When this auditorium hosted Platform for the first time exactly one year ago, Pastor Poju was a bachelor but today he is happily married so in a way Change has come also to Platform. Therefore I must begin by first recognizing our sister, Mrs Oyemade. I also want to recognize those who have spoken before me. Mrs.Bolanle Austin Peters who is doing a marvelous work at Terra Kulture, Ms Judy Smith who continues to inspire the world on how to confront the crises (and sometimes scandals) that come with leadership and then my friend and brother, Prof. Pius Adesanmi, who has refused to heed all my calls to come back home, essentially because he believes that we at home eat too much yam and its derivatives. And he doesn’t like eating yam, perhaps so that it would not stick to his mouth!
Well, I have a message for you Pius, if you don’t come home soon, by the time you eventually decide and say “Ile koko n tagbe”, what you may find left may be no more than a few tubers of yam!
I also want to specially recognize Prof. Pat Utomi with whom I will also be spending the better part of tomorrow on a most worthy cause. Early in August this year, the Nigerian Breweries PLC, as part of its corporate social responsibility initiative, appointed six of us as a panel of judges to select winners at the maiden Maltina-Teacher-of-the-Year awards coming up on October 12. There were 275 entries from 33 states of the country and after a rigorous process that involves each of us marking all the entries, we will be interviewing the finalists tomorrow here in Lagos. As an aside, that experience of marking 275 scripts of teachers across the country has opened my eyes to the challenge of education in Nigeria but that is an issue for another day.
Interestingly, I am the only one among the six judges not professing anything as other members are respected professors drawn from the academic community. On the day of our inauguration, the Nigerian Breweries officials gave each of us a piece of paper to write the name of who we felt should chair our panel. Without a card reader, we all voted for Prof Utomi from whom members of my generation keep learning. Thank you Prof. And finally we have in our midst the Bishop of Sokoto who remains affectionately to many Nigerians as Father Kukah, a cleric who cannot stop shooting elephants. Bishop Kukah knows what I am talking about.
Pastor Poju, distinguished ladies and gentlemen, according to Mark Twain there are two types of speakers: those who get nervous and those who are liars. So let me begin with a confession, despite this being my fourth time on Platform, I feel rather nervous to be on this podium today! I don’t know why Pastor Poju keeps inviting me but I know that given the experience of the past few weeks, he would think twice before doing so again. First, he sent me an SMS asking for the topic I would like to speak on and it took more than five reminders for me to give him one.
And then after that, I must have sent him about six different messages as I kept changing the topic and right now, I cannot even remember the last one I gave him. But I can remember the first one: By this time tomorrow…
I gave that topic because I see so much gloom and despondency around me and I thought I should just come here and share the Biblical story of the siege in Samaria when God, within 24 hours changed the fortunes of a city. The story can be found in the book of Second Kings, chapters 6 and 7. The idea was to raise the hopes and aspirations of our young men and women who are the most vulnerable group in our country today, that notwithstanding the circumstances of the moment, it would be alright. I just didn’t want to come here to join the wailing wailers: I want to inspire hope.
However, while I felt that it would be nice to be a motivational speaker on a day such as this, I was also mindful of the fact that I might unnecessarily be raising the expectations of a generation that has been betrayed again and again. In any case, Pastor Poju invited me here to speak and not to preach.
Nevertheless, the more I reflected on the story of the siege on Samaria, the more fascinated I became by it, especially considering that those I think are the real heroes in the narrative are usually given no more than footnotes. It is almost always about Prophet Elisah, King Ahab, the desperate widows who were feeding on the carcasses of their children and the disbelieving officer who carried the King’s sceptre. But for me, without the lepers who came up with a logical statement that spurred them into action, the situation would probably have remained the same.
