NOT AN OPTION: Why I’m Not Giving Up on Restoring Nigeria

It was one of those afternoons in Lagos. The sun was up in all its might, as if to prove a point to air cooling units. Traffic was bumper to bumper, with enough frayed nerves to light up any tiny dispute. And then, a wrong turn that led into the unforgiving Mushin traffic. In between forgiving the driver and worrying about how to apologise – again – for arriving late for a discussion with the Carrington Youth Fellows at the US Consulate in Lagos, I read a tweet announcing that an icon of change had given up on trying to restore Nigeria into at least the semblance of something worthy of the adjective, nation.

(S)he’s not the first to do such. Many more will give up after trying so hard to draw honey from the rock. Stop. Don’t be quick to blame anyone for giving up. How many times have you been reminded of how erratic Nigeria is, just after a meeting where you were encouraging young people to change Nigeria or die trying? These things get to you. One of those days, I pulled out my passport, headed for the airport and paid for a date change just to get on a flight before my veins would burst. Once in a while, you get the chance to get on a flight – inwards in thought or out of town – just to draw enough energy to continue.

In this matter of changing an outrightly insane society, many have been wounded. Many more have found an alternative pathway that solves personal misery but adds to the communal hopelessness. But how long will a nation once known as a giant continue the act of burying her head in the sand? Change agents come, change agents go, but the sore livelihoods remain. So, what must we do?

Just before we throw up our hands and/or begin to plot permanent escapes – in mind or action – maybe it’s worth considering the fact that giving up on change is a win for the minority that benefits from chaos and rot. They know that warfare principle quite well: get your enemy to believe they can’t change their circumstances while suffering loss, and the battle is over. Mohammed Ali stung like a bee; many times with words before the punch that drove home the victory.

That’s the plan. “Make sure they’re frustrated enough to give up on the thought of change and we’ll stay winning,” are the words of the few who benefit from circumstances that lead to what eventually snowballs into a nation with extremely low life expectancy and near non-existent expectation. But what about the small gains of change efforts. “Make sure they don’t ponder such. Keep their eyes on the wrong ball. Distract them.”

Few years ago, not many people reading this would dare write comments that called out government even at the height of ineptitude. Ask folks who were tucked away in the heart of foreign cities and their colleagues, here at home, who literally watched their back every minute, what it meant to live in Nigeria during the dark days of the military and you’d at least appreciate the citizens that fought for democracy – and never gave up. In few states across Nigeria, you’ll see traces of what it means for citizens to demand change. Let’s not forget the small gains. Change takes time, though change agents must remain impatient in order to avoid excuses that slow the process down.

It took about 2 generations of hard work to destroy Nigeria’s promising existence and fixing it may not take less than a generation’s deliberate hard work. Of course, I’ve taken the liberty to equate one generation to about 20 years. Each time we slow down or lose folks on the frontline, we delay the process or stand the risk of resetting the counter. It is true that the darkest hour comes before the appearance of dawn, simply because the apparent darkness masks even the most noble of on-going efforts at bringing light. Hence the tendency to often assume that nothing is working when the most visible thing is darkness. As you take those small strides of faith in the midst of darkness, don’t ignore the fact that others are doing the same and it’ll soon come together if you keep on. Of course, you can’t see them because it’s dark all around. But it’ll soon be the turn of the brightness of daytime to shine.

I am also reminded of the theory of the cracked glass ceiling. Everyone knows about the legendary glass ceiling because most people tell the tales of how their fate was altered by the limitation the glass places in the way. However, each time someone struggles to break through the glass, a dent is left. Small, but a dent all the same. After several attempts by different people, the material that glass is made of knows that few more cracks will make the ceiling give way. There are already many dents in the limiting glass of the Nigerian promise, don’t spare us your attempt at hitting the spot that may just make way.

Exit, the all-time reaction of (wo)men to unsuccessful attempts or unfriendly circumstances, has been with Nigeria since the days of “Andrew”. Exit, expressed in many ways, does not fix all responsibilities. In fact, the reason many are able to retreat to spaces or places is because some people didn’t exit those spaces or places in the days when change looked impossible. Think of today’s most celebrated destinations, and you’ll be reminded of the folks who persevered to make change possible.

If every changemaker, regardless of present location or place on the Discouragement Curve, will own their space and make a dent, maybe our eventual islands of sanity can come together while we also maximise the principle of enlightened self-interest to recruit others for the noble task of nation building. In 2001, when I saw a much smaller picture of the change that could come to Nigeria, I wrote:

I see a new Nigeria emerging, one that will be built on the labours of our heroes past, hewn out of the debris of the present waste and engineered by the strength of the future leaders: the youth. These young men and women will adopt Information Technology for the purpose of personal development, nation building, regional cooperation and global participation. They may be unknown today, but in the secrecy of their abode, they master the tool that will change their lives and that of their nation. They’re building the nation’s tomorrow today.

