Elections 2015: Putting Youth at the centre of Governance in Rivers State, Nigeria

The next election cycle in Nigeria is now full-steam. Individuals across different party lines are positioning themselves to win their party’s nomination to present themselves as candidates for various political offices. The situation is similar across the country. One trend that is however emerging about this election cycle is the use of ethnicity and religion as a basis for campaigning. Candidates have found the genius of presenting themselves as either ethnic agents or representatives of particular faiths. In the case of ethnicity, nowhere is this more obvious than in Rivers State, located at the Southern tip of the country. Candidates have argued for the need for the governorship of the state to be ‘zoned’ to the ‘Riverine areas’- a bid to promote the rotation of power in the State. Proponents of this position argue that it will serve the interest of the State by ensuring equitable distribution of power across the broad spatial divide of ‘Riverine’ and ‘upland’ areas. One, perhaps unintended, consequence of this is that, it appears that any serious discussion about policies, programmes and reforms has been drowned throughout the discourse towards the next governorship elections in the State. In this post, I make the case for bringing back a much-needed critical discourse around an agenda-driven-quest for the governorship, and governance in Rivers State, with a specific focus on youth development, by drawing on the trend in the State since 1999, what I describe as ‘reforming for sustainability’. While not opposed to equity and fairness – which, as my friend S.A. pointed out to me, is essentially the spirit of the Federal character principle, I stand strongly for issues driven politicking, and this is the main interest of this post.

Since 1999, youth development has been a key component of policies implemented by the Government of Rivers State. During the early 2000s, the government introduced key policies which promoted access to education by making primary education cost-free to pupils, providing free school buses and school meals, to make young children more comfortable and able to focus on learning – thereby partly addressing the social and economic impediments to learning (school feeding addresses an important basic need, and is necessary to enhance learning outcomes, particularly for underprivileged kids for whom those meals may be the only ones they have during the entire day). The State government also introduced the payment of senior school certificate examinations for candidates at upper secondary level. While this policy is potentially controversial and was subsequently discontinued, it showed the extent to which the government was willing to  go to alleviate the barriers to schooling, and to enhance the chances of entry of many of its young people into higher education by removing the cost of the relevant qualification examination. In more recent times, the Rivers State government also extended free education to upper secondary level, and legislation has now been put in place which makes it a criminal offence, on the part of parents, for school aged kids to be out of school.

Perhaps what’s most interesting about recent policies is the introduction of what is described as ‘model schools’. These schools have significantly extended investment in education, and shown that with sufficient political will, it is possible to transcend the ‘six classroom blocks’ paradigm and provide critical infrastructure necessary to provide a conducive learning environment. Much is known from the evidence that a poor learning environment can be an impediment to learning. The model schools are not just an extension of the thinking in education policy in Rivers State; they have pushed the frontiers of how state governments should invest in education, and possibly a model for other states. The provision of teaching and learning in a conducive environment, hopefully, with a curriculum that addresses all three key domains of education: affective, cognitive and psychomotor, could contribute in no mean way to enhancing the chances of young Rivers State students to access higher education and contribute to the accumulation of knowledge and skills capital which could position the state as a frontier state for human resources in any number of fields. This is even more so, given strong support for local and international higher education through undergraduate and postgraduate bursaries and scholarships through various funding programmes.