Hemmed in by the enemy camps with no possible means of survival, the city whose people had provided them with handouts was under siege so for the lepers, it was time for an honest evaluation of the situation at hand. This was the conversation in the Biblical account in Verses Three and Four of Chapter Seven of Second Kings:
Now there were four men with leprosy at the entrance of the city gate. They said to each other, “Why are we sitting here until we die? If we say, ‘We will enter the city,’ the famine is in the city, and we shall die there. And if we sit here, we die also. Now therefore, come, let us surrender to the army of the Syrians. If they keep us alive, we shall live; and if they kill us we shall only die.”
If we stay here we die!
That was the outcry of the lepers. While others had settled for cannibalism, the lepers came to a more rational conclusion. They would soon die from the famine if they stayed in the city because even if any food eventually became available, they would certainly be the last to receive it.
So they decided that their chances were better if they surrendered to the Syrians. Of course those familiar with the story knows that God went ahead of the lepers, causing a supernatural sound to descend on the enemy’s camp, and the rest as they say is history.
If we stay here we die!
At different times in our lives, many people are confronted with such a dilemma: We have roamed the streets for several years after graduation and there is no job. We are suffering all manner of indignities from our places of work where we are paid meager wages. Our children are being sent out of schools because we can no longer afford to pay their tuition. Members of our immediate families are dying before our very eyes because we cannot afford the medical bills. We are being ejected from our places of abode with nowhere to go because there is no money.
Why are we sitting here until we die? That question posed by the four lepers is daily being posed by many of our young men and women who have become desperate. And in such a situation, they are also coming to the same conclusion about our country as the lepers did about Samaria: If we stay here we die.
In seeking the way out of their predicament, some now choose armed robbery, some choose prostitution, some choose kidnapping. I have no business with those people who choose lives of crime. No matter how hard the situation, nothing should justify criminality. However, there are many who choose travelling out of the country, because we have made our society so difficult for them to survive and thrive. Most of these people are honest people, many of them hardworking, looking for better lives for themselves and their families.
The sad bit however is that the choices they make do not lead them on the path of the supernatural abundance that became the lot of the Samaria lepers as many of them end up in the belly of some fishes on the Mediterranean Sea.
Pastor Poju, distinguished ladies and gentlemen, in the face of mounting difficulties, many of our young men and women are trooping out of Nigeria because they have lost hope that their lives would change for the better if they remain here. Yet if Nigeria had provided them with the opportunities for self-actualisation many would most certainly not have embarked on such deadly journeys. As Nigerians, whether in the public or private sectors, we should all be concerned. We should also accept that we have failed these young men and women who have concluded that if they stay here they die.
In recent weeks, many of us must have read heart-rending stories in what is now known as the immigration crisis in Europe but because it sounds so distant, I will share the personal story of someone close to me. I actually told him to recount his personal experience for me so that we can understand the gravity of the challenge we are dealing with:
In 1992, while I was working at Apapa Wharf, I saw many of our friends disappear through hiding in ships that were traveling back, loaded with cocoa to Europe, Asia or South America. We were always bombarded with stories of those who made it but nobody ever told us of those who did not, including those who died, and majority actually died while several others ended up as no more than slaves even in some West African countries.
My first journey started on 2nd April, 1992 through a ship which carried a flag that resembled that of the United States and that deceived us into believing it was bound for America. It took days before the 17 of us that boarded the ship discovered that we had entered a ship that was bound for Brazil where we were eventually trapped at their wharf for 52 days before we could enter Rio de Janeiro. After roaming the streets for days without any meaningful job and we were becoming hungry, we boarded another ship to West Africa through Sri-Lanka where we spent another three months before the ship eventually came to forcefully asked us to disembark at Tema Port in Ghana.
From there, the Nigerians among us travelled back home in February 1993 after ten months.
The second leg of my journey in February 1994 was through the human traffickers, called the “Big Brothers” at the Stadium area of Lagos. I was directed there and I met these people who sweet-talked me and the others into believing they could facilitate our traveling to Europe with or without international passports. We were charged $300 each. After paying the consultancy fees, I had $122 cash left which I changed into 1, 5, 10 and 20 dollar denominations as traveling allowance.