It’s now 2012 and I still believe in what I saw at the time. Only that it’s much bigger now and the tools available to people are much more diverse.

We may fall, fail or falter, but we will learn a new way of not restoring Nigeria. I once joked with a friend about my decision of fighting to restore Nigeria or die trying. Actually, I wasn’t joking. Life expectancy in Nigeria is low, anyway, so one could as well live wisely and without regret. I will not give up on restoring Nigeria, and while I engage in the often therapeutic activity of cursing the darkness, I will continue with the tough task of lighting a candle at the same time.

Every weekday all through my early days at St. Peter’s Demonstration Primary School, Akure, and Federal Government College, Idoani, we recited the National Pledge. So help me God! I will be true to the words that spoke to me: to serve Nigeria with all my strength. So help me God. Many of us did the same, also singing the words of the National Anthem. Remember the line that says, “Arise, O compatriots, Nigeria’s call obey”? How about, “…the labour of our heroes past, shall never be in vain”? Let’s move on to the less known second stanza. If you give up now, who will fulfil these words: “Guide our leaders right, help our youth the truth to know.”

Don’t give up. Give others the permission to believe in the value of their contributions, even if no one will celebrate the seemingly unknown efforts that you invest in the nation’s future each day. Recruit numbers for the threshold! We are making a dent in the glass of corruption, government’s “I-don’t-give-a-damn” attitude, and many more evils of the day. Giving up is not an option. On Nigeria or other efforts at which you’ve trained your hands, giving up is NOT an option.

This post originally appeared in YNaija.

Give back (now) or watch your back (later)

As predicted through my tweet above, May 29 got more attention than May 27 in Nigeria. I’m not playing with dates, but Nigeria is playing with the future! The signs are already there – in education, security, etc – it shows that government is only paying lip service to what should be our biggest investment in the future.

But then, anyone who has spent as much time as I have in my beloved country will know that while waiting for government to awake from its deep slumber, the need to intervene is huge. I’ve often spoken of the funnel effect, describing how many children get dropped off the opportunity radar as life continues to happen to them. One possible outcome of the funnel effect is that these children may grow into adults who will see any expression of comfort as the reason they have been denied their own “fair share.”

The kids who snatch phones in traffic will grow into adults who snatch cars and maybe even lives. If there was a way you could give back to that child now, instead of watching your back later, would you? Truth is that you can, and many are already doing that. I’ve been asked why my area of interest in technology is in equipping young people with skills that can improve their livelihoods, and my answer is simple: kids who are given a future assure us of a safer one for ourselves and our own kids.

Giving back doesn’t necessarily mean building a career around helping children and youth. It could be as simple as volunteering at a program that already does that, mentoring a child dazzled by the maze that life around here can present, or demanding change through your opportune channels.

I strongly believe that our generation has to think a bit beyond what we can acquire to considering what we can give back. It can become a culture so strong that our enlightened self-interest finds a place in cohesive national development.

When Emeka and other young people walked into a training centre I managed for the trio of Lagos State Government, Microsoft, and Junior Achievement of Nigeria about 7 years ago, my excitement revolved around the opportunity of seeing them blossom into young adults whose stories will inspire fellow young people to create a future they would be proud of instead of holding on to ready excuses to explain activities that would hurt others. Few weeks ago, I met Emeka at an event. He’s not only an example to other young people around him; he has adopted the culture of giving back.

I met Esther in Ajegunle more recently. Looking frail and shy, she walked up and spoke about her interest in computers. Many weeks later, she had learnt enough to start out on a path of success because of some of the many volunteers who continue to give their time at Paradigm Initiative Nigeria’s program. She has worked at the UK Deputy High Commission, managed projects at the new local Murtala Muhammed Airport (MMA2), and more. More importantly, she’s a role model to young women who could have used similar circumstances as excuses.

“How many people can my small contribution reach?” Few, but imagine the volume of many ‘fews’. If drops of water come together to make a river, then your deliberate act of giving back will connect with many others to weave a fine future for us all. Your skill, time, and other resources can plug a hole in our collective future if you reach out to a young person looking to figure out the often confusing maze of life, especially in an environment like ours. When we give back, we contribute to a culture that will see us giving back now instead of watching our backs in the future.


This piece first appeared in YNaija’s ’30 Days, 30 Voices’

I Have No Excuse!

