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Let Obasanjo Criticising Buhari Over Unemployment Show His Record As President – Sunday Dare
The Minister of Youths and Sports Development, SUNDAY DARE, speaks about his activities in office in this interview with FRIDAY OLOKOR
You were a journalist before venturing into public service and politics. What was the transition like?
You know I have had a number of transitions; I have transited from being a journalist essentially to being a manager, a news manager at the Voice of America. I had moved from there to being a publisher, I had moved from there to go back to school for an academic research in journalism and then I moved on to become a political appointee, working at the NCC (Nigeria Communications Commission). But even before then, I worked to help build new political alignments. Under that, we moved from the alliance of the opposition parties to the merger when I worked with Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu as Chief of Staff. Thereafter, I got my first major public appointment when President Muhammadu Buhari made me the Federal Executive Commissioner at the Nigerian Communications Commission where I worked for two and a half years.
I have said in the past, it is like moving from a bit of theory into practicality. You know, unless you step into the puddle you cannot say exactly what the texture is. So, moving from being a journalist, being an analyst, being a writer, being a reviewer and all, to now having to deal with implementing and turning government policies and initiatives into a reality was quite a transition. But because I have the experience of managing resources and administration at both international and local levels, all of these came together. What, for me, was important was the marriage between media and public policy. The media essentially is to monitor the policies of government and then to find a way in which you can make the people understand the policies of government, how they work, how they can benefit but in that process you also hold those in power to account. So, as a media person you serve as a barometer but also as a public servant, so, it is quite a transition. But I think I settled down into that transition earlier because I was able to marry these two worlds.
We are two years in the saddle, the jury is still out, we have tried our best, we have done things differently, we have ruffled a bit of feathers, we have shaken the table, some do not agree with us, but as a journalist, I deal with facts. I am able to compare what I met on the ground with what we have done; I am able to talk about the new change we brought, which is deliberate and for some of them the impact will be felt when we are long gone.
Some people believe that under your watch sports has got more attention than the matter of the youth. How do you respond to that?
There is a default position, which is that more focus is on sports because of the glamour and some other things. But right from the start, I did say I was going to put youths and sports on an even keel. I am going to make sure that youths get visibility and sports also get visibility and that is what we have been doing. For example, we are able to look at two columns and under youths we can list some of the things we have done; and also under sports we can list what we have done or are doing.
We promised to deliver two major policies, one far-reaching youth policy and one far-reaching sports policy. The first one we delivered was for youths – the establishment of the Nigerian Youth Investment Fund. The first umbrella concept we delivered was also for youths, which is DEEL – Digital Literacy, Employability, Entrepreneurship and Leadership. We delivered on those two and we have just moved ahead.
And then you come to sports; we worked to get sports reclassified as business and not just sports as recreation. We have worked in 18 months to make sure that we did a review of the national sports policy. We have worked in the last 18 months to rewrite a sports industry policy that has a business model or orientation. We are at a point in which we are about to deliver on it. That is a far-reaching policy. We have enjoyed the support of Mr President in all of these efforts. People have to deal with facts, you check your facts and you can see that the efforts we have made have been to address the two mandate areas that we have.
Recall also, 65 per cent of those involved in sports actively, representing this country at the national, continental and international levels, are youths because once you hit the band of 31 or 32 years, except you are exceptionally blessed you cannot compete at the highest level. So, there is a sense in saying youths and sports, so sometimes they say sports and if you support the youths to benefit from processes, to have a career path, it is also investment in the youths. So you can hardly separate youths and sports.
Nigerians are generally concerned about the rising youth unemployment in the country. Former President Olusegun Obasanjo once described it as a time bomb. Does this administration really have a strategy to address this?
What did President Obasanjo do to address youth unemployment when he was in power for eight years? If he had built and laid down a sustainable model, subsequent governments would have followed through because it is not enough to say it is a time bomb. But the Buhari government is doing something different. Youth unemployment and general unemployment have been with us for a long time, it didn’t start just six years ago; it didn’t start on this President’s watch. You must also link it with the international economic trajectory. Even before COVID-19, you saw economies struggle from North America to Europe and the rest of the world. Revenues were dwindling, nations were running into massive debts, including America, and then you saw what happened with the COVID-19 pandemic; negative (economic) growth all over. The data are there, it is a global village, Nigeria is not an island, Nigeria is not insulated from these global shocks and what happened eventually. You saw the level of poverty rising, people losing their employment, more people becoming underemployed, some unemployed. So, I am just giving you a realistic perspective.
