Chude Jideonwo: Remembering the former youth minister, Bolaji Abdullahi

by Chude Jideonwo

Nigeria’s young people lost an ally in the highest levels of government when Abdullahi was transferred. Whether with the title of minister or not, we badly need one.

I was dealing with the mundane tasks of my day job as a media entrepreneur when I received the call: “Hi Chude, this is Bolaji Abdullahi”. It was the newly appointed minister of youth development.

I had heard of him; I had read his backpage column in Thisday; I had vaguely noted his entry into murky Kwara politics as a long-standing commissioner, but never had cause for our paths to cross.

He had just been appointed and with no prior experience in youth development; he had turned to Google and also asked around. My name had come up, as well as our project, The Future Awards.

For the first time since 2005 when I began work in youth development, I visited the ministry of youth development. Previously a den only for the National Association of Nigerian Students, the National Youth Council and whatever assortment of “political youths” the presidency or anyone else needed, many change-workers had learned to avoid it.

For a minister who was eager to hit the ground running, it was an energizing discussion. My interactions with the minister would continue to be so – even where I respectfully disagreed with him – from social media engagement to #OccupyNigeria.

The minister, as far as one could see, represented the challenges and contradictions of being a “good man” in government. He would share the hair-tearing challenges that stopped him from doing the things he wanted to do while in the same breath praising his party – the Peoples Democratic Party – to high heavens; he understood the long term imperative and the need for quick wins.

And there is enough of that in the youth ministry. It is a ministry that can be limiting (emphasised by the fact that 90% of its budget goes to the NYSC), unless you are lucky to have an activist minister who is an ally of the youth. Throw words at Abdullahi as many did, this became apparent when he picked up the #ABSURape matter and made sure the president paid attention as it was when he ensured that corps members were paid when the lords at the NYSC Secretariat thought to play fancy free (yes, the youth minister supervising the NYSC, but that is perhaps only in name) with the corps members’ allowances.

There were promises made that were not kept – standing out was the abandonment of social media meets with his constituents, which the minister sought to explain by pointing to the hostility of criticism that attends government officials who try to engage young people.

In fact, it was a subject that bothered him deeply – and again the last time I met him, moderating his session at the New Media & Governance Conference in Abuja. As I sat and caught up with him, it was difficult to miss his excitement as he gave updates about the sports ministry (for which he was standing in as minister) and anecdotes about the dysfunction he was facing. In a country where the youth ministry is seen as one of the “less lucrative” ministries, it suddenly dawned on me that Abdullahi would soon be on his way “up”.

It happened barely a week after.

Of course, if this were a serious-minded government, it would have left a mind and commitment like Abdullahi’s in the youth ministry to finish the work he started. It would take more than a year for a minister who had not even executed his budget to manifest the fruits of his labour. Because, warts and all, Abdullahi was on his way to doing a damn good job.

But let me pause to chuckle at this point.  You see, six weeks ago, I wouldn’t have written this piece. In our now militant (as it should be) youth social space, even an encouraging word said to a government official can be interpreted as ‘selling out’.

Thankfully, now that he has moved to sports, and for many weeks now, and in the light of a successor whose one notable public statement is to insist young educated Nigerians must be posted to violence ridden states, where they are a prime target for deadly terrorist attacks – because, after all “people died in the civil war”, it is understandable that one is nostalgic about the impressive minister we once had.

Nigeria’s young people lost an ally in the highest levels of government when Abdullahi was transferred. Whether with the title of minister or not, we badly need one.

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