Speech of Prof. Yemi Osinbajo Nigeria’s Vice President at South-West Youth Regional Summit
I am greatly honored to have been given an opportunity to say a few words here today. And I do not say this merely for correctness. Only a fool will reject an opportunity to speak to the future and the coming generation. I decided, as soon as I was told about this summit, that I must make effort to be here because it is an opportunity to speak to the future.
I must also commend the farsightedness and sense of purpose of the South-West governors under the auspices of the Development Agenda of Western Nigeria (DAWN) for initiating and thinking through a 25-year master-plan for the region. It is also eminently logical that those who are likely to be here in 25 years time should be here to make an input into this very important master-plan. People accuse us in this part of the world of not planning enough but I think that the DAWN Commission and the South-West governors have shown great foresight and they have presented a great example by planning 25 years ahead from today.
It is important because we are told that by the year 2050, we would be the third or the fourth most populous nation in the world. Anyone who knows that you are going to be the third most populous nation in the world must begin to plan now because that future is already here with us.
The Acting Director of DAWN has told us why we are here and he said in particular that they want to get the inputs of the young people who are here and I would like to throw in a few thoughts on what I consider fundamental to the success of individuals and societies.
I am not going to talk about the things that are in the master plan. The master plan already talks about education, healthcare, technology and innovation.
I want to talk about something that I consider the foundation of the success of any community, society or nation and individuals wherever they may be. That foundation is something that is called values. If you look at any society or any individual that has succeeded, values are crucial. Whatever you are seeing that is successful, underlying it are values, if there are no values the society does not work.
Values are the fundamental principle of any society. In the Yoruba culture, they call it “Omoluabi.” It just denotes character, hard work, integrity, courage, and the pursuit of excellence. In other cultures, they call it different names but the principles are the same. The principles that have made other countries successful are the principles that we must work on.
When our fore fathers developed the ethos of “Omoluabi,” they knew even then that those were the principles that would lead to success. And there is no country on the surface of the earth whether they are Afro-Asians, Arabs or whoever they are and wherever they may be, they have had to rely on these principles. So, there is nothing new about what we are saying when we say “Omoluabi” is the fundamental principle for our own development.
I will just take you through a few of those principles so that you will understand that as part of our 25-year development plan, if we don’t enthrone values as a fundamental principle, not much will happen.
The first is to recognize that talent by itself, (is potential & by itself means nothing. If there is no character, if there is no integrity and hard work, talent is nothing at all. The richest place in the world today, the place with the richest mineral potential, is in Africa and that is in the lake region. That is where the largest mineral deposit in the world is but it is also the poorest place in the world. The reason is that no matter how much talent you have, without character there is no way that progress can be made.
The greatest problem that our own country has is the absence of integrity, the greatest problem we have is corruption. If we remove corruption, we would have solved 70 percent of our problems, so, integrity is key anywhere in the world. Some people must make the sacrifice for others’ sake.
Somebody was telling me the other day of a business she started, it was a business of making greeting cards and after about a year she found out that she was not making money but she suddenly found that two graduates who she had employed and were working for her had opened their own stores somewhere in another part of Lagos, they were stealing from her and selling in their own shops. The truth of the matter is that if we do not ensure that businesses can thrive, nobody would be able to create opportunities for others. The reason why it is difficult for people to open branches of their businesses is that if you are not there yourself, you might as well forget your business.
Every society that does not emphasize integrity always fails. I always tell the story of my days as a post-graduate student in the United Kingdom. There was a particular occasion when I could not pay my school fees because we had delays with the Central Bank and so it was very difficult to send money across. So, I went to one of my supervisors and explained that I couldn’t pay my fees and it was getting late and he said to me, “Why don’t you go to the bank and borrow money”, and I said how can I go and borrow money when I don’t have any collateral but he said, “no, go and explain”.
So, I went to the bank and spoke to this lady across the counter, and she looked at my ledger and saw how money had come in and out and I had about 30 pounds left in the account. She asked how much I wanted and I said 600 pounds, she asked when I was going to pay back and I told her maximum two months. She brought out some papers for me to sign and she gave me the money and of course when my cheque came I paid back, and that was in 1981.
By 1984 in the same United Kingdom it was difficult for anyone who had a Nigerian passport to even open an account because many young Nigerian students had assumed that these people must be very stupid; that anybody that can give credit in the way that I was given money must be stupid. Many Nigerians just went in there took money and ran home and by such reason it became impossible for a whole generation of Nigerians to even open bank accounts let alone get money.
There is no question at all that any society that does not emphasize integrity and does not stand on integrity cannot succeed. The whole of the economy is based on trust, even the currency that you spend is based on trust, and business is based on trust. Many times as Nigerians we have lost that trust even dealing with international partners we have lost that trust.
