Abdullahi’s romance with the youth

IT was a conversation we had several times. If he had to choose between Youth Development and Sports, what would it be? That was a question Mallam Bolaji Abdullahi, the Minister of Sports who until few weeks ago was also in charge of the Youth beat, found difficult to answer. And his dilemma was understandable.

Youth Development was his first love, the Ministry he was appointed into as a cabinet member in June 2011. And the one he had spent sleepless nights, plus rigorous days, working to reposition as the hub of youth development inNigeria.

But then in December last year, he was asked to supervise the Sports Ministry and in a short time made huge progress.  He settled the almost fratricidal war in the Nigerian Football Federation, by making all the parties involved in the crises agree to a comprehensive peace deal.  Such a deal had eluded about five Ministers of Sports who had been sucked into the cesspool of crises plaguing the federation. There were factions and litigants of all hue! It was like a madhouse, and it showed in the performance of our teams.  We  failed to qualify for the Nations’ Cup, and our male and female teams  did not  make the grade for the Olympics. It was that bad.

So when the President appointed him to take charge of Sports in December 2011, Abdullahi set two targets for himself: settle the crises in our football and ensure the best preparations possible for the Olympics considering the little time left. He did both, with the resolution of the crises in the NFF and by ensuring all aspects of the training programmes for the Olympics take off smoothly with great coaches to superintend them.

These quick wins in sports made stakeholders to request that Abdullahi be made the substantive minister of the ministry. That created the dilemma of what would happen to Youth Development, his first love, if he went over to sports.  This reasoning was understandable. When he resumed as Minister of Youth last year, the ministry could be considered aSiberia. It was not well known. Neither was it well liked. And obviously its  most important function was to mobilize youth for politicians during elections. That was not Abdullahi’s concept of a youth development ministry.

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So he rolled up his sleeves and went to work. His vision for Youth Development is of a Ministry that is a facilitator, which collaborates with other MDAs and the private sector to achieve its dream of a Nigerian youth empowered with the skill and character to lead Nigeria into a great future.

This idea shaped the activities and functions of the Ministry under Abdullahi.  And it was reason for the several strategic collaborations with other ministries. For instance, through his efforts the Ministry of Agriculture for the first time paid special attention to the youth through a dedicated fund  (N2billion) in its 2012 budget. The fund for  “Youth in Agriculture” was the outcome of Abdullahi’s many visits and work with his colleague in Agriculture. His collaboration with Ministries of Finance and Information and Communication also led to the You win programme, in which young people participated in a business plan competition and successful applicants were given grants between N2 and 10 million.

You win was the first of its kind as the competition was one in which the ‘Nigerian Factor’ was no factor! Those with the best business  ideas won and for many of those who came short, they received free trainings on entrepreneurship and writing winning proposals. It is expected that the 1200 winners would create jobs and even more important add value through quality services in their communities.

The collaboration between the Ministry and TY Danjuma Foundation is at an advanced stage. The gist of the collaboration is that the Foundation will provide funds to ex corps members who had just rounded off service and who are willing to go into agriculture.  The scheme will take off this year with the current batch of corps members.

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Besides these collaborations, Abdullahi also designed programmes to respond to the need of the youth. The one, I think, he spent more time tinkering with was the Youth Employment Programme, YEP.  And that’s for good reasons. Unemployment is perhaps the biggest challenge facing young Nigerians today. With youth unemployment at 46percent, I don’t think there is any point inNigeria’s history when so many young people are out of work. And you bet 30 million idle hands may indeed be dangerous. CheckTunisia. CheckEgypt. This thought must have occupied Abdullahi’s mind and the reason why he worked night and day to get YEP ready for this financial year.

YEP aims to empower between 250,000 – 1 million Nigerian youth in two years with the skills, experience, and business development support that they require to gain meaningful employment and/or start successful businesses. The idea is to ensure that they gain meaningful skill through the promotion of industry-driven training, work experience and entrepreneurship in partnership with public, private and nonprofit institutions.

Its central focus is to tackle the youth unemployment at its base, which really is not the lack of jobs, but the lack of marketable skills by young people and unavailability of credit. Four strategies  were designed to do this: employability/entrepreneurial training vocational training, job placement and business support & credit. The programme was designed in such a way that it would not give handouts to young people, which often results in no identified long tem benefits. Instead qualified youth will get vouchers, which will grant them access to the different aspects of the programme. The pilot scheme will take off this year.

Abdullahi also had a programme to address ethical and moral concerns about the youth. The objective of his Drive The Future Nigeria campaign is to develop a new generation of Nigerian youth who are complete citizens in character, competence, self-confidence and social connections. Abdullahi wanted to help build the youth who are secure and proud enough to say first, before anything else, “I am a Nigerian.” His vehicles to achieve that goal were wide range of seminars, workshops and media programmes. The target was that by 2014, DRIVE THE FUTURE NIGERIA would have graduated three batches of Nigerian youth between the ages of 10 and 17, and 18 to 35 who have been equipped to become complete citizens in character and empowered to make positive contributions to society.

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These programmes demonstrated Abdullahi‘s passion for youth development issues and his willingness to follow the narrow path by developing programmes that respond to actual needs of society. This was reason too for the NYSC reforms, which emphasises the service component of the scheme. Now corps members are only posted to areas of national priorities:  education, rural health, infrastructure and agriculture. Not anymore are corps members to be redeployed for frivolous reasons. Service has been returned to the NYSC!

It is hard capturing all the ex-Minister’s strides in youth development in one article. Some will ‘suffer.’ Like his revolutionary virtual meeting with youth via twitter, the plan to conduct a disaggregation studies (census) of Nigerian youth, and his campaign against sexual violence against young women.

But I am sure not everyone would consider Abdullahi’s one-year tenure in youth development a runaway success.

But these political youth apart, any fair assessment of Abdullahi’s tenure as Youth Minister would show that he had a good run.

Mr. JULIUS OGUNRO, public affairs analyst,  wrote from Abuja.

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