Another aspect of investment in youth is what is often described as ‘youth empowerment’. There are two aspects to this. The first involves the provision of skills training, followed by a grant or loan to enable the trainees to establish and run private businesses, which I describe as the ‘train and grant model’. The second involves only grants or loans, presumably for entrepreneurship, which I describe as ‘grant only model’. While during the early 2000s, these policies were mostly ad hoc and were largely based on ‘disbursements’, at least one aspect has been formalised through the establishment of the Rivers State Micro-Finance Agency (RIMA). However, there are two problems, the loans provided by RIMA remain largely limited, and appears to conceive of small and medium scale enterprises or youth entrepreneurship as being about ‘buying and selling’. Secondly, skills development training still lags behind. For the most part, the government’s approach has focused on establishing ‘elite institutions’ such as the Workmanship and Technical Training Centre (WTTC) in Bori, which are only able to admit a few, while already established government technical colleges (GTC) and government crafts development centres (GCDC) are in various states of disrepair and lack the tools necessary to provide quality of skills training. Furthermore, it is not always clear what evidence (for example a needs assessment study?) drives the areas of specialisation chosen in these training institutions or programmes. For example, the WTTC provides training in welding and fabrication, electrical installation, trowel vocation, food preparation and culinary arts, PC maintenance, AutoCAD, fashion and beauty care, motor vehicle maintenance, carpentry and joinery, and hairdressing and beauty therapy. These are certainly important skill areas; but are they the areas with the greatest potential of high returns on investment? A 2012 study suggested that across the skills value chain, the supply of skills in the housing and construction sectors potentially have highest absorptive capacity, but while some of WTTCs and other vocational programmes address a number of the skills needed in these sectors (for example electrical installation), they have for the most part been neglected in terms of specialised vocational skills training.

The notion of youth empowerment has also been narrowly applied, focusing for the most part on livelihoods, while ignoring those aspects related to leadership development and the participation of young people in developing and implementing policies that affect them. The evidence internationally suggests clearly that engaging young people in policymaking, particularly by assigning them to clear responsibilities (described at the highest level of the pyramid as ‘shared decision-making’) is a valuable means to facilitate intergenerational learning, and in the context of the youth bulge theory, minimise intergenerational competition and conflict, ensure that young people are able to take ownership of development processes, and it is a means to maintain stability. Given that youth, aged 15-35, comprise about 40 per cent of the population of Rivers State, according to the 2006 population census, a strategy to systematically include youth in the governance of the state, akin to ’35 percent affirmative action’ for women, has remained missing across administrations, but is critical to the development of the state, and needs to feature adequately in the debates towards the 2015 elections.

The point being made here is that across administrations since 1999 in Rivers State, policies and programmes have been designed in ways that have built on the successes of the previous administrations and ensured a continuum of the development process, in particular relation to youth development, giving rise to the notion of ‘reforming for sustainability’. However, many gaps still exist. This is why the present discussions regarding the governorship and future governance of the state should have a critical focus on policies and programmes, backed by clear philosophical thinking back to the table (what is the underlying or overarching guiding principle for the governance and policy proposals being made?; Moghalu, Central Bank deputy governor, describes this in his recent book as a ‘worldview’). The discussion needs to focus on putting in place a systematic approach to education delivery in ways that benefit more young people, focuses on outcomes (pass rates in SSCE examinations for example), rather than outputs (number of schools or classrooms built or number of teachers recruited), and puts technical and vocational education training (TVET) in the mainstream, drawing on the guidance provided by the national vocational qualifications framework (NVQF). The discussion needs to return to the question of the quality of the curriculum, teacher training, pedagogy and learning technologies, elements that have been seemingly missing from the work of previous administrations.

There needs to be critical discussions regarding youth empowerment, in ways that not only provide skills training and grants but addresses the whole gamut including business management training, support for initial legal and tax related processes, and ongoing advisory support, moving from previously adopted ‘grant only’, or ‘train and grant’ models to a new model which incorporates, training, provision of grants or loans, and ongoing technical and advisory support – a ‘train, grant and mentor’ model. In this way, youth owned enterprises could thrive over time, and gain the credibility needed to compete for large-scale contracts – which is a practical way to advance a ‘Rivers money for Rivers people’ policy being promoted by the Rivers State government. Candidates need to show clearly, how exactly they intend to address the question of integrating youth into the governance process of the State, should they win the governorship. A number of suggestions have been previously put on the table: 1. Ensure that the Commissioner for Youth is 35 or younger; 2. Include qualified youth on relevant government boards, commissions and advisory panels (such as the State Economic Advisory Council); and 3. Increase support to youth coordinating platforms such as the State chapter of the National Youth Council.

One hopes that the 2015 governorship election in Rivers State will be about issues; not personalities, not ethnicities and certainly not religion. More so, it is hoped that the candidates for the election will put in place clear proposals regarding how 40 percent of the State’s population will be empowered and supported to contribute to the long-term development of the State.

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