Obadiah Mailafia

Youth and national development


July 13, 2018 | 4:00 am
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According to our National Youth Policy document 2001, youth are defined as anyone within the age range of 15 to 35. This departs from the universally accepted UN definition which specifies ages 15 to 24 as the ages of youth. I very much prefer the UN definition. Among the Igbo people, for example, when a boy hits 21, he is considered a man able to take his place among his age-grade and can sit in council with the umunna. In Jewish culture, a boy celebrates his Bar-Mitzvah at 13. At that age, he is considered to have attained the age of moral and spiritual responsibility.

Several years ago, when I was a struggling young lecturer in the London University system, one of my most interesting students was a Jewish lad of 18; an orthodox Jew from Antwerp, Belgium. I shall call him Ya’acov. One day over launch he narrated to me his life-story. His father and uncles worked in the diamond business. After his Bar-Mitzvah at 13, he was taught the ropes of the business alongside Talmudic and formal schooling.

Ya’acov revealed that he made his first million dollars when he was only sixteen. At 18 he got married and moved with his wife to London to pursue university studies. He often represented his father on the board of the global diamond conglomerate De Beers. He once took me on a drive around The City, to a large impressive building without a signboard. “Zees is De Beers”, he bellowed.


At the end of his second semester Ya’acov came to see me in my office one afternoon, looking rather sombre. He informed me that he had taken the momentous decision to withdraw from university. I was alarmed. He was a bright and studious young man, with all the future before him. He explained to me that he had just landed a trading seat at Glencore, the Anglo-Swiss international commodity firm. He revealed that he would be able to earn in a week what the average graduate would earn in a year. I could not argue with him.


What I shall never forget about Ya’acov was that at 18, he was well beyond his years in maturity. He had focus and energy and an extraordinary can-do spirit. He knew what he wanted in life. Typical of his people, you could never catch him idling away his time in socialising.  It was from our friendship that I always understood why Jews always seem to be in a hurry!

When you consider the story of my young Jewish friend, you would understand why it’s absurd for a man of 35 to be addressed as a youth. It is a sad development these days that many young men at that age are still very much dependent on handouts from their parents. This may partly be attributable to the difficult times in which the youth find themselves in terms of dwindling job opportunities. But it is also a mindset problem. It is definitely not a situation that parents in this country should encourage.

We are told that the Greek philosopher Diogenes used to go about with a lamp in broad daylight in the streets of his native Athens looking for honest men. Diogenes also taught that the foundation of every state is the education of its youth.

Nigeria’s population currently stands at an estimated 198 million, of which young people are the overwhelming majority. Some 70 percent of our population comprises those within the ages of 1 to 24. Nigeria’s average life-expectancy is 53 years. By contrast, the average life-expectancy in the Japanese island of Okinawa is 100. For the vast majority of our people, the possibility frontiers of welfare have shrunk. Thanks to nihilistic violence, conflict and insecurity, life has become what the English political philosopher Thomas Hobbes characterised as the state of nature – “nasty, brutish and short”.

The youth have borne the brunt of the structural violence that the majority suffer in terms of poverty, disease, social deprivation, disempowerment and marginalisation. School enrolment in Nigeria is still a low 57.6 percent. According to the UN, Nigeria’s Youth Development Index, a measure of youth benefitting from social development interventions, is at a mere 0.41, placing us at 140 out of 170 countries.


More recently, the Global Slavery Index reports that some 875,500 of our young people are victims of modern day slavery. Modern day slavery includes things such as trafficking in children and young people, forced labour, forced prostitution, trafficking in human organs and so on. I am sure many of you have seen the gory images of young people drowning in rickety boats in the Mediterranean Sea. Many of those shipwrecks are Nigerians.

Our youth face enormous challenges. For one thing, our system offers them little hope and even fewer opportunities. The youth, by definition, are endowed with tremendous energy. That energy, psychologists tell us, must find an outlet one way or the other. If it cannot find outlet in creativity, it will find it in destructiveness. But find an outlet, it must.

Our youths have been offered no reason to feel proud of their country. Most are scheming how to leave for so-called “greener pastures”. There are more Nigerian doctors currently practising abroad than in our country. Most of our youths have been brainwashed into believing that the streets of Europe and North America are paved with gold. Those of us who have lived abroad never tell them the other side of the story – of racism, fascism, neo-Nazism and discrimination in the West. We shield the fact of Global Apartheid from their consciousness to our common peril.

