over. The empowerment that ends up consigning you to menial jobs should stop. Some of you are still excited that politicians give you Keke Napep, Motorcycles, bicycles, sewing machines, frying pan and of course, money. Those are not what you need at this time. Like Nelson Mandela said above, what you need is Education. Quality Education! Yes, we Igbos are endowed with entrepreneurial spirit and there is nothing wrong with that. But a well educated entrepreneur will always do better than an illiterate one. It takes education to prepare your business in a way that it can attract capital and be bankable. It takes education to know that your revenue is not profit.
It takes education to know that you should separate the money of the business from your personal money. It takes education to understand that you should earn salaries even if you own the business rather than seeing the entire money of the business as your own. It takes education to know that you must keep proper books for your business. I am in a position to know as a former bank CEO. You may argue that some successful businessmen did not ‘break chalk’ but were successful nonetheless. While, you may be right, what is also right is that they may have been even more successful if they had education. So, even if you have a flair for business or building or manufacturing something, you must do all there is to get educated. And like our people say, “madness is better at a young age”, it is better to go to school when your mates are also in school.
This is not to say that if you didn’t have an opportunity at young age, you shouldn’t take advantage of adult education, but that option should be the exception rather than the rule. It is along these lines that some of us, rather than dash money out in form of “empowerment” have decided to impact people through our scholarship programme. Permit me to make reference to the Alex Otti Foundation (AOF) which has been supporting indigent students in paying fees and providing educational support to people living in Abia. Just this year alone, the AOF gave scholarships to 32 qualifying students and this scholarship will last for the duration of their studies in higher institutions.
Out of the 32 students who benefitted from this programme one of them is a Medical Student from the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. He is to enjoy the scholarship until he graduates in another 5 or 6 years. The scholarship programme is non partisan and all you need to qualify is that you are resident in Abia, (State of origin is not relevant) and pass the required assessment. Application for next year’s scheme would soon open and I encourage you to take advantage of this opportunity by visiting the website www.alexottifoundation.org for more details.
The summary of what we are saying is that any one who gives you fish may have done well but the better thing is to teach you how to fish. At the risk of sounding immodest, permit me to inform you that yours truly is a product of sound education. From very humble beginnings, no one would have imagined that one would rise to this level. Going to the University, a remote possibility, became a reality because one managed and denied oneself a whole lot and most importantly, supporting parents to make the load lighter. With hard work and God’s blessing, one was able to graduate ahead of one’s class and the rest is now history. If that can be my experience, it can also be your experience.
There is no doubt that government can not employ everyone of you. The job of government is not to generate employment but to create the enabling environment for the private sector to thrive. It is only when the private sector is doing well that it can create jobs. Like we had noted before, our people are born entrepreneurs. Entrepreneurship can only survive where there are objective conditions for it.
Sadly, the environment in Abia has become so hostile to the entrepreneur that initiatives have taken flight. With broken infrastructure, unhealthy and insecure environment, and general lack of interest in supporting the private sector, most of the youth have come to see government as the only sector to hang on to. Even in the public sector, salaries and allowances remain unpaid for several months.
When salaries are not paid, the economy gets depressed as consumption cannot happen without purchasing power. When consumption is impaired, production would also be impaired. Production can only improve if consumption is improved. With depressed production, what you have would be layoffs and closures, rather than job creation.
In a recent report by the National Bureau of Statistics, our state took the 24th position out of 36 States in internally generated revenues as at 2019. Lagos State which came 1st raised a total of about N400b in internally generated revenue and our dear Abia State generated less than N15b the same year. Just imagine what would have happened if we fixed Aba, the commercial and industrial hub of the state, nay South East. We could net in a conservative N50b in a year. What we need to fix Aba would be fractions of a few year’s possible internally generated revenue.
Note that the same applies to other towns including Umuahia, the state capital. My sense is that if we do not change our mindset and get our environment to be business-friendly, the whole talk about entrepreneurship will remain a pipe dream. This is because entrepreneurs are rational and will move to where the environment has been prepared to receive them. Put simply, businesses will flow to the environment where the cost of doing business is lower and ease of doing business is better in order to remain competitive and maximize profit.
It is our considered opinion that the future is here with us. Any promise of the youth being future leaders in a futuristic sense is deceptive. Those in our generation promoting primordial interests do so for their selfish interests.
The future is here and now. The youth must rise to the occasion and lend their voices to the call for good governance. They must participate in decision making about resource allocation and good governance. They should not be consigned to a situation where they are subject to being bribed because when they do, they trade away their future. They must do everything possible to acquire good education. Entrepreneurship is good but can only be more meaningful, if backed by good education.
Government needs to do its part to create the enabling environment for businesses to thrive. That is the part to sustainable empowerment. Any empowerment that revolves around handing cash or commodities to people is in the realm of bribery and should be collectively resisted. Most importantly it is a short term solution that can never be enduring.