We were taken from Lagos to Kano where we met many other young men and women from all over Nigeria who also wanted to embark on what was then called “Europe by road”. We first converged in Kano before proceeding to Maradi, a border town between Niger Republic and Nigeria. That was the place where many travellers got stuck as their traffickers abandoned them. On my part, I went through a night journey to Agadez and to Asamaka, a desert part of Niger Republic where our trafficker also told us that our money had been exhausted and that anyone who wanted to proceed had to pay another round of fees.
The journey terminated for many at this point but I joined those that still had money strapped to their bodies to form a new group that would travel without a trafficker. Since we did not know our way, we got a map and paid to hire some Landrover vehicles for the all-night journey that took us to Guazzam, a border town between Niger and Algeria. By that time, some of us that left Kano had either died or got stranded at one town or another, either for lack of money or through illness. From Guazzam we paid our way through mount Horggan where we encountered the Busus (the Arab Nigerien who were fighting for a separate country from Niger Republic).
We were robbed by those men but some of us were simply lucky to have survived their brutality. When they accosted us, they shot at our vehicles, killing our two drivers.
They searched our bodies for money but as they did that, I had quickly buried part of my money in the sand where I laid and released only the remaining part to them. When they left us, two co-travellers, one of them a Ghanaian took over the wheels while all of us were reading maps to locate the road in the desert in a route we didn’t know but we were fortunate to reach a village where some people collected money to lead us to Tamarasset, an Algeria border town. It was in the town that we were arrested but we bribed our way out. 26 of us left Asakama but only 11 reached Quazzam and five reached Tamarasset and only four of us were discharged from prison by the police.
We met several Nigerians and Ghanaians at Tamarasset too, and we formed another group to proceed to Libya through Salah enrouteTabar but some chose to proceed to Algiers. At Salah we converged to form another team of 20 that would proceed to Tabar in Libya where I spent about two months before I got the opening to move with some other people to Tripoli. Eight months after I left Nigeria, I eventually arrived Tripoli and was ushered into an abandoned building called, “No-Man’s Land”, the former American embassy where several Nigerians, Ghanaians and other illegal immigrants were living.
At that period, Libya was very good and work was easy to find if one was ready to work. I joined others to move to Benghazi where I worked in the laying of crude oil pipes and painting them with anti-rust and some chemical to prevent the already treated pipes from leaking before they were buried in the hot sand. Within three months in Libya, I had succeeded in saving about 200 Dina which carried the same exchange rate as the American Dollar. So that meant I had 200 Dollars.
After several weeks, we succeeded in boarding a fish ferry which charged us 100 dollars to the Sicily Island in Italy. From there we paid some corrupt officers who provided way to Rome where I was arrested and spent three months without trial while awaiting repatriation to Nigeria. It was while in prison that I met an Arab-Indian who secured my release on condition that I would be his drug courier from Rome to Barcelona in Spain. But on the first leg of my journey which was to Almeria, in Spain I was arrested with the drug. But somehow, the men came and collected their drug while I was repatriated to South Africa because I carried their passport given to me by the drug merchants before embarking on the trip.
My experience in South Africa where I spent almost a year is better forgotten. When I couldn't find any serious job and was running out of money, I concluded that I was better off coming back home, like the prodigal son. I went to the Nigeria Embassy to secure an International Passport but for four month after collecting money from me, they could not produce any passport. When the officials started telling me all kinds of stories, I met someone who advised me to go to either the embassy of Sierra-Leone or that of Ghana so I could secure their passports. Within two weeks, I got a Sierra-Leonean passport and that of Ghana also came within a month.
With that, I bought my ticket and arrived Nigeria as a Sierra-Leonean. But despite having arrived back in my country, I could not go home because I saw myself as a failure and I didn’t want to see any known person even when I was missing my family. Eventually, they got to know I was alive and my brother’s wife helped in the process of my rehabilitation. She counselled me that there is no short-cut to success and advised that I needed to go to school. I eventually gained admission to Olabisi Onabanjo University, completed my degree and I am now happily married with children and running my own business.
