BY OKEY EZEH
My dear youths, I write to you with all sense of responsibility at this critical point in our journey to self-actualisation both as individuals and as a people with a common destiny under God. I salute you for holding your heads high at a time and in a place where being a youth is almost a metaphor for deprivation, suffering and frustration.
I should know for I was a youth not too long ago. Infact, some still say I am a youth at 44 years of age! Even if anyone disagrees with this generous concession that places me on the borderline of the youth categorization, I still see enough of your plight and feel enough empathy for you to know that there has never been a more difficult time to be a young person of 35 years and below in Imo than now.
Growing up in the Eighties in a rustic Obohia community in Mbaise, I would wake up by at first cock-crow by five o-clock in the morning and sprint down the narrow footpath to the village water reservoir, the Iyi Uzaku stream and scoop up a bucket of water and balance it on my head for a return journey to my father’s compound where I would hastily complete other chores before reporting to morning mass and then school. Like President Jonathan, I did not wear any shoes to school and the government of the day then was not gracious enough to provide sandals or school uniform but we had quality teachers in every basic subject who knew their onions and made learning so much joy. Progressing to secondary school opened up another vista as the Federal Government Colleges of those days were acknowledged centres of excellence affordable to most people, even to children of village teachers like myself. University was the icing on the cake especially if one were fortunate to secure admission into one of the premier institutions like the universities in Nsukka, Ibadan, Ife, and Lagos. The Careers, Guidance and Counseling Departments of these schools were a beehive of activities for corporate recruitment teams from multinational companies like Exxon-Mobil, Shell, Unilever (Lever Brothers then), UACN, Arthur Andersen, Citibank (Nigeria International Bank then) and a host of other blue chip companies seeking to sign-on talented young graduands. Yours truly was particularly privileged to have been in a position to choose from four jobs offered by four different organizations on this list even before the ink dried on my final degree papers. That was in 1991 when the national Gross Domestic Product was a paltry $270 billion and not the $510 billion we have rebased it to today. Why is this apparent progress not reflecting in growth and development as measured by employment opportunities for young people of today? I have heard someone argue that it is because of the quality of graduates that our institutions of today produce but I ask if this is not a riddle of the chicken and egg and knowing which one came first.
Today, we have a bursary system (some actually call it free education!) that seeks to cushion the cost of education at the tertiary level and that ordinarily should have guaranteed a wider access to eligible candidates but what we have is a puzzling restrictiveness that gives passage in matters of admission to 80% of non-indigenes and 20% to indigenes in a disingenuous application of the Pareto Principle. This is even as standards have been taking an unchecked free-fall for years.
In 2014 Imo, we have the dubious distinction of having 11 faculties at the Imo State University with disciplines not accredited by the relevant rating boards and these include, wait for it, medicine and law!. The Polytechnic at Umuagwo has not fared any better in passing the accreditation hurdles of the National Board on Technical Education (NBTE) hence her products have been having a running battles with all manner of authorities questioning the relevance of their certificates including the National Youth Service Corps who have repeatedly ejected them from their camps. We have tumbled from our previous Olympian height in educational attainment to now record average performance grade of 46.03% in this year’s WAEC results, a performance that placed us in the 9th position behind states like Anambra which came 1st with 67.85% and second-placed Abia with 65.17%. Not even the N100.00 imprest paid to our secondary and primary school pupils have provided the needed drive to excel.
Don’t get it wrong; we didn’t come to this sorry pass overnight. It was a gradual descent into near-hopelessness brought about by an accumulation of missed opportunities and a labyrinth of roads not taken. Successive administrations have neglected to invest in critical social services like health and education. This is why there are only 3 consultants for the 11 (some say 9) existing General Hospitals in the state. We currently have 87 Mathematics and 20 Additional Maths teachers (I hear more than half of them are due for retirement by the end of the year) to cater for the 548 public schools in the states while we have about 103 teachers for English Language with a significant number also due for retirement soon.
The National Employment Survey currently estimates that Imo has 800,000.00 unemployed youths. This figure will probably be more if the number of our people in the throes of disguised unemployment are included. I refer to hordes of young men and women whose names have been included in the nominal rolls of ministries and parastatals and who arrive offices every day, tick their names on a register, shuffle a few files, gossip around office hallways, collect a few gratifications from hapless members of the public and spend the rest of the day sending and responding to friendship requests on Facebook.
My dear youths, as bleak as the picture is painted, do not despair. Imo is not beyond salvation. We have another opportunity to reinvent the state and harness our vast natural and human resources to the benefit of all. There is need for a leadership that will immediately re-order priorities to squarely face the existential threat of poverty in the land. We require a leadership that will funnel resources away from non-regenerative, cosmetic schemes to agro-based industrialization drive using the industrial cluster model that will be spread across the three zones of the state. We desperately need a leader that will run a transparent and accountable, value-for-money administration with zero tolerance for corruption, ineptitude and cronyism. This alone will free up huge resources that will be applied to harnessing our virtually limitless agricultural potentials. We need a visionary that will invest in high-yield fertilizers and introduce organic, high-yield seedling varieties to not only shore up food security in the state but to create the capacity required for the agro-industrial transformation of the state. We need an achiever that will bring back the Farm Settlements of the Michael Okpara era. We need another Alvan Ikoku that will revamp our near-comatose educational system with improved funding, better learning tools and training and re-training of teachers. Such a man will additionally attract grants for our tertiary institutions and enroll them in offshore support programmes, exchanges and linkages that will promote skills and knowledge transfer with institutions of international repute .
There is a glimmer of light in the horizon so my dear youths, we must learn to shun anti-social behaviour and vices for those can only lead to a future filled with regrets. Do not out of present frustration lend yourselves to political jobbers who will use you as touts and strong-arm enforcers for goals that are at odds with a new beginning and a brighter future for you. Neither should you sell your bodies under any circumstances. In your despondency, do not shun the political process for therein lies your greatest strength. The ability to play a pivotal role in choosing a new crop of leaders who have the vision, passion and credibility to usher in a glorious dawn for our state is the trump card you all hold in your hands. You must maximize that power and only then can you proudly proclaim that it is morning again in the heartland.
Okey Ezeh is a frontline gubernatorial aspirant of the All Progressives Grand Alliance (APGA)
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