Thank you for giving me the opportunity to be this year’s commencement speaker at this very prestigious university.
When I received the call from Dr. Akin Kekere-Ekun inviting me to be the commencement speaker for this year, I was deeply flattered, honored and humbled for all the trouble he had taken to seek me out. While I was still basking in that, Dr. Dawn called and then the reality of the task “dawned” on me (no pun intended). Comfort soon gave way to trepidation.
I was being charged with the daunting responsibility of celebrating young achievers, (pretty easy), to impart whatever knowledge I had, to make them angry and hungry enough to want to change the status quo, to tell them it is achievable and to ignite in them the fire to achieve that charge.
How was I going to achieve these contradictions? I reached out to my 14-year-old son who incidentally is in the audience today. I asked his opinion on how I should go about it. He rolled his eyes with a bored look on his face in a way that had only been perfected by teenagers and said to me with a voice as deep as he could muster; one I’m guessing in his opinion is laden with wisdom. He said: “Mum, be short, be relatable and don’t steal their thunder.” He had finished with me and so promptly went back to what he was doing before my irritating interruption.
Armed with invaluable advice from a 14-year-old who by the way had never delivered a speech of any sort in his entire life, I set about this task. I encountered three challenges. My first challenge was how to deliver a speech that was relatable, a speech that was candid and didn’t steal your thunder, that incentivized while admonishing, a speech that didn’t sound like a lecture yet was instructive.
The second challenge I had was I wanted a relatively unforgettable speech that would outlive the ceremonies, hold life lessons and be short enough not to bore these young adults; people who had gone through the boot camp of hard work, assignments, assessments, term papers, exams, projects and finally graduation. It wasn’t all selfless; there was something in it for me. I was hoping that if the speech was memorable, then maybe I would be remembered. You see, us politicians are desperate to be remembered. There is a strong similarity between plants and politicians; they both wither when forgotten.
My third challenge was seeking content for the topic. The University offered me the opportunity to choose my own topic; a very generous proposition it was but threw up its own set of problems, the agony of choice is what I call it. I was coming to this amazing citadel of learning populated with so many learned people that I wasn’t going to lend credibility to widely held impressions that Nigerian politicians are largely illiterate. I thought to come up with something highfalutin and intellectual sounding. This birthed the topic: “DIVERSITY, UNITY AND THE FUTURE.” After all, the reputation of my political co-travelers rested on my very not so slim shoulders to change this well entrenched opinion about Nigerian politicians and I wasn’t about to fail them. I should have kept it simple and made life easier for myself but I didn’t. Now it’s too late, so now and again, if I am incomprehensible, I crave your indulgence.
As I worked on the content of this speech, the stark similarities between these young adults and myself became glaring. In a lot of ways, I am exactly like you and I shall substantiate. Four years ago you came in as freshmen, struggled to get accustomed to your new environment, had to make new acquaintances that sometimes grew into friendships to survive, your character developed alongside others who were trying to build their own character, you embarked upon a journey of self-discovery and acquired knowledge. You learnt to give back to society and thrived amidst conflict management that was sure to surface in your interaction with others. Four years on, it’s time to go into an unsure uncertain future armed with all that you’ve learnt and the scroll under your arm as your badge of honor and your gateway to success. These should be enough for the future; but is it really? Only time will tell.
Similarly, I was elected into the House of Representatives of the National Assembly twelve 12 years ago; a greenhorn, a freshman. I went in to serve as my primary focus and to give back to my people who took a gamble and put their faith in my abilities. It wasn’t always easy nor was it always fun. I was often confronted with very difficult choices; the right choice or the easy choice? In making those choices, several personal sacrifices had to be made both in my capacity as the Chairperson House Committee on Foreign Affairs, as a member of the House of Representatives and as a Mother.
As a double minority in that space; I was a woman, (I still am by the way) and I was young. I faced discrimination and exclusion but I was determined to justify my existence in the political space. (FRAGILE GLASS CEILLING) Swimming against the tide is never easy but the good news is that in spite of the odds, like you; hard work has its rewards.
I didn’t gain re-election into the National Assembly and again like you, I stand at the cusp of a new phase in my life. I must pull all my experiences together, good and bad as they say “I am where I have been” and hope that they are sufficient to help me excel where life takes me next.