Do not get me wrong. The Nigerian youth also have a lot going for them. Far from being “lazy”, they are among the most enterprising young people you can find anywhere. Some of our creative industries – from ICT to music, Nollywood and Kannywood — are driven by youths. I was astonished to find that youths in the Caribbean, South Africa, Kenya, Uganda, and even as far as the islands of the southern seas are wild about film stars such as Omotola Jelade and Genevieve Nnaji and about musical artistes such as Tiwa Savage and Tu-Face. They are a form of soft power for Nigeria. They have boosted our image as a creative and can-do nation. It is important that we encourage that spirit of creativity.


The lessons of economic science make it abundantly clear that human capital is the driver of the new wealth of nations. The new endogenous growth theories pioneered by economists Robert Lucas at Chicago and his student Paul Romer – both of them Nobel laureates – place emphasis on human capital, technology, innovation, knowledge and creativity as the critical factor in creating the society of abundance.

Sir Winston Churchill once prophesied that “the empires of the future will be the empires of the mind”. The great British wartime Prime Minister was prescient enough to foresee the knowledge revolution of our twenty-first century. In our day and age, natural resources alone are no longer a guarantee of wealth. In fact, they can prove to be more of a curse than a blessing. The nations that prosper today are those that deploy knowledge in harnessing and adding value to their natural resources for domestic as well as global markets. The greatest wealth of a nation is therefore its people.

Investing in our people and building a fair and equitable social order is crucial to our long-term economic success. And without science and innovation, the African people will never overcome their millennial servitude and the African Renaissance of our dreams will become a mere phantasmagoria. We must incentivise talent while building a merit-based society. In Brazil a Nobel laureate by statute is entitled to the same pension benefits as a former President. This sends the message that we do not all have to be politicians in order to achieve greatness.

According to an ancient African proverb, “It’s the young trees that make up the forest.” We therefore welcome the “Not Too Young to Run” Act which was recently passed by the National Assembly and assented to by President Muhammadu Buhari. If care is not taken we run the risk of becoming a gerontocracy. We must therefore encourage young people of talent to take up politics as a vocation. Emmanuel Macron, who recently made a whirlwind visit to our country, was only 39 when he won elections as President of France, having been outdone only by Bonaparte who became Emperor at 33. Sebastian Kurz was recently elected Chancellor of Austria at age 31. Beating hands down is the eighteenth century British statesman William Pitt the Younger who succeeded his father as Prime Minister at the extraordinarily precocious age of 22.

The teaching of history and civics is particularly important in imbuing love of country and patriotism among our young people. I do not know who advised our government to remove history from the school curriculum. I consider it to be the original sin. I am glad that the current administration has deemed it necessary to remedy the situation. I daresay that without knowledge of history, a people can never know where they are coming from, let alone where they are going.

Nation building projects also need to be incorporated into our various youth policies and social development interventions. While the NYSC scheme was a great success in its heydays, I am no longer convinced it is still serving the original purpose. I advocate the Israeli model where every young man and woman of 18 is called up to active military service. Those crucial years of military service give these young people a sense of patriotism, loyalty to the fatherland and commitment to service. When they enter university they tend to be more focused on their studies. And the friendships formed during military service are often carried into the marketplace in setting up some of the most successful companies that have given Israel worldwide fame as the “Start-up Nation”.

Mentoring the young is also crucially important. Among the Swahili of East Africa, it is said that “What the elders see while sitting the young ones standing on their toes won’t see”. Within the Igbo artisanal industry, for example, mentoring has been carried to a very impressive level. We are always impressed to see a young Igbo mechanic being trained by an elder who takes him under his wings. After undergoing the necessary training and discipline, for perhaps 5 years, the apprentice is allowed to go and set up on his own. He is even given some capital for start-up.

Unfortunately, this culture is not replicated in our leadership traditions. In Britain, for example, young politically ambitious men such as Tony Blair and Gordon Brown served their apprenticeships within the party bureaucracy and as parliamentary aides or special assistants to ministers. In China they have an elaborate mentoring system right through the hierarchy of the Communist Party. To enhance the mentoring culture in Nigeria, those in positions of responsibility should make conscious efforts to identify young talents and invest in their future. The youth wings of political parties should be seen as a training ground and recruitment centres for young talents. Such talents abound in Nigeria and the fact that we are not mentoring them enough is regrettable.

With the right calibre of leadership and the right policy choices we could create a US$1 trillion economy within the coming decade. Investing in infrastructures and human capital, particularly for the youth segment of our population, will be a key driver for growth and long-term prosperity. Education, health and wealth go together. Linking them to the foundations of peace, freedom and social justice will be the basis of our flourishing as a nation – a land of hope and glory.


Being the Text of a Lecture Delivered to the Lagos Business School Alumni Association Held at the CBN International Training Centre, Maitama, Abuja, Thursday 12 July.


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July 13, 2018 | 4:00 am
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