From my experience, while many young men and ladies embarked on the journey, only few eventually make it to Europe as many usually die in the desert. In my crude estimation, for every 100 youth who left Nigeria at that period, about nine would make it to Europe but from what I hear these days, out of a hundred, perhaps only one person would succeed. A great majority are usually stranded along the way, doing menial jobs akin to slavery if they are men while most of the women go into prostitution.
The account I just rendered is that of my younger brother of the same father and mother. At a point in his life, when there were even more opportunities than we have today, he concluded that he had no future in our country. But he chose the wrong option. Fortunately, his story ended well after wasting almost four years and my wife played a very big role in that but only few are that lucky. Today, so many young Nigerians are traveling to Europe and other parts of the world through desperate and deadly means. A few of them make it to Europe where they realize that the streets are not paved with gold while a great majority of them perish on the way. But we should not deny that we have created the condition by which they conclude that if they stay here, they die.
Just recently, a 28 year Nigerian lady took to her Twitter page to share how she graduated with a first class degree after which she added a master’s yet has been searching for jobs now for seven years. Her story is similar to that of the over 1.9 million Nigerian graduates released to the labour market every year. Not only are there no meaningful jobs, there are few economic opportunities or potentials for many of them. What this means is that, yearly, we push hundreds of thousands of young Nigerians to the labour market without hope or direction.
If we stay here we die.
That is a desperate conclusion for many when jobs are difficult to come by, when all the sources of financial sustenance shrivel and when hope seems to fade about where the next meal would come from. But it could also be a positive call to action. Therefore, I have a message for our young men and women. To make a decision to “not stay here,” doesn’t necessarily mean to change geographic location. What I am talking about is that stubborn refusal to allow certain things to remain the same.
On my flight from Abuja this morning, I was seated beside the President of the Dominion Chapel International Churches (DCIC), Abuja, Bishop John Praise Daniel. In the early nineties when I was in Abuja as a correspondent for the defunct Concord Press, I used to attend his church so I introduced myself. I also shared with him my thoughts on the story of the siege in Samaria and the role of the lepers which he took the trouble to expand further for me. He said the lepers were risk takers who refused to be hindered by their circumstance. Confronted with what looked like the devil’s alternatives, they reasoned that since death looked inevitable, it was important not to just sit down idle. They would rather die in productive activity. That is a message for many of our young people.
If we stay here we die should spur us into action. Unfortunately, a vast majority of our youths have become too unserious or risk-averse to venture into what could take them off the poverty line. Many are still waiting for corporate jobs from the government and the private sector, when there are huge opportunities all around them to explore. We must look into ways to encourage our people to start working with their hands while waiting for their dream jobs, if there is anything like that. The solution to the challenge of joblessness lies in skills acquisition and the readiness to seek out or create new opportunities.
The get-rich-quick mentality must be dispensed with. While we urge the government to create enabling environment, there are examples of young men and women who seized the opportunities around them. Take the example of Wecyclers, a Lagos-based waste recycling services founded in 2013, by Ms Bilkiss Adebiyi-Abiola. Bilkiss holds an MBA from the Sloan School of Management at MIT, an MA in computer science from Vanderbilt University, and a BS in computer science from Fisk University. But it is not all those degrees that define her but the common sense that made her see a problem and think of a solution that created a serious business. Her venture, Wecyclers, has provided jobs for low-income community dwellers in and around Lagos, while addressing the challenge of millions of residents who are in need of trash collection in Nigeria’s mega city.
Bilkiss is one of several stories of those who refuse to stay and die. Another Nigerian in that class is Seun Onigbinde who clocked 30 last month. He left his banking job to start what has become one of the leading civic innovations in Nigeria called BudgIT after seeing the gap in the area of transparency and accountability. BudgIT does well in breaking down information into simple graphics that citizens irrespective of literacy level can connect with. It began as a civic tech-startup and it has transformed as the hub, using smart infographics to interpret data to citizens.
His team is also in the forefront of ensuring that Nigeria becomes a member of the Open Government Partnership, a community of countries committed to specific plans relating to transparency and accountability.