Therefore I am beyond grateful for this experience to speak to you. Working on this speech for me was cathartic. I my life’s journey, I stand where you stand even if we are generations and experiences apart. This makes me less self-conscious about admitting that sometimes I am really terrified about the next step; but I find fear to be a great thing for it gives you the opportunity to conquer it, to birth hope, ingenuity and strength. I am suddenly starting to feel that this is a fear anonymous meeting that will hopefully dovetail into a hope anonymous meeting by the time I am done with this speech. First, I shall tell you how I deal with my fears and I’m hoping to get an opportunity to hear from you on how you deal with yours and probably learn from you.
I saw a movie a long time ago; “The King and I” starring Yul Bryner & Deborah Kerr and a song from the movie always gives me a quick fix. The words of the song go:
“Whenever I feel afraid
I hold my head erect
And whistle a happy tune
So no one can suspect that I’m afraid”
It is as I said a quick fix because once the singing stops, there is still a tomorrow to deal with. The catch is “I am scared but I am fearless”
Unto my topic for today: Diversity, Unity & the Future. Most people will view the choice of topic with skepticism and dismiss it as a typical politician’s speech but my choice of topic derives from my desperate need to preserve all the fresh enthusiastic seeds that have taken root in these progressive minds in their four 4 years on this beautiful campus. Once outside these gates, the security of positive educational isolation will be challenged by the exposure to a world that is jaundiced by hatred, polarized by division and tainted by suspicion of our differences.
People will try to sell you to the dark depths of their despondency; they will poke holes at your lofty ideals for a better, more egalitarian, more inclusive progressive society. They will tell you that what you have in your head is a utopia that has no place in today’s Nigeria, they will try to debrief and reprogram you to believe that divisiveness, hatred and polarity is fashionable. My message to you and you must pass it on to them is that all fashions come and go and like the bell-bottoms and the mini-skirts, it is time to kill that fashion.
I only just returned from the World Bank Spring meetings in Washington DC; I’ve always found them to be very enlightening meetings. On the first day of the meeting, I walked into the meeting room, settled comfortably into my seat, had my tag placed in front of me with huge bold letters emblazoned on the tag, screaming out my identity NIGERIA. In that room, I was anonymous, I wasn’t Nnenna, I was NIGERIA. Now and again, I would reach out to reposition my tag to make it more conspicuous that all could see. I exuded the almost arrogant air of one who comes from the land that is popularly referred to as the “Giant of Africa”
I would often look around the room and smile somewhat condescendingly at other delegates whose tags showed them up as people who came from countries that were not at par with this “Giant of Africa”. Then the empanelled sessions began. Conversation after conversation that spanned from economic projection and indices to education, to food, to hunger and self-sustainability, gender mainstreaming, strength of democratic institutions, human resource development, artificial intelligence etc. The statistics about our dear country were so depressing. Words like “interested”, we are very interested in Nigeria they would say, “We are concerned about Nigeria” some would say; “We are looking very closely at Nigeria” others would say.
On each of these topics with each of these panels, I felt more and more deflated as if air was slowly being let out of a huge balloon. I had to do something, I had to say something for national pride, for motherland; so I motioned to speak and was recognized. I said to them, by your statistics, you say:
• That Nigeria is one of the five (5) poorest nations in the world
• That in three (3) years, India and Bangladesh will exit leaving Nigeria, Somalia and DR Congo as the world poorest nations
• That Nigeria ranks 4th worst in gender parity
• That projections show that Nigeria will be the last country to bridge the gap on inequality
• (Economic growth) That Nigeria lost about 9.9 million jobs last year and a recorded a slow GDP growth of about 1.93% and forecast are bleak into the future
• (Education) That Nigeria has about 13.1 million children out of school
• (Population Growth) with 200million population, Nigeria is projected to have a population explosion of 411 million people by 2050 and yet there is no population control conversation in Nigeria
• 139 million of Nigeria’s present population of 200 million are below the age of 40years and 40% of that number are unemployed, uneducated and unemployable; a youth quake of seismic proportions
• (Insecurity) that Nigeria is the third most terrorized country in the world
• That Nigeria is the second most likely country to slip into famine this year
• (Health) Nigeria has the highest rate of infant mortality in the world
• (Power) Nigeria’s electricity supply ranks second worst in the world
I asked what the World Bank was doing about these bleak statistics. The Speaker said to me “the world is concerned and keeping an eye on Nigeria but it is a Nigerian problem; the solution must be home grown”.
History has shown that every time a generation runs out of ideas as our generation and the other ones before us obviously have, an opportunity is created for the next generation. THIS is one such times, the space is yours to own. Our country is starving and in desperate need of fresh ideas, clear heads with an un-jaundiced vision and a youthful purposeful leadership. I implore you to embark upon a leadership renaissance that will redefine our Nation’s identity.