So, it is important for us to understand that no matter what we do we must emphasize this Omoluabi ethos, the ethos of integrity. It is so crucial, without hard work it is impossible to do much. People say all sort of things, they say if you are well connected, you will be a success. There is a limit to what connections can do, even when you are connected enough to be given a job, if you are not serious and hardworking at that job you won’t move up on that job, so hard work is crucial.
I was listening to Governor Aregbesola when he was saying that he met Asiwaju during his participation in the struggle for June 12. I met him-Ashiwaju- in 1998 just after the elections when we were planning for the new government in Lagos State, and the conversations we had at that time were conversations about how to build great societies and it is incredible to note that even till now, anytime I meet him our conversations have always been on how to make the society better.
I listened to the MD of No leftovers, the lady who spoke so well about her progress, it was a short presentation but very powerful because she told how she started and told us where she is today but you must also recognize that in between her starting and now, there is so much she didn’t tell us, she could not have told us how many times she failed in that business before she attained the success that she is today.
I remember a lady also who owned a restaurant just close to a church i pastored in Ikoyi many years ago. She owned a Chinese restaurant called Chinaville and I remember going there with a group of people on this particular day and we were the only ones that were there and while we spoke to her she told us that we were the only customers that she had in three days. She said that some days she had no customers and that every day she will throw away food. She said that she was working in a bank and had to resign, sold her car and raised little money from her parents and started the business. But we encouraged her. That is the way to behave, if you stick at it and remain steadfast, one day you will see progress, Chinaville today is in Victoria Island.
I remember one day, myself, my wife and a minister in our church, we saw this woman driving a red jeep and the minister pointed to her and said “is this not the Chinese restaurant woman, this Chinese business is so easy to make money from”, and I had to tell the minister that there were days when this women used to throw away food, losing money but because she stuck to it and worked hard, and remained at it long enough, today people see her driving a jeep and all that.
It is only hard work, it is only the courage and persistent to remain focused that can get us as individuals and as a nation, from one point to the other.
I study very closely what young people are doing all over Nigeria. I have a group of young people working with me, I’m sure they are over 60 in different fields of expertise; some working in power, some in oil and gas, some in management, and a few of them are here with me, in various fields. These are Nigerian young people, very dedicated, very hard working, experts in their fields; and they are multitasking individuals, they can do a variety of things. Some of them are engineers; but when you hear them talk about agriculture, you will be amazed; some of them who are power experts, when you hear them talking about public health, you will be amazed; young people, almost all of them under 40, but they are so talented, and they are all over the place doing great things.
Like I said, I study very closely what young people are doing, and the reason why I said I study them is because I recognize that this country, which is the largest economy in Africa, is the key to the future, not just of Africa, but of the development of our world.
The places that are left to make the kind of growth and progress that the world can make are not very many. Africa is one such place. So we must watch closely what is happening in Nigeria, and that is one of the reasons why I watch and see exactly what young people are doing and try to encourage them. Today, you see that so many young people are into technology, doing all sorts of things. If you look at it, I’m sure that so many of us have come across Iroko TV, which is something in the world of entertainment and they show and distribute a lot of Nollywood films. A young man is the proprietor, it has become so successful that so many international parties want to buy into that thing. That is just one example.
There is Jobberman. I’m sure most of us know Jobberman, that employment website. Three young Nigerians started the site in 2009 – Olalekan Elude, Ayodeji Adewunmi and Opeyemi Awoyemi. They were young undergraduates at the time they started it, they were students of Obafemi Awolowo University, Ife. They did not have any money, they only had that idea and they pursued that idea. Today, they have grown that investment into a major investment. As a matter of fact, they have divested their interests and have started investing in other start-ups all over Nigeria and the world.
I’m sure many of us have come across the website called Nairaland. Nairaland was started by a very young man, 20-year-old at the time, and also an undergraduate in the university. N10,000 was what he started Nairaland with. Today, Nairaland has more readership than probably all other print newspapers put together, and he started it in a room in the university. He didn’t complain, he didn’t come out to say, “we don’t even know what they are doing here, or what they are doing for us.” No. He saw the opportunity and took the opportunity, and it has become what it has become today. Innovation is critical, we must tell ourselves, we of this nation, and young people in particular, we must tell ourselves that it is good to hear stories of the good old days. I was talking to a group of young people and they were telling me about how “oh, you know in those good old days; your days were much better than our own.” But I would say, no. You must be very suspicious of people who are always talking of the good old days. There are no days that are better than the present, and no days would be better than the future. If we look at it, the opportunities that you have today I cannot have.
