The president, National Youth Council of Nigeria (NYCN), Mr. Ajani Olawale James, in this interview with Ruth Yamta, talks about how he intends to take the body to new heights if re-elected. He also reveals certain challenges facing the group at the moment.
What have you so far achieved as the leader of NYCN?
I came into NYCN precisely in 2010, and I came in at a time that there were a lot of challenges facing the council. One of the first things I did was to focus on reforming the National Youth Council of Nigeria. Within a very short time, I was ready to lead a process to develop the National Youth manifesto. It was actually a document on the aspirations of the young people in Nigeria and we looked at critical areas like education, employment and sustainable development, etc.
Secondly, the first time, I developed also a plan of action for the National Youth Council which is supposed to guide our programme and our focus for the next three years. Also, when I came in, the secretariat of the National Youth Council was an eyesore and we went ahead to do a refurbishment. We expanded the space in terms of getting young people to move around the country. We’ve been very good in media relations since I came on board.
Also, we have participated in different international fora, which Nigerian youths were adequately represented. So, we’ve been working closely with development partners, which had never happened before I came on board, and we have also been building a kind of a sustainable process of bringing leadership in terms of training and re-training young people, because one of the problems we have in this country today is the unpreparedness of our leaders.
So, we’ve seen that as a focus and this is what I have been able to achieve over time.
Given all these achievements you mentioned, do you think you have the credentials for re-election?
Obviously, I will say categorically that I’m very much qualified for re-election. There’s no doubt about that because experience counts; that’s one. Two, I wouldn’t have had any reason to seek re-election because I was supposed to be in office for three years.
Our tenure was supposed to elapse next year but due to the fact that there are a lot of challenges within the council and, truly, if you are leading the young people and they are the ones that voted you in, there’s no reason why you should be afraid of an election. As part of the peace process and the leadership tussle that has been in the council, I agreed that we should go for a fresh election, and we’re going back to status quo.
And if truly the youths believe in you and also they believe that you have leadership qualities, they will vote for you. So, I have all it takes to lead the Nigerian youth regardless of all the challenges being faced.
Also, it has been a platform which, I believe, has groomed me to be more thick-skinned than what I was before coming into the National Youth Council. I believe that there are still lots to be done in terms of making the young people of this country believe in themselves and making them do the right things.
These are some of the qualities I believe I can still inject in the National Youth Council system. We have a lot of people that are contesting - there’s no doubt about that - but what singles me out is the fact that I can make a difference and my records are there. Within the last few months I’ve been in office, I have been able to touch lives in terms of youth work. It’s not just noisemaking; I’ve been able to be a newsmaker.
The national executive council (NEC) of NYCN accused you of abandoning your mandate; what is your take on that?
I don’t know what that is supposed to mean, but if I should say something from my own perspective, I think the mandate which they are referring to is agreeing to run a transitional process. Who gave you the mandate? The youth. Who forms the nucleus of NYCN? The State chapters and voluntary organisation. The same people came together and said they wanted a fresh election. Can you have a mandate in isolation? It’s not possible.
That’s the problem we are having in this country. The people should be able to say, this is what they want. They elected you and if they believe in you, they will re-elect you. You don’t need to force yourself on anybody. It is not that I have abandoned my mandate. But what is the benefit of a mandate when there is an intense power tussle and contention. It is not showing good representation of the organisation.
So, we agreed in principle that we should go for a fresh election and, to me, it is God that gives power. If truly the youths believe in my leadership, they will vote for me and, if otherwise, I will continue with my normal life. It won’t make any difference but I have not abandoned any mandate. The mandate was given to me by the same people that want to re-elect me.
What actually necessitated your suspension?
This issue has been raised over time and I laughed over it. There is nothing like suspension in my diary. I have never been suspended because there is a process to everything. Before you can suspend a member of the executive, much more a president, the constitution is clear, the president will convene a meeting and, at that particular meeting, there will be some deliberations before you can go to the level of suspension.
There was no such meeting called by my person or by the two-thirds of the executive. And I don’t think there is any offence apart from the purported claim of some of my aggrieved executives, believing that we should not go for a fresh congress. So, there is nothing like suspension. It is just a child’s play that does not really make any difference, and over the last few months, I think I have been in charge and I’m still in charge. It is as clear as that; nothing like suspension.
How will you react to the decision of the NEC of NYCN, asking you to stop smear campaign against the SSA to the President?
I have not done that. My antecedent is very clear. I’m not a blackmailer. I can say categorically that those people that actually did that, with due respect to my Muslim brothers, it was actually during Salah, they are political jobbers and they needed money. They need to go out and look for someone to get it from. When you want to do such business, you d on’t use a small fish; you have to use a bigger fish to negotiate. It’s part of the problem in this country.
As for me, I’ve never been involved in such a thing and I will never be involved in it. I have nothing against the Special Adviser to the President on Political Affairs. He is somebody that I respect so much. Even though we had differences at a particular time, but it has nothing to do with blackmailing him or being rude to him. I wasn’t brought up that way.
I was brought up to respect elders. I still owe him that respect at any point in time. But the youths that went there to do that, they actually needed money to celebrate Salah.
With all these things happening, don’t you think you risk expulsion?
I have not been suspended; how can I be expelled? Thank God that we are having this interview today. That same Friday that they brought this news to me, I was at the Ministry of Youth Development and he just instructed me to invite executive members to the International Youth Day Celebration coming up in a few days’ time and it’s clear that I will even be meeting all the state chairmen of NYCN, the validation committee and the electoral committee of the council.
