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Media, Youth and Nigeria’s Development Challenges (A keynote speech)

Being Keynote Address by Atiku Abubakar, GCON, former Vice President, Federal Republic of Nigeria, at the 2013 Conference of the African Council for Communication Education (ACCE) held at the Department of Mass Communication, University of Nigeria, Nsukka.

21 October, 2013.


It feels good to once more visit the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. I must confess that whenever I step into UNN or Ahmadu Bello University or Obafemi Awolowo University (formerly U of Ife), I have mixed feelings. Such visits bring back memories of when Nigeria and Nigerians were on the road to greatness, with all our imperfections.But it also brings forth to me what has gone wrong in and with our country and our people. When I talk about what has gone wrong I am not just talking about the broken infrastructure in our universities,the lecturers that have fled the country, the empty libraries with outdated books and journals or rotten hostels that are not good enough to be prison cells but in which young adults are crammed and are expected to learn.  I am not talking about the ‘sorting’ (favours for grades) that is said to be widespread.  Those are certainly important.

Rather, I am talking about how we seem to have lost sight of what federating units and local peoples are able to achieve when they have the autonomy to look after themselves rather than being spoon-fed from the national capital.I am also talking about how we seem to be forgetting what selfless public service means: not one of those three universities that I just mentioned was built or owned by the federal government in the First Republic.  They were built by the regional governments largely from their resources. And one more thing: not one of the leaders who conceived of and built these universities, namely Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe, Sir Ahmadu Bello and Chief Obafemi Awolowo, seriously considered locating them in their villages. Rather they chose places where they thought would be best suited for such ivory towers and the work done in them and the role they play in society.

Those were strong federating units but today we have severely weakened states nearly totally dependent on fiscal allocations from Abuja.  I have not come across a serious country that has developed in that way.

Today we have federal ownership of universities and other institutions and the clamour for even more federal takeover of more establishments. Today we have leaders insisting on locating universities in their villages or relocating existing ones there. Today we have people, including intellectuals, insisting that the leaders of universities and even the lecturers must come from their states. Yet universities ought to be international centres of excellence rather than mediocre enclaves of local champions.This is the kind of negative messaging that we have been exposing our youth to in recent times. And it must stop if we are to be taken seriously in the comity of nations and in the world’s intellectual circles.

I founded a university with the help of some of my friends. The mandate given to the university by the Board of Trustees, under my guidance, is to scout the world for the best professors and administrators that can be attracted to Yola to work at the university. We are attempting to build a world class university, not a Yola or Adamawa or even a Nigerian champion. That is my understating of a university.

As it is with universities, so it is with countries. If we want to build a worldclass country we have to do things differently and the media have a critical role to play in that regard.

What should such a role be? What should be the role of the media in national development; in the empowerment of our youth and children? What kind of messaging from the media can help accomplish those?

Put differently, how can the media help to advance the interests of our youth and children in the effort at national rebirth or transformation? How can they help our youth to help themselves and our nation?  How can the media help us build an economy for the future that empowers and protects our youth? How can the youth take advantage of opportunities and help transform themselves and the country?

I am not an expert on media and youth but I do know a thing or two about helping young people to learn and putting them to work. I am sure that this conference will deliberate a great deal on the role of the media in our society, especially their role in the lives of our youth and children.

The role of the media in communications, in entertainment, in education and in mobilization carries with it enormous responsibilities. The mass media do not just communicate content, they create content as well.  The media often set the agenda for debate, structures the discourse and set the tone(sometimes with help from politicians, of course). This is an enormous amount of power that must be exercised responsibly, especially in a young and emerging democracy such as ours.

We often charge the mass media with promoting national development and national unity, and with protecting our youth.  That is fine, but as a nation and a people, we need some understanding of and consensus around what must be done to improve the country and the youth before we can realistically charge the media with promoting them. From my interactions with ordinary Nigerians, and my experience in business and government and my travels, I have come to understand that a few priority areas stand out and must quickly be addressed in order for our people and our country to realize our full potentials and help our youth and children realize their dreams.  These are the provision of and access to high quality education and training; infrastructure such as power, roads, railways and ports; security; anti-corruption and accountability, employment and job creation. There is also the issue of reorientation of values, which, I think, will come more from the change of behaviour by leaders than from mere talk.

And at this time that ournational unity is under stress, leaders and the media must help to keep us together not by mouthing tired clichés about our indivisibility but by doing the hard work of acknowledging and managing our differences in ways that bring out the best in all of us as a collective entity. We must play to our strengths as a diverse country, respect our diversity and varying levels of development, allow the federating states the autonomy to develop at their respective paces and to address their peculiar needs and challenges.

Ladies and gentlemen, we cannot do the same thing over and over and expect a different outcome.  We must not only learn from our past but from practices that work well in different parts of the world in order to help our people and our country to transition to a nation that is able to care for its people.

