Issues, Perspectives & Solutions – How the discussions went at The Future Awards Symposium

Our inability as a society to follow up stories to a logical conclusion was a main point in the third session, with Osita Nwoye saying that we have the attention span of flies.

It has been said that where two or three Nigerians are gathered, Nigeria’s problems will be discussed. The Future Project managed to get several young leaders in one place – as well as some older ones – and as such it was more than your usual talk shop.

The governor of Ekiti state, Kayode Fayemi and the Rivers state governor, Rotimi Amaechi – who also doubles as the chairman of the powerful Governors’ Forum – were present. Mrs Obiageli Ezekwesili, former Minister of Education and current World Bank VP for Africa, Bashorun Dele Momodu, owner of Ovation Magazine and so many other government officials and some of the smartest young(er) people in Nigeria came to give depth to the topic of whether young people should enter governance or not.

The consensus across the three sessions was that governance cannot be left to those who have nothing to offer, but there was plenty of frank talk in between, even if some of it was wide of the mark.

Governor Amaechi displayed his lack of understanding of the #OccupyNigeria protests in January, describing it as ‘elite youth who just wanted to take over from their fathers’. He also spent a considerable amount of time pushing the responsibility for change to young people, and saying almost nothing about the role those in government who wield considerable influence, like himself, should play.

Two thoughts came to mind: there is plenty of debate about where change should start from: from the bottom-up, or from the top-down. It became convincing that we must work from both directions at once. The power to make laws possessed by politicians cannot be ignored. That power must be made to do the greatest good for the greatest number of people, and at the same time, the people have a responsibility to be the change they want to see. On the other hand, I thought that if someone with the power of Rotimi Amaechi continually says that change lies with the citizens, then why do we need government at all? Why can’t we simply rule ourselves?

Mrs Ezekwesili gave a solid presentation that centered on putting Nigeria’s GDP figures in context. For example, the decrease in wealth of India’s 40 richest people as a result of the global financial crisis was $220 billion, more than our GDP for 2010. The current valuation of Apple – the makers of the gadget on which I type this is – more than twice that. It was yet more a confirmation – if any were needed – that Nigeria is actually a poor country, oil or no oil.

She also called for social change drivers to have real jobs, and said that ‘the era of adversarial engagement is over’ urging patient, sustained and ‘costly’ engagement with the government in the process of holding them accountable, in addition to cautioning against ‘single solutions’, read ‘silver bullets’.

A recurring theme of the symposium was ‘engage the system’, and other variants. The Ekiti governor Kayode Fayemi said: ‘Never let the perfect become the enemy of the good’. The word ‘system’ was used so many times that I wanted to ask: ‘does ‘system’ have a house address, email, phone number at which we can reach it?’

Governor Amaechi referred to ‘systemic change’ with regard to economics, but stopped just short of explaining what he meant exactly. My guess is he was hinting at revenue allocation, and such matters. Needless to say: there are few better placed to carry that conversation to the highest levels than he is.

What the symposium eventually became was most of the discussants dropping their own nuggets of wisdom based on their own experiences. A state legislator from Cross River spoke about ‘institutional memory’, and the pressure of ‘meeting expectations from your constituency’, and one said there are too few people in the field of governance who want change. The importance of having an exit strategy while in government – in form of a profession to go back to – also came up again and again.

One of the speakers said ‘twitter doesn’t win elections’ and while he was right, the comment drew whistles from the floor. Banky W told us about how he used to sing in saloons, and the importance of being focused on your dreams. His business partner Segun Demuren made a point about electricity still being a big problem (I’m looking at you Barth Nnaji). Ndidi Nwuneli had cause to ask about the work ethic of Nigerian youths, and why they want to get rich quick. The conversation then moved to journalism, and how local journalists are not respected because they can be easily bought. The Rivers state commissioner for information lamented the situation where most journalists don’t do proper research before interviewing government officials, so that they can ask good questions.

Our inability as a society to follow up stories to a logical conclusion was a main point in the third session, with Osita Nwoye saying that we have the attention span of flies. Tosin Bucknor encouraged us to move away from our comfort zones and find out what people outside our immediate environment are thinking.

By the end of the day, the need for a 360 degree approach to solving Nigeria’s problems was apparent. Everyone has a part to play because what we are facing is systemic collapse. It is 2 years since the ‘Enough Is Enough’ protests, and that was just the start of a journey that will take decades because there are no quick fixes.

As the opening address said: “Let us talk sincerely to ourselves about our own challenges, let us start a discussion that will not end.”  The Symposium held by The Future Project was yet another milestone on this journey, continuing old conversations and starting new ones that will lead to action.

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