Being a text of the convocation lecture delivered by former Foreign Affairs Minister, Mr. Odein Ajumogobia (SAN) on the occasion of the 19th -23rd convocation ceremony of the Rivers State University of Science and Technology (RSUST), Port Harcourt on Thursday, October 13, 2011.
The Pro Chancellor, the
Vice Chancellor, Members of the Governing Council, esteemed graduates of RSUST, distinguished ladies -and- gentlemen. I am grateful to RSUST for the honour to share this podium with so many past distinguished convocation speakers before me. It is also a special privilege for me to be a part of this most important moment in the lives of so many young men and women who are to be conferred with their hard earned and long anticipated diplomas and degrees – testimonials of “character and learning” by our nation’s premier technological University, RSIJST. An institution whose motto, “excellence and creativity”, defines the very ethos of success in our modern world.
Since 1980 when it was created, RSUST has been a leading light as a higher learning institution, providing unique and special programmes and courses such as marine engineering and pollution studies in furtherance of its mandate and goal to be relevant to their irnmediate environment.
I wish to especially acknowledge and thank the Governor and Visitor to the University, Rt. Honourable Rotirni Chibuike Amaechi, My Lord, Chief the Hon. Justice Adolphus Karibi-Whyte CON retired Justice of the Supreme Court and Pro chancellor, and Professor Barineme Fakae, the Vice Chancellor and Members of the Governing Council of the University for this unique honour and for the freedom to choose the subject of my address this afternoon.
I must confess that soon after I accepted the Vice Chancellor’s invitation, in large part out of the high esteem and regard in which I have held him, since the days of his exemplary leadership as the Provost of Bori Polytechnic when I served as Honourable Attorney General of this State, I felt a certain uneasiness as I began to think about what I would say to you all and to our graduates in particular, today.
No doubt, I have delivered numerous speeches in the course of a long, varied and most fulfilling career as a lawyer and public servant, but one always feels that convocation speeches are somehow different and special. This is despite the fact that with the understandable excitement that convocation ceremonies create, a number of years from now, I doubt that many would remember who presented this address, let alone what I said. But even for those few, I thought it important to try to deliver a meaningful message.
I found the task even more engaging because of the impact of the multiple crises currently confronting our country, and the enormous political and socio-economic challenges facing us all, and our young people especially. Unfortunately, many of these difficulties come as part of the process of building a nation, that will allow each of us to realise our collective dreams and individual aspirations – and will allow you, today’s graduates to be whatever you aspire to be and to exploit your talents to the full, to achieve your God-given potential.
After some reflection, I chose to speak about The Challenge of Nation Building: Empowerment, Expectation and Entitlement”, because I believe that the realisation of our full potential as citizens, both individually and collectively, is directly linked to the fortunes of this diverse nation to which we belong. And so, far from being another lecture on political economy for which I would simply refer to the works of that revered scholar, the late Professor Clause Ake, the title of my address today, simply provides a context for my message to you, concerning your own role as graduates and potential change agents; another set of privileged University students who have acquired “character and learning” and thereby gained the empowerment to build promising and successful futures for yourselves in diverse fields of endeavour.
A respected authority on development, Michael Frederiksen in making a distinction between ‘country’ I and ‘nation’, described the latter as “a living and evolving entity that reflects the ideals and dreams of its people and the reality of living together”. I rather like his simple, but insightful definition, because it centers on the peoples’ shared sense of purpose, “though tribe and tongue may differ”, to recall the words of our first national anthem, and without regard to religious affiliation or social status.
The term “evolving” in the definition suggests that a nation takes time to build, grow and mature. “Living together” implies both choice and harmony. I like Frederiksen’s definition too, because it highlights the people and not the space. The people are the nation and the nation is the people.
Let us remind ourselves of the reality that most modern states were once ethnically, diverse, and some still are. Did you know for example that Canada’s largest city, Toronto, is home to some 5 million people where 400 languages and 600 dialects are spoken? Just like Nigeria!