Yes, it is worrisome that we have increasing unemployment among the youth but it also cuts across. And more needs to be done by both private and public sectors. Therefore, I want to focus on what this administration has been doing consciously and deliberately. We have seen in six years an administration that has tried to change the fundamentals of youth engagement, away from just getting a job in a government agency, laying emphasis on training and entrepreneurship, we have seen how about 35 to 40 youth-focused programmes were created and youths have benefited from them. We have seen deliberate efforts to frontally attack youth employment through multi-faceted approaches, by trying to restart the economy, providing necessary infrastructures. So, when you look at it, there is no tailor-made solution to youth unemployment and the challenge every government has is to find a way to bring down youth unemployment.
As a ministry, we have also found out that it is not just about offering letters of employment, we can turn our youths to wealth creators, entrepreneurs through SMEs and we have seen quite a number of programmes, we have the GEEP, the BoI giving out various types of loans, we have seen the Nigerian Youth Investment Forum programme; we have seen SMEDAN, we have the Ministry of Trade and Investment doing several programmes and when you look at the whole gamut of these programmes, they are all aimed at helping youths that are unemployed get employed, providing the necessary capital and access to credit that they need to become self-starters and entrepreneurs.
Also, let us look at government policies, some of them deliberate, to restart and energise the industries and other sectors of the economy that can take them (youths) in.
It is true that this government rolled out youth empowering programmes, including the N-Power scheme, but it would appear that there is little impact if the unemployment rate in the country is still about 33 per cent?
It depends on how you see the glass – some see the glass half empty, some see the glass as half full; it just depends on which angle you are looking at. I see the glass as half full.
N-Power is just one programme for youth empowerment, there are many others. About a year ago, the Federal Government produced a fact sheet of 45 youth-focused programmes being run under about seven ministries and about a dozen agencies and parastatals. A few of them have wound down; a few of them are ongoing. The point is, how many people really know about this programmes or hear about them? How many people apply themselves to the process of benefitting from these programmes? Remember, during COVID-19, they also rolled out so many programmes led by the CBN (Central Bank of Nigeria), people benefited, households benefited in millions of naira, the facts are there. So, the point is this, N-Power remains the largest youth empowerment programme in sub-Sahara Africa today engaging the youths and keeping them busy.
I talked about GEEP, it is also empowering youths. I talked about BoI, they are doing a lot. Then you talk about others that cut across the strata of the society, the TraderMoni and all of that. And then you come to the Nigerian Youth Investment Fund, which is a fund for three years and as soon as it hits its speed, we are going to see the onboarding of thousands of our youths. These are all programmes for the youth.
This government has less than two years left. How many youths do you hope to take out of poverty before bowing out?
The President has set a target, he is saying in 10 years he will take a 100 million Nigerians out of poverty. What I often say is that once you provide employment for someone, you have provided them with a means of livelihood, and you have inevitably lifted that person out of poverty because poverty means you don’t have an income, you can’t buy food, you can’t do anything.
I don’t want to just put out numbers because there are processes that we have to go through but from our own side, the focus is to first make sure that in the next one year we wrap up the number of the youths that have been up-skilled when it comes to digital skill, which is important; we want to wrap up that number between 200,000 and 250,000 that have digital skills, that is at our own level. Other ministries are offering digital training.
When it comes to benefiting from the youth investment fund, there is a target that is set; don’t forget that this is not a grant, it is a loan, so even if we say this is our target, the youths must come forward and accept the terms of the loan. We have youths that we have given this loan and they refused to accept the money, they said, “We don’t want it, we don’t want to pay the five per cent (interest); they said thought the money was free. We have projects to say we want to give half a million (naira) and if they reject it, there is nothing (government can do). What is important is that that opportunity has been provided by this government, to say we are putting down this money, you follow whatever is necessary for you to do and then you can access the fund for the benefit of your business.
Is there any hope for youths looking forward to mass employment into the federal civil service to fill up vacancies created my retirements?
I am not the Head of Service but what you must also understand is that every government works with data and you would be shocked at the amount of work that goes on in government. You have a Ministry of Finance, Budget and National Planning, you have the office of the budget, you have the Head of Service, you have the Secretary to the Government of the Federation, these people get on the same page, they look at data, they look at revenue, there is a budget process and then you look at it. Is the value of our currency today what it was two years ago? Is the revenue accruable to government the same as what it was two years ago?
So, there are a lot of factors that goes into taking decisions on either retrenchment or employing new people. What is the point of employing new people in the civil service and not being able to pay them?
Don’t also forget we are in a digital world now where what is being done by five people can be done by two people. So, when the world is being digitalised in terms of work spaces, then there is shrinking of the civil service. But then again, it is the resources and the revenue available to government that determines, to a large extent, this but again I am not the Head of Service.
