The 39th Annual Conference of the Counselling Association of Nigeria (CASSON) will be held in the ancient city of Benin from August 18-22, 2014 under the theme: Counselling for Youth Empowerment. The conference lists an array of noteworthy sub-themes such as: youth restiveness, sexual and reproductive health, employment and entrepreneurship, disabilities, ICTs, gender based violence and child abuse.
As indicated on CASSON’s website, the keynote speaker at the conference is Dr Thomas Clawson, President of the American Board for Certified Counsellors. Lead paper presenters include: Professor Ngozi Osarenren of the department of Educational Foundations and Counselling, University of Lagos, Professor Chike Okolocha of the department of Social Work, University of Benin and Professor Bulama Kagu of the department of Education, University of Maiduguri. A brief look at the profiles of the key speakers suggests that there could be an interesting atmosphere for debate at this particular conference.
Dr Clawson has an Ed.D in Guidance and Counselling and consulting experience spanning US and international institutions including the African Association of Guidance and Counselling and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Orgainsation (UNESCO). Professor Osarenren has a PhD in Guidance and Counselling, was a visiting professor at the University of Education, Winneba, Ghana, and has written papers on motivation, students’ perception of marriage and the impact of conflict on adolescent psychological adjustment. Professor Okolocha has written papers on conflict, peacebuilding, and maternal health; and is the project director of the project ‘promoting Women Empowerment by Building Social Work Capacity in Nigeria’ a partnership project between the University of York, UK and University of Benin. Professor Kagu has written about a range of policy issues including University funding gaps and freedom of information. However, despite these high-profile speakers, it is important for CASSON, given the theme of the conference, to feature younger speakers among the lead speakers, possibly the head of its student arm (SCASSON) – as this is in sync with national and international best practice and good for the integration of younger and early career researchers into the mainstream of the counselling profession.
For me, this year’s conference theme could not have been chosen at a better time. This is because I’m quite keen on hearing the perspectives of the counsellors on an array of issues affecting young people in Nigeria, including: the conflict in the north, the high rates of HIV among young people, with youth constituting 60 percent of national infections, the frightening situation of youth unemployment – now around 38 percent, the fading fortunes of education in Nigeria – pass rates in O-level examinations remain poor despite some improvement this year, the role of ICTs and the new social media in the delivery of anonymous counselling services/ referrals, and the role of participation in advancing young people’s agency, autonomy and empowerment. It will be interesting to hear the perspectives of the participants on: what psychological factors drive youth involvement in insurgencies, what behavioural models could explain/ mitigate young people’s vulnerability to HIV/STIs and unintended pregnancies, what social, cultural and behavioural factors impede youth entrepreneurship, how to bridge the skills gap between educational institutions and the labour market, what role educational technology and the appropriateness of learning tools can play in improving the current dwindling fortunes of the education system. There are other questions related to adaptation and/or resistance to change: have we simply failed to adapt to the changing realities of the 21st century? Why we are still stuck with pedagogies of the 70s and 80s while much of the world has moved on? What are the solutions?
Furthermore, I hope that at the end, despite the CASSON conference being academic, there will be some discussion on the implications of the conference theme for policy and policy-making processes on youth in Nigeria. In this regard also, some current policies could be looked at – such as the national education policy, national qualifications framework for TVET, national guidelines for the integration of adolescent and youth friendly services into primary health care facilities in Nigeria, and the national youth policy, among others. As a case in point, the counsellors could discuss questions such as: is the content of the youth policy adequate? What relevant components are not included? Is the policy appropriately framed? Does the current framing of the youth policy (like recommendations ‘government should…’) have any effect on its effective implementation? What should be the life cycle of the youth policy – should it be fixed (currently at 5 years), or dynamic (changing with unfolding national realities)? As a case in point, what should be the youth policy’s position regarding the fortunes of juveniles who are involved in the Boko Haram insurgency? Should they be treated as adults criminals or should they be given special treatment given their age (this is important given the kind of juvenile crimes envisaged in the past did not include terrorism)? What is the place of counsellors in providing support (post-traumatic counselling?) to victims of Boko Haram episodes and their families? There are so many questions regarding youth in the current national development context which I hope will be given some consideration during the coming conference.
I am particularly excited that this conference is taking place in Benin, one of the cities at the frontline of the Nigerian educational reform landscape. Edo state, of which Benin is the capital, has been in the news lately for its education reform initiative focusing on competency tests for teachers. If successful, this can be a major turning point for educational development in the State, and could become a good practice for other states in Nigeria. I hope the topic of enhancing teacher competency receives some attention, as part of a wider discussion on educational development, at the conference.
Benin is well-known globally for its art, mostly cast bronze and carved ivory, over 2,000 of which are thought to have been stolen during the 19th to early 20th centuries and now locked away or on display in various museums across Europe (notably the UK and Germany) and North-America. I hope that the participants will find the time to visit the Benin National museum and the palace of the Oba of Benin, at the very minimum. But there are a number of interesting places to visit – including ongoing infrastructure and model school projects. The chance should not be missed to understand an interesting aspect of Nigeria’s history (perhaps one of which all Nigerian’s should be proud), and development practice at sub-national level.
As a final word, I hope that there will be a concrete outcome from this year’s conference, a document that can set an agenda for policy, advocacy, youth development planning as well as serious theoretical and conceptual work on youth in Nigeria – perhaps a ‘Benin Framework for Youth Empowerment’?
I wish CASSON every success.
 Dohlvik, Charlotta (2006). Museums and their Voices: A Contemporary Study of the Benin Bronzes. Retrieved from http://bit.ly/1nPgFk2.