With a team of 22 people which includes data analysts, developers and project managers, BudgIT’s influence in raising the civic interest of citizens on social media is amazing and it is no surprise that it is now in partnership with Kaduna State Government to implement open budgeting. What Seun Onigbinde started just four years ago today employs more than 20 staff members and several professional advisers.
There are also many young Nigerians, including those from well-heeled families, “awon omo Baba Olowo” and the “Skelewus” of this world who are doing great in the entertainment sector and putting our country on the map in a positive way, an indication that members of the generation coming after our own are already getting the message that the world around us has changed and that people can make something of their lives, add value to the society and find fulfilment in taking the unusual road. In the emerging Nigeria, we must take the path of honour in putting our hands to work with passion and results-oriented mindsets.
Pastor Poju, distinguished ladies and gentlemen, I said from the beginning that I am neither here today to preach nor to wail. My intention is to provoke a conversation that will be robust, constructive, and thought-provoking about the future of our country and to challenge our young men and women that they cannot afford to stand still or be locked into old patterns and habits. We all know our problems, what remains is constructing a response that helps to address them and if we don’t do that quickly, we run the risk of waiting too long and falling too far behind to catch up.
"If we stay here we die" is an agonising refrain but there is a predictable way of reading that submission: checking out. While that might be appear alluring, it is not risk-free. Yet, there is another way of reading that refrain: the non-conventional, unusual, but positive way, which can be applied not just to job seekers but also to our country, our leaders and all of us. It is not risk free either, as there is no pre-determined outcome. It is a rejection of the status quo and an attempt to find a creative way out of what looks like a hopeless situation. But even with the risks involved, there is a higher chance of success and at least a preclusion of dying miserably in the desert or becoming fodder for fishes. It is the narrow path, the road least taken. But it is more dignifying and, potentially, more rewarding.
Therefore, as it is for individuals, so it is for nations. For us as Nigerians, If we stay here we die, means recognizing that our hopes for the future depend on the empowerment of our young people. If we stay here we die means recognizing that change doesn’t just happen on its own; it takes planning; it takes making the requisite sacrifices. If we stay here we die means a resolve by those saddled with critical responsibilities that henceforth, they would serve with honour and integrity. If we stay here we die means under-promising and over-delivering on substance. If we stay here we die means rekindling faith that our institutions are there to serve the people and we will make them work.
Pastor Poju, distinguished ladies and gentlemen, the bottomline is that we have for decades failed to take our opportunities but we have come to that critical point where, as a nation, the heart-cry of genuine patriots should be: If we stay here, we die.
We are all stakeholders in the Nigerian project. We are here today because we recognise that fact. We need to end abject poverty and create employment opportunities for our people by unlocking the huge untapped potentials in e-Commerce, Agriculture and other areas. In E-Commerce, for instance, there is $10 billion investment potential in this sector of the economy. The lack of focus and proper planning has over the years presented us with obstacles instead of gains. It should be known that, unlocking the potentials of logistics and other key issues will be the driver in the quest to fully benefit from e-commerce.
In the last six years, we have seen e-commerce start-ups owned by young Nigerians and affiliates grow from almost nothing to becoming Africa’s shining light in the industry. Some of them are: Konga&DealDey, founded in July 2012 by Sim Shagaya; Jumia, co-founded in 2012 by a team that included Jeremy Hodara, Sacha Poignonnec, Tunde Kehinde, Raphael Afaedor, and Leonard Stiegler and Kaymu, founded in 2013 by Massimiliano Spalazzi. And now we have Adetayo Bamiduro and Chinedu Azodoh, the co-founders of Metro Africa Express (MAX), an on-demand delivery service firm.
Beyond the usual challenges these young men and women face doing business in Nigeria, they have succeeded in mitigating some of the limitations by consistently discovering ways to remain afloat.
Through the emergence of these e-commerce businesses, the sector has witnessed tremendous growth over the past three years and it is expected to contribute about 10 per cent, valued at N2.5 trillion to the GDP by 2018.