Nigerian youths are not pleased with age limit on employment, especially by public institutions. Do you have any plan to address this?
When you look at it, there are different regimes of the youth band. It might interest you to know that the African Union has a different band for youth, the United Nations has a different age band for youth, Nigeria has a different age band for youth. So you don’t have the age band for youth cast in stone. But, of course, you have that age band hovering between 15 and 40 years. My point is that there are arguments to be made for the age band to be increased to 40 years and I challenge the youths, go find those arguments and make them compelling and put forward the proposal and as a minister we are going to take it through and see whether it has merits. It is an argument that I think is desirable.
As it is now, most of our programmes are pegged at between the ages of 18 years and 35 years for the youth band. But even in that youth band, look at it, 65 per cent of the population of our youths is below 25 years and that in itself is massive. So, now to think of if you extend it to 40 years you bring more people into that but our youths are smart, they should find those arguments and put them forward and then we will look at them.
Nigerian’s performance in football at the senior level has been really unimpressive. But interestingly you once said the coach of the Super Eagles would know his fate soon.
The jury is still out there on two fronts. The jury is still out there on the performance of Gernot Rohr. The jury is out there on the performance of the Super Eagles. But I would say, first, when you have individual stars who are professional stars in their rights, who play for different clubs, who play under different coaches and different patterns, you are going to need a bit of time to build them up into a team. Having 11 stars on your squad doesn’t necessarily give you a team. So, the challenge is how to blend these stars and make a team out of them; it is a building process.
And I did say we must move from merely assembling to building and I think we are making that transition. I think the phase of just assembling them is already fading out and we are beginning to see the building of the team. I did watch their two games, the one in Lagos, I have not seen them more comfortable in their skin, they are beginning to connect with each other; yes, I am seeing that and we need that trajectory to continue as we prepare for Qatar 2022.
The coach has a job to do; his job is clearly spelt out. The benchmarks and the expectations are there, he knows them. What we have to do is just wait because we already gave him a contract. We know the benchmarks we have given him through the NFF contract and if he doesn’t get there, I do not have to break a sweat, we will just activate the contract. That is it.
What is your ministry doing especially as Nigerian prepares for the next World Cup; given the public perception of the team being unimpressive in recent times?
The question of being unimpressive is very subjective. We have seen other countries also struggle. Football, sports generally, the assumption that you must win all the time (is false); things happen, you also need time. We’ve seen countries that got knocked out in the first round of qualifiers. Some played a draw and they got in trouble. We got two wins; yes, we want to see improvements but at least we won two of our games; we are leading our group with six points and that should count for something. So, what we should emphasise now is what do we need to do to improve the cohesion and the goal thirst of our team.
Two, we have seen that the issue of resources has always been the elephant in the room. How do we get enough resources for allowances, for bonuses, for wining and for all of that? Now you have seen that when we started we kept emphasising public-private partnership, to either adopt an athlete or adopt a team, just the whole idea of leveraging private sector money for sports development.
We have seen the NFF buy into that, we have seen efforts of several of them coming to feature. We got Baba Ijebu of Premier Lotto sign a N300m agreement with NFF to support our national teams, it was delivered. Two weeks ago, we saw MTN sign something much higher with the NFF to sponsor our national teams. A week earlier, we had Air Peace sign a N300m to deliver. As I speak, the ink is just about drying on Stanbic IBTC to deliver. Now if these come together, we are able to prepare our team, there is a lot of focus, we are able to bring in the necessary technical crew that we need to prepare them, we will definitely do well.
Why has Nigeria failed to field athletes in categories other than weight lifting, boxing and a few other categories?
We are very precise and that is what every country does. You look at where you have the best comparative advantage. In hurdles, for instance, our 100 metres hurdler is at a vantage position in the world. You look at long jump, our athlete, Ese Brume, is the second or fifth in the world. Then you go to another sport, I don’t want to mention it, our best athlete in that sport is rated number 250 in the world. Now, why do you want to take that person to the Olympics when you have others that are number, 40, 30, 25?
So we did something very precise, very scientific, we benched-marked it and that is why we settled down to 10. And even before I came, the previous ministers also settled down to like 12 and then you give it your resources, your support. You know that in Olympics it is the first, second and the third that matter, every other ones fall by the wayside. But that is not to say that if we find our athletes come very strong in other sports, we can’t do 15 or 20 sports at the Olympics.
There are already talks about the 2023 general elections. Is it true that you are eyeing Oyo State governorship?
No. No plans for governorship. My plan right now is to succeed at the assignment given to me by President Muhammadu Buhari for the Nigerian people.