Let me just focus on education as an example. We cannot significantly improve education in this country if we continue with the current overly centralized system with suffocating federal control.  Federal schools should be handed over to the states in which they are located and the budgetary resources hitherto expended on them transferred to those state governments.  The federal government should focus on setting up regulatory standards and ensure the implementation of those standards. It will be easier for authorities at the UNN to show the officials in Enugu what life at UNN is really like than officials in Abuja. And it will be easier for those officials at Enugu to hold the leaders of UNN accountable. It will also be easier for the students and the UNN community to demand accountability from their school leaders as they too can easily reach the officials at Enugu.  Beyond mere distance and the streamlining of authority and responsibility, the Enugu state government and other state governments will be more interested in trying to generate revenue locally for education and other services than merely waiting for federal allocations from Abuja.

I know that some would argue that the federal government would have adequate resources for education and other services if corruption is eliminated.  That may be true, but we must recognize that too much centralization and concentration of resources is itself a source of corruption. Besides, the federating units must have the autonomy to plan their development as they see fit, taking into account their peculiar needs and priorities.  Why must lecturers in Port Harcourt or Lagos earn exactly the same amount of money as those in Nsukka or Gombe? Is the cost of living the same everywhere in this country? Why can’t universities determine the pay of their teachers and staff? Why should it be determined in Abuja? What is the incentive for UNN or any other university to work hard at generating revenue from its alumni and other sources if some distant agency determines its cost structure and sends it the money to pay? In better organized societies,universities such as UNN, ABU, OAU, UI and UNILAG would be generating enormous amounts of resources from their alumni because of their relative long history and production of many eminent and illustrious alumni or from their investments. Would we be having the constant disruption of the academic calendar and the associated waste of students’ and parents’ resources arising from the persistent disputes between the ASUU and other unions and the federal government?  Why would private universities be the only places to have uninterrupted academic programs in a country that wants to be taken seriously?

Decentralization will help local authorities plan and implement educational and training policies and programs that best meet their local needs.  Those needs are not necessarily the same in Jada in Adamawa state, Nkanu in Enugu state or Koko in Delta state.

In addition to decentralization and geographical diversification we must also diversify our curriculum and educational programmes. The current one-size-fits-all approach will not help us.  It is critical for our educational system to have a healthy mix of academic and vocational training to cater to the diverse needs of our youth and our emerging economy.

These, in my view, are the kinds of messages that our communications media ought to be promoting in the interest of our youth and children and our country. This approach, I think, should also guide the media as they address other issues of development in Nigeria. They should guide the mass communications departments in our schools in their efforts to teach, mentor, and produce competent graduates of mass communications ready and able to contribute to national development and their improvement as individuals.  As media and communications practitioners, teachers and students, you have a responsibility to promote education, national development, evidence based analysis and discourse, and good role models.  You have a responsibility to promote and uphold equity in society among ethnic, religious and regional groups.  This also requires discussing our differences in creative and productive ways, aimed at helping to heal and unite rather than hurt and dismember our communities and our country. You have a responsibility to uphold and promote the rule of law, and anti-corruption and accountability.  You have a responsibility to help promote ideas for building an economy for the 21st century, a post-oil economy that empowers and protects our youth, an economy that has diverse sources of revenues and employment generation; an economy that prioritizes not just oil but agriculture, solid minerals, manufacturing and services.

This conference will be very helpful if it deliberates on ways to ensure that the more than 10 million out-of-school children are in school.  You should also be able to suggest ways in which we can reduce the poverty rate in this country, currently estimated to be up to 70% as well as our high unemployment rate which has been helping to fuel the insecurity of life and property across the country.

Communication is at the centre of human interaction. It can make or mar a nation or peoples. It can create or break bonds; it can sow love or hate; it can promote equity or injustice; it can help to expose or cover up misdeeds. It can be cautious or caustic; it can lead to an embrace or repulsion.  Therefore, communication is something that must be handled boldly but with caution, with the overall improvement of the human condition at its core.

To our youth I say: get an education, acquire useful skills; become aware; dream big; and aim for your dream. Do not constrain yourselves; and do not settle for half-measures. Follow your heart; the road may be rough but then only rough roads lead to somewhere desirable. Opportunities abound in this country’s economy and in the economy of the 21st century which we should be building.

Petty trading is important as a means of livelihood but it is not the only option for the young men of this South East geo-political zone.   Everyone should get an education.  We live in a dynamic world, a world of change and of progress.  It has been called a global village because the far reaches of the world have been brought closer to each other by the revolution in communication and transportation.  It is the world of the cell phone, the internet, supercomputers, nanotechnology, 3D printing, DNA sequencing and other cutting edge technological breakthroughs.

We must help our youth to find their path in this world or the one they will help to create, and help them follow that path with enthusiasm, commitment, fidelity and dedication. The media can help our young people by exposing bad deeds, promoting good deeds, highlighting good people and good deeds. That way we can help or youth to help change the world for the better.

Whether we like it or not the future belongs to our youth, especially our educated youth. Even the present is for their preparation to inherit that future.

I sincerely thank the organisers of this event, in particular the Department of Mass Communications of this storied university which is hosting it, for inviting me to be part of this conference. Thank you for your attention and God bless.

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