The boundaries of most modern nations generally emerged over centuries, not out of deep bonds, forged from primordial ethnic solidarity. They were a solution for the protection of the productive weak from the unproductive strong through the selection of a common authority to mediate contending human interests, and create and enforce acceptable rules and regimes of conduct; what my distinguished Harvard Professor and Dean, the late James Vorenberg profoundly referred to at my own graduation ceremony, as the “chains that make us free” in contrast to the “state of nature” described in Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan in which life was “solitary, poor, brutish, nasty and short”, and where might was right.
Nigeria, like most countries came into being by “the stroke of an imperial pen”, that needed only the recognition of other States to make it part of the comity of nations. It is however a painfully slow circuitous process that ultimately transforms countries into ions with which their people eventually wholly identify with pride and patriotism.
Nation building therefore connotes the creation or establishment of the conducive environment by the government and the people within a geographical space in which the dreams, hopes and aspirations of the people, who occupy that space, can be realised. It is the common pain and sacrifice, pleasure from individual action and effort, the shared experience that comes with equal access to power, resource and opportunity, that creates the identification and sense of belonging.
As Nigerians, we must value our diversity and respect the ways in which we are not alike in tradition, culture and religion even as we work hard towards the common purpose of building a strong economy and a just and vibrant nation that will be the envy of the world.
As fresh graduates and the emerging generation of leaders, you are therefore perhaps the most important stakeholders in this project, because the nation is the framework within which most of you will apply your talents and training, for entitlement and reward, and to meet society’s expectation of every generation to create opportunities for itself and for others. It is the nation that gives you your identity and is what should give you pride. So why should you not be to build it?
That task is not just for President Jonathan and his Ministers, our governors and all those in authority over us. It is a collective responsibility.
Statistics reveal that we are a nation with a young population. That more than 70% is under the age of 25 years.
Building our nation, is therefore as much about how your generation deals with the challenges that you face in the current tumultuous economic climate, as it is about how our Governments, Federal and States, are able to bring about transformational change in the polity with guarantees of life, liberty and the pursuit of individual fulfillment to paraphrase John Locke’s thesis of the social contract.
To be clear, it is well known that we face significant socio-economic political and civic challenges characterized by poor and crumbling infrastructure, weak institutions and a faulty moral compass of values: From roads and electricity; to education and health service of our courts and law enforcement apparatus – to cheating to pass exams. The list is endless.
Indeed, these challenges have seemed to grow and become almost grotesque as time has passed, and thus often have an effect on us that is demoralizing, and sometimes brings us to a point of despair and helplessness.
So how can you help Nigeria build its way out of this state of affairs and into true nationhood?
The truth, distinguished ladies and gentlemen, is that although our situation may be precarious today, it is our actions as citizens that will determine our destiny as a nation, and whether we will continue to be a nation in which our diversity threatens, rather than complements, our stability. Fortunately, recent history is replete with examples of nations that faced seemingly insurmountable challenges that were overcome by the combination of committed leadership that transcended the crises of national identity, and the collective sacrifice, determination and perseverance of the citizens, within a single generation.
We must therefore all join hands with our President, President Goodluck Jonathan and with our Governors by making our own contribution, small or significant, with “excellence and creativity” to transform whatever space that we occupy. Unless we do so, we cannot as a nation harness the potential and resources that we collectively possess, not in our oil, or in our soil, but in ourselves. We must cease to be a nation that promises much but delivers little to its people or to world.
Clearly, it begins with education at all levels, for education at this higher level is of no use if we haven’t learned politeness, remorse and gratitude, the basic courtesies of ‘please’, ‘sorry’ and ‘thank you’. If we have not learned sportsmanship and much else that should be ingrained in -the home and in the nursery~, primary and secondary school your Education still is mostly about learning and developing the ability to learn and discover and apply such learning to our environment. This is significantly enhanced by the process of obtaining a university education.
Through your university education, your degrees and diplomas, you are now all ~quipped with knowledge, know how, skills and power – the key to “developing the man to develop his environment” and the ability to convert human beings into human capital and change our surroundings by influencing those around us.
