Mallam Bolaji Abdullahi: Why men don’t have a clue and women always need more shoes

This is the full text of the Honourable Minister of Youth Development’s opening address at The Nigeria Symposium for Young & Emerging Leaders on March 19, 2012.


Bolaji Abdullahi

I must say that there is nothing in my experience suggesting that government is an exclusive den of devils and civil society is populated by saints.

I wish to thank the organizers of The Future Awards for the excellent work you have been doing. Recognizing exceptional young people is a very positive process of identifying a successor generation of leadership in this country that is based on achievements, creativity and innovation. We at the Federal Ministry of Youth Development acknowledge you as a worthy partner. The Youth Champions component of our DriveTheFutureNigeria project speaks to the same objective. You can therefore be rest assured of our abiding interest in what you do.

As you all know, I took the title of my address from the best-selling book by Allan and Barbara Pease. This couple tries to teach us how to make our relationship work or at least understand why our wives or husbands behave the way they do: why men tell lies and like to flip the channels; what women really want and why they like to TALK. And so on. In the end, Allan and Barbara seem to conclude that men behave the way they do because they are men; and women, because they are women. Our behaviours, they say, are coded in our genes and we have evolved into who we are over the millenniums and there is nothing we can do to change that. But, we can at least try to understand each other and learn to live together in a more enjoyable relationship.

Now, you may wonder what this has got to do with the reason we are here today. But upon reading this book and the earlier one by the same authors, ‘Why Men Don’t Listen and Women Can’t Read Maps’, it is difficult not to draw a parallel between the complex relationship between men and women and the more loose but, perhaps, equally very serious relationship between the government and the people they govern. Government will always wonder what the people really want and why they are so difficult to please; and the people will always wonder why the government at all levels always appears so clueless and insensitive!

One of the central themes of this year’s event, I understand is the question of how young people should engage government or whether young people should engage with government at all. There is a critical assumption here which stands on moral high grounds. I have a feeling that the question you are actually asking is this: “with what length of the spoon they should employ in dining with the devil!”

I must say that there is nothing in my experience suggesting that government is an exclusive den of devils and civil society is populated by saints. It is the people that make the government and the moral constitution of any government is mostly a reflection of its society. Rather than our constituencies, what I think is important is our commitment to positive change in our country.

All of us cannot be in government, and being in government is not the only way we can drive the process of change. However, we cannot expect to make any meaningful impact in the long run if we are not in a position to influence how things are done, especially in government. It is true that young people are distrustful of government at all levels. Therefore they want to change the government and change the way government business is done. These are legitimate aspirations that often fuel the passion that we see overflowing everywhere. The inevitable question that must follow however is ‘how’?

The central challenge that comes to mind is how to reconcile this passion and aspiration which fall within young people’s circle of concern, with their circle of influence. For young people, the take off position is to assume the moral high grounds. Most young people demand change on the grounds that they know better, they can do things better and they are generally better than the status quo that they seek to overthrow or improve.

Well, one cannot help but wonder if the men and women in their 40s, 50s and 60s who currently populate the current regime that we seek to overthrow were not perched on the same mountain of superiority only twenty or thirty years ago. But you have said you are the turning point generation. This is great. The question is how does this turning point generation want to turn things around? Influence is central to change. How influential are you? Civil society, media (including the social media), the government (from LGs to FGs), the parliament, the political parties are all arenas of influence with immense opportunities for driving positive change. How many of these are currently occupied by you, directly or indirectly?

This brings me to the issue of political participation, especially the process of political recruitment. The question of how to get the ‘right’ people into government has pre-occupied political philosophers across the ages since Plato. In fact, it is this major concern that inspired Plato’s ‘Republic’. Plato proposed that the ruling class in a just society should be men who have been trained in the art of ruling and selected from the most rational and wise segment of the population. He noted that because nature itself does not produce these special people in sufficient number, a conscious process of eugenics has to be employed to nurture and breed them for the purpose of governance. He called them the ‘Philosopher-Kings’. “The philosophers must become kings in our cities, or those who are now kings and potentates must learn to seek wisdom like true philosophers, and so political power and intellectual wisdom will be joined in one.” For Plato, the reason for all wickedness (meaning all forms undesirable conducts) is lack of wisdom; and once people are wise they cannot be wicked.

Well, Plato’s proposal is very suitable and practicable in the society of his imagination, the Utopia. But that country is not on any map. Plato’s solution offers very little practical help. So, the problem is not solved and the question remains: how do we get the right people into government, if we consider government to be a very powerful arena for bringing about the change that we desire?

The explosion of social media has opened a new arena of empowerment and influence, especially for young people. Recent political experience has proved this. The new media have made mobilization for mass action relatively easier and sometimes have helped in promoting demands for accountability or even in coordinating the removal of government. However, I suspect that the power, the ubiquity and glamour of the new media is also capable of generating some kind of hubris that inhibits real learning and understanding that are so crucial for constructive engagement across various platforms of influencing for change.

Voice, defined as power to be heard, cannot be sufficient as an end by itself for the kind of change we aspire to bring about. We also need the power that comes with action and ability to influence others to change without necessarily alienating them of feel inferior to our position. Ability to build coalitions and allies across the various arenas is the hallmark of agents of change. Our passion and our youth, in fact, our good intentions are not enough credentials in this crucial enterprise. We need knowledge; knowledge of how things work and the realities that govern the behavior of various actors. The mentality of exclusion (A “them” versus “us” mentality) that positions young people as antagonists of other actors can only expand the boundaries of distrust and conflicts that can only contaminate our agenda and misappropriate our energy.

The dilemma faced by young people who have sought to work with or in government is real. Many have shied away for fear of losing that badge of presumed integrity that ‘not being in government’ or ‘not joining government’ confers. Many who have summoned the courage to work with government or join a political party have had to endure all kind of opprobrium and vilification by their peers who accuse them of “jumping ship” and losing their moral credentials by agreeing to work with government at whatever level.

No doubt, the behaviour of political elites in our country in recent years has rendered anyone working in that sector suspect. And as long as so many people still believe that the easiest and shortest route to financial prosperity is through the political office; politicians and public office holders would continue to be presumed guilty until they prove their innocence. But surely not all migration is inspired by the logic of the stomach. We have seen many well-intentioned people digested by the system. We have also seen so many who have been able to rise above the murk to deliver real hope that even despite the tyranny of decay, individuals do, sometimes, make the difference.

We need to continue to seek greater clarity about what we really need to achieve and how. But more importantly, we need to identify our strategic allies and engage them accordingly. And we need to understand that no matter what we do, government, like men, will not always find it easy to listen and; women, like the people, will always need more shoes. The least we can do however is for both sides to understand each other and also accept that while they may see things differently, they are a not necessarily natural adversary, but necessary partners in our quest to build a society that works for all.


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