Junior is frustrated, and he believes he has every reason to be. He grew up a groomed young man and admired his parents’ willingness to give him the best of everything. Since an encounter during one of the Career Days he attended in secondary school, Junior made up his mind about becoming an engineer. He asked questions, studied hard and gained admission into the school of his choice. But it appears that was where the lovely story of his life ended. In his much-told tale of woes, he has the following for any ready listener: an argument with a lecturer cost him a much-needed grade and he discovered that everything he had been taught wasn’t applicable on the job. Plus: after the second anniversary of his trip to Lagos after his NYSC – in search of a job – he is yet to get one. He’s been told by friends that he would need to “use his father’s connection” but little do they know that his dad stopped being relevant to his friends the moment he stopped being a commissioner. Junior blames the Nigerian system for not providing enough jobs for graduates, and he blames all the G8 embassies for denying “innocent young Nigerians” visas.

Junior’s story is not very uncommon across Nigeria today. Just open your ears and you will hear the not-so-silent whispers: “if not for that lecturer’s stupid mistake…”; “if only my parents were smart enough to travel out before having me…”; “if only our president was more handsome and econo-smart…”; “if only my school was a globally respected institution…” All these excuses (and they would argue that it’s reality, not an excuse) only scratch the surface, the fundamental truth is that the rules have changed. Period. The same system that many complain about is the same one that others ride to make the front covers; it’s the same system that keeps a permanent smile on the faces of others. “So, what exactly is the problem with me? I’m in my final year and I’m told I have a 10% chance of getting a job. I’m also told that my lecturers didn’t teach me the ‘current stuff.’ What do I do?” “Yours is even better, I’m already working but I know it’s just a joke. My take-home pay can’t take me home, and even if my salary increases, I will not escape this feeling that I’m a slave to someone else’s dream.”

The average graduate in Nigeria today has a label: dead on delivery. The potential employers complain that they won’t find competent people to fill available positions, yet there are hundreds of people applying for that single position. It is thus imperative for today’s students and young professionals to come to terms with the fact that the usual cram-pass-forget cycle doesn’t work. In these days of YouTube, Broadband, Google, Virtual Offices, Second Life, eLearning, MySpace, PANS, etc, everyone seems to be talking of opportunities but many young people wonder if they are in another world entirely. We live in a New Economy, and there is more to education (the type that prepares you for the marketplace) than taking notes and laughing at the lecturer’s jokes. How about taking advantage of the tools of the day to connect yourself with the numerous opportunities that you probably only admire from a distance? Before I speak of the opportunities available to today’s young person (student or young professional), let’s look at two important keys.

When you see the job adverts that rhyme with you, they come with a tag: “… applicants must have 2 years’ experience.” Where on earth does a fresh graduate get years of experience? You would be quick to argue that you can even understand if they asked for nine months (which represents the length of your 3rd and 4th year industrial attachments as an engineering student) but haba, 2 years! And by the way, the job is more-often-than-not taken before your application gets to the HR department. Why? Because it has been sent around by the in-house person whose cousins have been bombarding him/her with CVs. In spite of the usual reaction, I believe that three opportunities stare every student in the face:

(a)   The fact that you are expected to write a final year thesis provides you with the opportunity to create a deliberate bridge between your education and a possible career ahead of you. Please, do yourself and the departmental shelf a favour by not using the cut and paste escape door. Plan ahead and choose a topic that can create a platform for you to test your future career plan: I chose to work on eRegistration in my final year (2001), and I can tell you stories of what the “e” has brought my way today!

(b)   I have always argued that many graduates lose a year after school, because most people spend their NYSC year ticking their cards every Wednesday or Friday (depending on how elitist your CD Group is). But this doesn’t have to be so. Your NYSC year presents an opportunity for you to consolidate the plans you have been grooming from school, it’s actually another year of experience added to your CV – if you ever need one. That one year is a gift that many waste, please don’t join them because it’s a year when you can be the CEO of a failing company and no one will crucify you (but please make sure it doesn’t stay a failing company).

(c)   It also appears to me that every student suddenly finds out, in their final year (especially when the recruitment drive starts), that they need to plan for a job. At that time, any lecture on Making a Great CV would be packed full. But have you stopped for a second to find a way out of the maddening crowd? The bank test where tear gas was used to control the crowd still sends a shrill down my spine. How about Nigerian students converting their undergraduate years into years of experience, and graduating from school with a business plan?

If there is a 10% chance of getting a job, and much less when you consider job satisfaction, then why don’t we look at a better alternative? Nigerians are known to be great entrepreneurs, but the educated among us prefer to work for other people even when we have ideas that can add value and create jobs for other people.