The application of learning gained from your education at this premier institution that has produced so many eminent citizens, is vital to developing effective solutions to problems, and for change, improvisation and innovation because you have been taught to think in the RSUST way! “excellence and creativity”. Education liberates the mind and exposes one to opportunities and possibilities that are likely to have been unimaginable or unimagined without it.
It facilitates the development of critical and creative thinking that is crucial for the transformation of the individual and by extension the space he or she occupies. If we each transform our space, our nation will be transform: But then is the education you have received to date (your degree and diploma alone) sufficient to guarantee you success. Are you truly empowered? What are your expectations and entitlements?
When I was a young boy, I learned to swim with much difficulty because I had always been scared of water. I and a number of other boys had indeed just successfully swum from the deep end of a 25 metre pool to the shallow end one particular day.
Our swimming coach then thought he would boost our self confidence in the pool by what he called “drown proofing” to demonstrate that you could not drown as long as you remained calm and did not panic. The process was as follows: My hands were tied behind my back and my feet were tied together. I was then thrown feet first, into the deep end of the swimming pool. This of course was not before I had indicated that I had taken a sufficiently deep breath. My instructions were simple. Relax. Allow your body to sink to the bottom and on its own without you moving a muscle, your body will float back up to the surface. When your head breaks the surface of the water, gently tilt your head back and take another deep breath. Your body will go down again to the bottom and then involuntarily come up again to the surface, and will keep doing this indefinitely as long as you don’t panic or struggle! I had to do this for five minutes which seemed like an eternity. But I did it successfully and it certainly gave me the incredible self confidence that I still have around water till this day.
But we all know that as frightening as it sounds, and I don’t recommend any of you to try it, it was a controlled experiment in a swimming pool, with my expert coach, his vigilant assistants and other members of the swim team around, watching to make sure that I didn’t simply settle at the bottom of the pool as some people apparently do!
In the open sea, this would obviously have been impossible to do and the result would certainly have been different if I went in head first! Strong and accomplished champion swimmers have been known to grown as I later learned, even in swimming pools. So there really is nothing like “drown proofing”.
The experiment however served its prime and only purpose: to prepare me to be fearless in the water in much the same way that your university degree has prepared you to face the world and all its challenges, without fear. But there is nothing like “life proofing”.
A university education is certainly a form of empowerment, and still is the most assured requirement, for those who have the intellectual capacity, to build a successful future regardless of your circumstances. It is indeed the most effective “proofing” that exists for life. Your university degree has created the mindset, to take advantage of or to create opportunities that will propel you towards realizing your individual ambitions and goals.
If we reject this notion, we foster the wrong and disabling belief that it is necessary to seek and obtain other forms of enablement to complement our education as a prerequisite for an individual to make something meaningful out of his or her circumstances. It is common for us to say that you need a ‘Godfather’ or you must ‘know someone’ to succeed. Such thinking perpetuates a base culture that encourages feelings of despondency rather than expectation enthusiasm and optimism, and erodes the sense of self confidence and self reliance that a university education ought to confer.
By the same token, a sense of entitlement to a job prevents you from even exploring your talents and potential because of a distorted orientation that looks everywhere else, but within.
Do not misunderstand me. Having a sense of expectation within the context of family or society is not wrong in itself. Expecting the Government to create jobs or an environment in which more jobs will be created is indeed our entitlement as citizens. What is self limiting however is creating a se expectation in our university graduates that compels an exclusive reliance on government or society at large to provide or create opportunities for their own self-sustenance.
The whole world is facing economic crises of perhaps unprecedented proportions. Unemployment globally is at an all time high. The Government of President Jonathan inherited problems that were created over several decades. The solutions, like the problems, are complex and take time to implement. Governments, at the Federal and State level are responding to these challenges by developing policies and executing programs that are aimed at stimulating the economy and attracting investments that will create jobs. Loans and incentives are being provided to manufacturers and farmers to encourage and increase production and employment; policies are being fashioned in the financial sector to increase access to credit by our creative artists as well. Steps are being taken by the Government to strengthen State institutions, restore confidence, and support private sector led growth. At the same time bold reforms are being driven to improve the state of infrastructure so that we can create favourable environment that encourages and supports both individual and business growth, and promotes the wellbeing of the citizen.