You must downplay the oft repeated conspiracy theories that we belt out at will as our excuse for failure and expect all to believe for we have repeated the stories often enough. You must chart the alternate course that takes us far away from the ones we currently thread. You must be desperate to want to change our narrative from a country of huge potentials with even greater challenges to one of huge successes having overcome her great challenges. You must hold my generation responsible for our actions and inactions that have led us down this inglorious path.
I do not in any way absolve myself; I share in the blame of my generation. In my twelve (12) years in the National Assembly, I along with some committed patriotic men & women have put in our modest best and I have seen pockets of excellence. Unfortunately evidently, it has had a zero bearing on the whole. I state here that:
• for as long as children are malnourished and uneducated
• for as long as we are unable to guarantee the security of our citizens,
• for as long as a large population of our youth are unskilled and therefore not equipped to contribute to national development
• for as long as there is a feeling of marginalization of certain parts of the country
• for as long as the people feel that the democratic leadership does not reflect their true will
• for as long as our democratic institutions are weak and cannot protect the people
• for as long as our justice delivery system is questioned and people have no faith in the judicial process
• for as long as our healthcare is on life support and life expectancy continues to dwindle
Then whatever modest successes I may want to boast about have eroded in the reality of our existence.
To recalibrate our narrative, You must tear down the walls and deconstruct the views that have been held, nurtured and fed by our forebears; views that whisper and sometimes scream “This person is not like me, we don’t know them so we hate them”. Providence has placed you at a time of great innovation and intervention. You have been charged with the responsibility to create an identity that is premised upon equity, fairness, and institutional changes to lopsided allotments. All must be anchored upon the traditional ideals of good triumphing over evil rather than the poisonous, dark, deep, destructive divisions along ethnic, religious, social and racial lines.
Winston Churchill spoke about enlarged patriotism, plural allegiances and layered identities. I am Igbo, my son is from the North, I have lived in Lagos all my life, I speak fluent Igbo, Fluent Yoruba and enough Hausa to get by and all of these put together make me the NIGERIAN person that I am.
On this campus, there are people from all parts of the country and around the world who practice different religions and are socialized differently. You have interacted and lived with them, forged Acquaintances, Friendships, Brotherhoods & Sisterhoods. Working together and living on this campus, you have achieved your first great success; you have graduated. Now how about that for plural allegiances and layered identities that actually work?
In this room, I lament the challenges you must overcome at this time; a migratory world without borders where opportunities are not equally distributed but I envy you also because you are equipped with the tools you require to tackle our world. You are part of the very lucky few who have acquired the skill set to excel in a world where democratization of information ensures that a qualified citizen anywhere in the world is at home everywhere in the world. It is said that “Knowledge and Skills are the global currency for 21st century economies” and you have that already
Never in the history of mankind has the phrase “The World is your Oyster” been more true. Never in the history of mankind have we witnessed more prosperity, never in the history of mankind have we had more numbers of innovative young people create so much wealth, never in the history of mankind have we recorded more challenges and never in mankind’s history have we invented tools to tackle and overcome these challenges.
If you can embrace and overcome local diversities, then you would have acquired the major tool you require to confront greater diversities in a world challenged with Populism, Xenophobia, Discrimination, Nationalism, Fundamentalism, entrenchment of Far Right ideas, Insular development, Neophobia and at its ugliest, Hatred.
So, Let us perfect weaving the cloth of our national diversity from a tensile yarn, into a beautiful kaleidoscope of colors, bursting with hope, inclusion, happiness, growth and love; wrap that cloth around ourselves, collectively as our bind; protection, amour, shield and sword as we venture into a more vast diverse world that we seek to and MUST conquer.
I often heard my father say; “There are three things you can’t take back; a spoken word, a fired shot and a missed opportunity”. So you must go out there and seize all the opportunities that await you.
In the words of Williams Saroyan, I demand of you that “In the time of your lives, Live”.
In conclusion, armed with that degree in your hands, determination for hard work, hunger to succeed in your bellies and Ms. Nnenna’s words in your head, I dare say that you are prepared to face the world. Go out there and make a huge difference. I have absolutely no doubt that the world will be thankful that you are in it at this time.
Congratulations to American University of Nigeria
Congratulations to your long suffering families who have stood by you and today celebrate with you
Congratulations to the Class of 2019
Today I celebrate with you.
. Being a Lecture delivered by House of Representatives member, Nnenna Elendu-Ukeje, at the 11th Commencement Ceremony of the American University of Nigeria, Yola, Adamawa State on May 20, 2019.