Another area is Agriculture. There are numerous investment opportunities in this sector. The untapped potentials in the industry have left us struggling with limited gains when we can even get more from it. In the new Nigeria, this sector must be seen as a growth driver rather than otherwise. My sister and friend, Ndidi Nwuneli, ever a pioneer, and her husband have already tapped into the potentials in this sector in the area of processing. And then we have the enterprising Cynthia Mosunmola Umoru who is making agriculture looking attractive for members of her generation.
In the past, agriculture was the biggest sector in our economy, but currently, weighs around 33 percent contribution to the GDP. We urgently need to scale investment in this industry by encouraging small and medium scale farmers who have access to vast hectares of land. We need to look at how we can boost farm yields, move attention on production from small into larger value crops, and possibly reduce post-harvest and distribution losses with advance mechanism and policies.
In July this year, I was part of a team that visited parts of Kebbi State. In the team, there were senior CBN officials, rice producers/importers representing multinational companies and some state government officials as well as farmers.
That journey opened my eyes to new investment potentials that can end extreme poverty in the whole of Nigeria if we are serious. We can put young people back to work if we are ready to move some steps forward. As part of the delegation, I realised that rice farming, if well-handled can create jobs for millions of our young people and this will lead to increased food production. We can unlock these potentials by putting in place policies that will help smoothen the processes involved from production to movement of goods (transportation). We have abundance of land and natural resources, mostly in the Northern region of Nigeria. We must begin to exploit them.
Also very important, our current education system calls for emergency reforms. We have to shift our focus to skills-based education system that will culminate into building a strong workforce for the nation. And we need to take many of our children off the streets. According to UNICEF, 40 percent of Nigerian children between the age of 6 and 11 do not attend any primary school.
From primary to university education, our educational system is decaying, and the ever-increasing presence of Nigerians in foreign schools testifies to this. That was not the way it was. The Pius Adesanmis of this world were products of our local universities. We need a major revamp by looking at our teaching curriculum as well as infrastructure in relation to favourable learning condition.
Pastor Poju, distinguished ladies and gentlemen, before I take my seat, let me remind us all that If we stay here we die is also something we should internalize personally. It means a new hunger to make a difference and to help people who deserve help so that they, in turn can take advantage of new opportunities and contribute to a more diverse, sustainable, and equitable society. And that takes me to the storyof a young girl who was walking with her parents along a beach upon which thousands of fish had been washed up after a terrible storm. When she came to each fish, the girl would pick it up, and throw it back into the ocean. Her parents and all the people watched her with amusement. She had been doing this for some time when a man approached her and said, “Little girl, why are you doing this? Look at this beach! You cannot save all these fishes. What you are doing won’t make a difference!”
For a while, the girl kept quiet, thoroughly deflated. But in her innocence, after a few moment, she bent down, picked up another fish, and hurled it as far as she could into the ocean. Then she looked up at the man with a smile of satisfaction and said, “Well, I made a difference to that one!”
Fortunately, we do have such people in our country but we do not have enough of them. I am sure many of us must have read about a certain woman called Hajia Bilkisu Yusuf, one of the pilgrims who lost their lives in this year’s Hajj tragedy.
I am also sure if I ask who she was, many would simply say she was the first female editor from the North. That description does a lot of disservice to the woman. She was much more than that. In Auntie Bilkisu, as some of us called her, our country lost a shining star who for more than three decades made immense contributions in several fields aside journalism like maternal health advocacy, interfaith dialogue, campaign for girl-child education etc.
She was a very dignified woman who loved her work and embraced everything she found worthy of engaging in with such passion, sincerity and commitment. Without any doubt, her life had purpose and she touched so many people positively until she died last week.
As I commiserate with her family and the families of other Nigerians who lost their lives in the Mina tragedy in Saudi Arabia, the message for each one of us is to take whatever little space we have and begin to make a difference in our world. Remember: If We Stay Here We Die!
Thank you very much for listening and God bless Nigeria.
• Presentation at the 2015 Platform Nigeria of the Covenant Christian Centre, Lagos on 1st October, 2015.