In the meantime, do we just fold our arms and lament and criticise? The truth is that even if the economy was booming, not everyone would be guaranteed employment or a job of their liking or even one that meets their expectation in terms of remuneration, growth or opportunity.
So what should your expectation or attitude be as you venture into this next phase of your lives as young graduates?
In our dynamic and technology driven world, there is almost as much learning out of our Universities and educational institutions as there is within them. So you must continue to learn, and improve yourself, even if you do not pursue a post graduate qualification as I am sure many of you will.
You have today achieved an important milestone in your lives and I congratulate you on the degrees and diplomas that you have earned that provide you with opportunities and alternatives, and the ability to make informed judgments and choices. Each of you have a better chance than tens of millions of equally talented young men and women who have not had the opportunity to obtain a university education.
I have no idea what each of you will become, or indeed what your individual aspirations might be.
Life is unpredictable. But it also holds tremendous promise and amazing rewards for those determined to succeed at it.
There is unfortunately no roadmap that I can share with you. Each of you travelled here by a different road and will leave this place to a different destination.
I had no idea that one day I would serve this State as its Attorney General and serve two Presidents in the Federal cabinet. If you were to ask me how I got to this point in my life, I would have to say it was entirely by the grace of God. But His grace is sufficient for all who look up to Him.
What I did set out to be, was the very best lawyer that I could be, and that is the advice that I will give you all today. Set out to be the very best that you can be at whatever you choose to do or wherever you find yourself.
Beyond that, I can perhaps offer a few common tips that helped me to succeed in my career.
Don’t expect the perfect job next week or next month or next year. But don’t rule it out. Keep an open mind.
Have clear objectives, and develop a passion for whatever you set your mind to do even if it is trying to find a job. Keep knocking on doors. One will open if you are tenacious enough. It always does. Passion, confidence and perseverance are infectious. But be flexible and adaptable. In a changing world you must embrace change. Your true calling may be what you consider to be a past time. Explore your talents. They are your unrealised fortune.
Have a core set of values that you won’t compromise, integrity, humility, respect for others, hard work and discipline. Above all, fear God and be thankful for everything you get; Focusing on yourself limits you. Focus rather on your environment and you will find opportunities around you that you will miss if you are obsessed with yourself. Never settle for less than you are capable of. Challenge yourself and you will often surprise yourself. Always do your best, be courageous and adventurous.
You can’t always do it all by yourself. Collaborate and consult. Two heads are usually better than one, and a younger and less experienced person’s idea may be better than your own. Believe in yourself and others will respect and believe in you. You have all the training and learning you need to succeed. Aim for the sky but also help others to succeed and always have compassion for those less fortunate than you are.
There will certainly be bumps along the way. There always are; roadblocks, setbacks and dead ends, which are part of the journey. But they help build your stamina and strengthen your character. That bump or pothole in the road may, in fact be your stepping stone to fame or fortune.
Life is a marathon not a sprint. The sprinter who stumbles and falls has lost the race. The marathon runner can pick himself up and still finish first. Never lose sight of your destination but enjoy the whole journey. That is the essence of a life well spent. Learn something from all your experiences.
I don’t not know what life has in store for each of you. What I do know is that what you have acquired from RSUST is sufficient to set you on your way to a successful future.
You have acquired knowledge and developed character and now have the opportunity to make a contribution and a difference to your nation no matter how small it may be. So just look up, have faith and don’t ever give up.
In conclusion, let me share with you Michael Frederiksen’s simple but eloquent charge to the graduating class of a technical University in Kenya just last year. He said, “Not all can lead but all can learn, Not all will be elected into office, but all can serve. Not all can build a bridge of understanding, but all can live a life of peace. Not all can inspire a nation, but can help built it.”
I hope you will all help build our nation and I wish you all the best as you go out into the world.