I remember as a young university lecturer, when I was doing a research, just one, I was researching an issue on “illegitimacy in Nigeria”, it took me eight weeks to just find the right materials. Today, I can sit at my desk in my study and just online, in a matter of hours, I can do all the research I need. We have all manner of opportunities now that nobody would have dreamt of some years ago. In fact, I remember a conversation we had in 1992 when one man was talking of technology, and he said one day, everybody would have telephones, he said even a beggar on the streets would have telephones and everybody laughed. But today, almost everyone has a telephone. The opportunities today are great, the opportunities are many. We must not keep looking back and saying, oh, maybe the good old days; but the good old days are here already. The days of today are your own days. You owe yourself the responsibility of ensuring that you maximise what you have today.
Education is critical. Everybody knows that education is so important, but let me just say to you, self-education is probably more important–educating yourself. A lot of us, of our own generation and even before, did a lot of self-education. I remember Ogbeni Rauf Aregbesola who was telling me how he came across Marxist principles. He picked it up from reading some sheets of paper scattered across all over the place, I think, in front of the mosque, Marxist literature, literature talking about Karl Marx, etc.
I remember in 2005, Ogbeni and I went to Cuba for his son’s graduation; he was on scholarship in Cuba then. We were met by all his old compatriots from the communist days. Fidel Castro was excited to see him in Cuba. And here’s a man who was living in Ikare at the time, he had not travelled anywhere, but because he was curious and was looking for information and he was educating himself, he made friends, without the Internet, just by writing letters. He made friends across the world, such that when we were going to Cuba in 2005, he was welcomed as a hero.
So it is important that we understand self-education. The Internet is full of ideas, so much information.
There is no reason why a young Nigerian should speak only one language; there is no reason why he/she should not speak French or Spanish or German, and you can learn everything now on the Internet. It is easy to learn. There is no excuse. Some of you young people who are here today would be working in the United Nations, in different UN and international agencies. But you can’t do so if you are speaking only one language. You must be multilingual or at least bilingual. If they ask, what language do you speak, and you say English and Yoruba, or English and Itsekiri. No. You must be able to speak at least two international languages, and there is no reason why not. At any age, you can learn a language, and you must do so. We must self-educate ourselves.
The other thing I want to leave with you before I go is the value of small beginnings. I think it was Governor Ajimobi who emphasised that point, that don’t ever assume that because today does not look good, that today you don’t have anything or a job, it means that tomorrow is going to be the same; of course not. The value that thrives, what endures forever is the courage and persistence of human beings. That is the only thing that keeps human beings going; it is their courage and persistence. The difference between success and failure is your ability to see today and say although things are not working today, I am sure that tomorrow will be brighter and you make sure that you work towards it.
I was telling some people that I graduated early in life. At the age of 21, I was already a law graduate. I started teaching at the age of 24. So, in every way, I could be considered fortunate because I graduated early. But at that period of my life, teaching and being involved in legal practice, I was earning very little, because in the university we were paid N20 a month but we were able to do a few things. And I explained to these people who I was talking to that I never used a brand new car until 1998. Anybody seeing me in my old car in 1998 would have said, “Well, this man, what is he up to? He’s a professor, he is an advocate, but he must be keeping some money somewhere.” But I recognized even then that, it was important to build something, it was important for me that, in the future, I must be able to look back and encourage some people, young people, and let them know that they don’t have to steal, they don’t have to cheat or do anything untoward to get money. And I was saying that it is possible for a person to earn a salary, it may not be enough, but you are developing yourself, you are building up yourself.
A time came in my life that people would give me cars. Life itself is a journey; it is not a hundred-meter dash. If you hurry too much and you go around shortcuts, you would end up in big problems. There are people who would say, at the age of thirty-something, I must have built a house. Why must you build a house at the age of thirty-something? I built my own house at the age of 50. I moved into my house at the age of 51 and I enjoyed the house. Before then I used to live in a house that I rented. It was a rented accommodation. So there is nothing to be said for saying that by the age of 20, you would do this. So what? If God helps you and you are successful honestly, at the age of 20, fantastic. But don’t be under any pressure; don’t let anybody put you under pressure. You must be determined to work hard, you must determine to be a person of integrity, determine to ensure that you build your works correctly, so that at the end of the day, you are able to enjoy whatever you have in peace.
Finally, let me just say that we must also recognize that every generation owes itself the duty of converting its challenges to opportunities and success. And you must not see yourself as young people of the South-West alone. Yes, you are South-West citizens, you were born and bred here, but you are actually citizens of the world. You are citizens of Nigeria. You must make contacts across the country, you must build bridges across the country; you must see yourself first and foremost as a Nigerian citizen. It is from this Nigeria that we would make the kind of progress that each and every one of us need. There is no point doing our business only in the South-west, Nigeria is our playing field; this country is big enough. The advantage of our country is that it has everything that we need, and we must take advantage of it.
So while we are here locally, we must think nationally, and we must think globally. And we must act nationally, and we must act globally.
Thank you very much.