The United Nation’s Youth Envoy, Ms. Jayathma Wickramanayake, had a tour of a few Africa countries in the past few days to interact with youths and governments of the region on how to further boost the chances of youths on the continent to excel. She arrived Nigeria on Thursday February 8, after visiting Senegal, Ghana and Gambia. Wickramanayake was with Nigeria’s Ministers of Foreign Affairs, Health, Youth and Sports, Women and Social development, and had interactions with hundreds of youths from diverse fields in the country – all in a bid to enhance the youth’s opportunities, and harness their resources to make the nation great.
She also spoke with select journalists in the nation’s capital on her agenda and challenges of youth in the country. Our Bureau Chief, ‘Tayo Albert, who was at the briefing, reports. Excerpts
You’ve visited four countries in West Africa region in the last few days, what messages are you taking back home?
I’ve been to four countries in West Africa starting from Senegal, Ghana, Gambia, and now I am in Nigeria. I will be stopping in South Africa, and will pick this conversation up with some of our principal UN system, including Executive Director of UNFPA, Nathaniel Kanem. Talking about sexual reproductive health and young people specifically, it’s been a very interesting experience for me to personally meet the young people of Nigeria who are bringing new solutions to the table.
On the evening of my first day, I had opportunity to have a town hall meeting with about 250 young people who came to meet me, ask me questions and also made suggestions as to how to shape my roles in the coming years as the Secretary-General’s Youth Envoy.
I also got the opportunity to meet with the number of ministers, including the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Youth Affairs and Health. I also met with the Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Women Affairs and Social Development. And, we had some conversations about how to engage young people, not just as beneficiaries of what this ministry is doing, but mostly as partners, on the field implementation and monitoring and review.
I also had productive conversation with the UN system here, under the leadership of the Resident Coordinator. We also brainstormed on a few ideas about how we as UN can better work for young people on the ground.
Overall, it’s been a very positive experience for me to be exposed to different solutions, like I said, that young people bring to the table. I hope that I give those concerns and solutions back with me to New York to make sure that those concerns are really heard.
What are the solutions to challenges you’ve identified in four countries you’ve visited in Africa, and would you say there are links to identified problems in these Francophone and Anglophone countries?
I can definitely talk about the solutions that I saw, but I’m not sure if I’m in a position to make that comparison, because I don’t think I have the necessary information as to make comparison. In terms of the solution, I think some of the people who presented solutions are in this room, and they may have to elaborate more on that. For example, the “Not-too-young-to-run campaign that they have been talking about…Another solution that I saw yesterday was a young person who founded a vehicle that runs on solar power instead of consuming fuel. Another youth presented another solution – a platform that provides information to the victims of sexual violence. These are just a few, I have seen hundreds of these, not only in Nigeria, but in other parts of West Africa region that I’ve visited.
It’s not just young people bringing in technology, starts up, but it is also young people who are organizing themselves as a movement, as a civil society movement, as a climate change movement, who are coming together to really demand for their space and let the policy makers know that they are watching, and we also need those voices to be heard.
We’ve seen youth lead country like France, do you think African youths are ready for such leadership?
I think youths everywhere in the world are ready for this responsibility. It is just that there are structures and legal barriers that prevent us from participating in political processes. The IPU research, I also quoted it this morning, (shows) that 73 percent of the IPUs member countries have laws that prevent young people from participating in politics.
So, you can vote when you are 18 or 21, but you can’t run for office when you are 18 or 21. This doesn’t really make sense. That is why I also want to use this opportunity to urge the state legislators in Nigeria to adopt the bill that reduces the running age for members of parliament, members of state houses of assembly, which has formerly been adopted by the National Assembly. I’m pleased to see that 18 state houses of assembly have already adopted this law, and there is still more to go. So, I really urge the remaining states to consider this and really give that push that we, as young people, need to participate in political processes. Maybe one day, Nigeria will really have one young person as president.
What are you doing to make the youth from low-income country be at par with their contemporaries in the developed world?
I am on another high-level commission for the Future of Work. That is an initiative of International Labour Organization 100th anniversary. The International Labour Organization is looking at the future of work for the next 100 years. They have given the opportunity for me as a young person to also contribute to that discussion. But, my discussion and the point that I brought to the table of the high-level commission is that not every country is going to have the same future. There are huge inequalities among countries, also within country and within communities.
As we talk about the world that is rapidly advancing with digital technology and intelligence, we also know that there are about 65 million girls who are not even going to primary school, without even getting basic education. How can we expect them to get digital literacy? So, keeping in mind this and growing inequalities, we want to understand that not every country is going to have the same future. So, in that context, really localizing the things that we have and trying to prioritize the things that we do is number one. For me, I also encourage the people who were in the room yesterday discussing about the solution to think of how technology can be a tool to bridge these inequalities, not to increase these inequalities. That is something I will be taking with me in my advocacy across the years.
Do you think that Nigeria with huge population of unemployed youths can attain SDGs?
There are different approaches that we can adopt. First one definitely is investment in education. This is something I’ve been saying again and again. We need to invest in education, not just in the quantity of education or the number of people who get education, or the number of textbooks we distribute through the year, but the quality of education.
What are we teaching our young people in schools? There is a huge mismatch between the skills that young people get from school and skills that are needed in the market. There is also a trend of changing nature of skills that we want in the labour market. Also, different technological advancement that our colleagues have been speaking about; the conversation that will happen is what are we teaching young people in school? Are we giving them knowledge? Are we giving them skills? This is definitely an aspect that I will encourage policy makers in Nigeria to look at; redefining the curriculum that they give to teach young people. Do we really teach young people or to have learning experience?
Next one is that there is statistics which says in order to accommodate all the young people we are having in the world by now, by 2030, we need to create 600 million new jobs. So it seems it is possible. Creation of employment doesn’t give government jobs to everyone; definitely not the answer.
Then, how can we inculcate the culture that young people can come up with entrepreneurial ideas? But, then, the most important is when they come up with that idea, how can we support them to scale up that idea? Across the world, all the young entrepreneurs, all the young persons I met, the first thing they will tell me is that they don’t have enough finance to start that great idea.
Then, they go to bank, they will ask you for different types of legal documents, experience and bonds to sign. That is very young person coming out from school. You don’t really have that kind of information or money to start the job. There are also legal barriers that prevent people who have knowledge or ideas from starting a business.
We need to remove those barriers and inculcate the idea of youth entrepreneurship, creativity and innovation.
Thousands of Nigerians and other Africans have been brought back from Libya and Europe where they thought opportunities were more available. What is your office doing to stop illegal migration?
I think that question is very timely because in New York, the member states have just opened the negotiations for the global compact of migration. The government of Switzerland and the government of Mexico are co-chairing to come up with the global compact for safe and orderly migration processes. I brought up this in my conversation with the Minister of Foreign Affairs to see how we can channel the voices of Nigerian young people to the process.