Entrepreneurship is an option that we must take serious if Nigeria’s economy (and yours) will be any different from what it is today. Ask your neighbour: “in five years, will you be complaining that your boss hasn’t increased your salary, or will you be considering a 50% raise for your own employees?” If you start now, you shed off majority of your business mistakes while in school and graduate as an enviable CEO. That even brings home the point about the difference between a job and a career. While a job pays you a monthly salary (which always seems to have an inverse relationship with your taste and expenses), a career is one that you have the passion and skills to pursue – and brings you economic reward. A career is what you do and people forget to ask you if you even attended an institution with a roof above its head. What each student must do, the moment they begin to take the 101 notes, is to explore a possible connection between the entrepreneurial opportunities around them and career choices too. It is because we don’t look for opportunities that we don’t find them, just as those who don’t have phones that can pick radio signals in this room will argue that there is no such thing available in this room.

So, how can today’s student take advantage of the New Economy’s many tools – especially Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs)? The Internet has helped bridge any gap that ever existed between students on any side of the yawning digital divide: there are eLearning, networking, information mining and omnipresence opportunities to those who care. When MIT announced the Open CourseWare (OCW: project a few years ago, many came to terms with the fact that you can possibly learn more, today, outside the classroom than in it. What do you read? It doesn’t have to be 101, 306 or 504, it can be a short article that throws light on a dark knowledge area. You don’t have to wait in line to copy it from her note, you can as well ask the author to send you an eMail copy. (And please don’t tell me you have no eMail address; otherwise you are not a valid citizen of the world we live in today.) How about using one of the most popular websites in the world to answer your questions, especially when your professor’s door is locked (either while he’s writing a research paper or when he joins the strike)? Its called G-O-O-G-L-E, and it gives you access to any information you want. The problem is not, “Will I get information on ABC”, it is, “How much information do I want?”

Don’t stop at downloading, by the way. I am quick to tell people that if you are not found online by the year 2011, there’s a likelihood that your old classmates think you died somewhere, somehow. Get online, start a blog at least. Tell the world your story, create a website and let the world be your constituency. My first encounter with the United Nations (well, after the many years when I faced the mirror in preparation of addressing the UN one day) came about because someone was generally doing an online search for Youth and Information Technology. It didn’t only earn me an all-expenses paid trip, it got me my first speaking opportunity at a United Nations meeting! Not just that, most of the dotted lines I have signed in the last few years are not unconnected to the first impressions created by my website. Actually, it’s almost always where people go when I tell them how much to pay for a consulting job – maybe just to check why I insist on a globally acceptable fee. J Get online, be omnipresent and don’t limit yourself to the area defined by your home address. And don’t forget to network with others who are headed in the same direction with you. I’m on TakingITGlobal, LinkedIn, MySpace, FaceBook and others because they create dynamic networking opportunities and also increase my Points-of-Presence across the globe.

These new technologies are available for the student or young professional who wishes to get off the crowded road by embracing entrepreneurship. There are numerous online resources that will be of help for your proposed business: sample business plans, clarification on business models, business support platforms, idea banks, etc. Log on and search for what you need, e.g. a search for “Nigerian Business” + “Support” would show you results such as training materials specific to Nigerian businesses, and may add a few resources available from on-the-ground institutions such as Lagos Business School and FATE Foundation, among others. ICTs also provide you with the opportunity to communicate with others who have been able to do what you’re attempting – or those who are trying to do the same. Through mailing lists and online forums, you can gain access to unbelievably useful resources. Then, you can choose to take advantage of a simple website or blog (and you can start by using a free, easy-to-build template) to increase your potential market. Someone on another part of the planet will one day see your expertise online, pay you for services rendered, and then refer you to others (the Res Publica and Harvard example).

It is important that we all realize that our eventual success or failure is not solely dependent on environmental factors; we are the architects of our own future. If you take a quick look at your neighbour, you would know some of them (and probably laugh off a few) but the next few years are determined by today’s deliberate attempt at maximizing the opportunities around you. If you fail in the days of adversity, it is not because you attended the wrong school or were born to poor parents; it’s not even because your teacher failed you or because your friends think you won’t make it… it is because your own strength is small. Junior thought his problem was either of the following: his parents, his school, his teachers, his state governor, the area boys or his country. But the truth is that even in the face of the events and circumstances that we hold on to as excuses, others are able to weave a way around them or even ride them to success. We have no excuse, and we must keep reminding ourselves of that. When next an obstacle stands in your path, remind yourself: “I have no excuse!” When you’re scared of taking that necessary step, remind yourself: “I have no excuse!” When next you make a mistake and feel like giving up, remind yourself: “I have no excuse!” Take it to heart, let it drive you, prove the point, live your dream… we have no excuse if we fail. We have no excuse! You have no excuse!! I have no excuse!!!