So, they don’t have such capacity. I can say categorically that it is just mere noisemaking that won’t hold water. They are only scared of election. Even if there is no election, one day, we have to leave our positions for other people to come in. So, the issue of expulsion does not arise. It has never happened to me. This is not the first time I’m serving. I never engaged myself in what would make me get expelled either from school or any organisation.
I call it another form of joblessness. Maybe if they are busy, having something to do for themselves, they might do better things than chasing an individual who they have tried to bring me down, but it hasn’t been possible for them. Touch not my anointed and do my prophet no harm. The more they try, the more they fail. So, I think it’s better for them to get that clear rather than wasting the little resources they have for themselves.
So, what is the way forward?
Well, the way forward is very clear. We ought to have our election in the next few days but just some few days ago, we were told to hold on and that is why we will be having a meeting of the executive soon to decide the new date for the congress.
Obviously, the solution to the problem of NYCN is getting the right kind of leadership with good mind. Youth Council is not basically an organisation that has money or allocation, but you will find out that a majority of the people that are in the council today believe that you can make a lot of money in the council - and it’s not helping us. In a situation whereby, probably, out of 23 executive members, you have less than 20% or 25% that are gainfully employed, you must face these kinds of challenges.
What I see that should even be the major criterion is: where are you coming from? What do you do for a living? That’s what I think that should be the criterion for becoming a leader of NYCN. It is not about any other thing, but if you want to have a meeting, sometimes, you have to think deeply whether you have the money to host people that are coming from outside Abuja. So, it’s a very big issue.
Also, there’s problem of creativity among the youths of this country: we are not creative; we can’t come up with sustainable ideas that can make things work. That’s one of the challenges we are facing at the Youth Council. I usually tell people that National Youth Council is the microcosm of Nigeria. If the leadership of NYCN can get it right - and they say we are future leaders, then the future is near.
Some of us don’t really know what we want. We are just waiting for other people to come and spoonfeed us. Though, some of us are fathers and mother at the Youth Council but we are not sustainable as human beings. That’s the problem and I think we are going to have a more robust leadership at the upcoming election that can give direction to the council.
You said earlier on that NYCN does not get any allocation; so, how have you been running it?
Currently, we are working on subventions, grants and membership dues, but, unfortunately because of some of the challenges, we have not been able to get much from theb parent ministry. Since I came on board, I know that they’ve only paid our subvention once. So, that has been the only way we’ve been surviving.
Also, under my leadership, we have currently started developing a bill which ought to be presented to the National Assembly to make the council get a first- line charge from the Federation Account, but because of the tussle, we have to suspend that, hoping that if I’m re-elected, this will be done because we have done all the necessary groundwork and the lobbying at the National Assembly for this to sail through.
But we can’t have it done when we have leadership tussle. So, as soon as we finish our election and I’m re-elected, it’s just a matter of presenting the bill and we move on from that level.
Do you get any support from NGOs?
Initially, when I came on board, we were able to get the support of UNSPA. UNSPA actually trained me and when they discovered that I won that election, they came in fully to support NYCN. Also, the International Republican Institute (IRI) has been supporting our programmes.
We have also gotten support from United Nations Alliance on Civilisation (UNAC) and some other domestic NGOs who believe in what we are doing. We have many of them, but nobody wants to work with you if you are not doing things right.
What should the Nigerian youth expect from you when re-elected?
I think my major interest is entrepreneurship. The number one problem of Nigerian youths is the problem of sustainable livelihood and we can relate this to so many other issues. The level of poverty among young people is quite alarming. It is not only poverty of cash; it is also poverty of the mind.
A lot of young people are not exposed and they don’t believe in themselves. Some of them who are privileged to attend higher institutions are just to get the certificate. They don’t know what to do with it after leaving the institution. My main focus is to create a kind of platform, whereby young people will begin to do business on their own and also to advocate an incentive for people who are ready to start business.
As the voice of Nigerian youths, I believe that there should be some tax incentives, support in terms of finance, support in terms of training, and support in terms of partnership with young people to develop their entrepreneurial skills. And they should allow the young people to do their own things. We’ve been battling with the system in this country because you will find out that when they are talking about the issue of the young people, we see an adult taking charge.
They should create an enabling environment whereby the youths can take charge of the processes that have to do with them. That’s why our past leaders in this country, when it comes to the issue of Nigeria disintegrating, they don’t like it because they have a stake. My interest also is in the vulnerable youths, like youths living with HIV. These are my areas of concern if I’m re-elected.
In the area of agriculture, there are so many things to be done. In the area of ICT, there are so many jobs to be created. Government can make policies that can ruin your business. They can also make policies that are youth-friendly. So, my leadership would hold dialogue with the government and make them see reasons why some policies must be youth-friendly. If this is done, a lot of young people will have a brighter future and they will be happy about Nigeria.
That has been one of the challenges of young people in this country. A lot of people want to get out of this country because they feel Nigeria is a country without hope. There can be hope because government has used policies to help a lot of businessmen in Nigeria - like Dangote; government policy has helped him.
So, why can’t these policies also be youth-friendly and help young people to grow because the problem of insecurity we are having in this country today - when you look at the perpetrators, the majority of perpetrators are young people. Those people also that are dying, they are young people, especially the young, innocent women. All these government policies can make things happen.
What’s your advice for the Nigerian youths?
My simple advice is that we should not engage in any form of violence. We should believe in ourselves. If you believe in yourself, even when things are not working for others, you will still be having what the Christians call faith and say it must work for me. If you believe in yourself, even when you are in a desert, you are going to make things work for you. So, my simple advice is, we should believe in ourselves and, by extension, we should believe In Nigeria.