Nigeria irresponsible, reckless when it comes to its children, young people —Ossai, activist/educator

Briefly tell us about your life growing up in Ibadan

I was born in the early 1980s and brought up on the University of Ibadan campus. My father was a professor of Archaeology and Anthropology and a deep scholar of African identities, histories and postcolonial constructs. My mother was a producer with the Nigerian Television Authority (NTA). As a child, who was fascinated by my father’s brilliance and my mother’s communicative prowess, I was imbued with an early consciousness of state building and citizenship, and of the historical role which young people have always played in Africa and Nigeria’s defining moments. So, it was no surprise that I went on to study Law as an undergraduate in the university.


Have you been outside of Nigeria prior to your Mandela Washington Fellowship at the Arizona State University, U.S.A. in 2016? How did you come across such an opportunity?

As an undergraduate, I had the privilege of visiting Ghana. However, my first foreign trip outside Africa was in 2010 when I visited the United Kingdom to attend my older brother’s graduation from the University of Cranfield. I came across the Mandela Washington Fellowship opportunity through this beautiful platform called the internet.


What does it mean to be an Obama Foundation Scholar at the University of Chicago, U.S.A.? How has the scholarship shaped your life and career?

It has been a transformative experience. Most defining however is the unique cohort experience involving 25 exceptional youth from different countries spanning Europe, Latin America, Asia, the Middle East, Africa and the U.S., who brought unique cultural, professional and human perspectives to bear in discussions around development. Additionally, the strong quantitative academic training which University of Chicago is renowned for, has made its imprint, ensuring my new appreciation for data and evidence-based policy. However, the greatest meaning of this experience for me is underscoring that being intelligent and armed with data, though vital, is not enough to transform a community, a country or the world. There must be vision and courage to act. Leadership is the integral factor.


In your article titled ‘A Child’s Mind. A Continent’s Future’, you said the contrast in educational opportunities among children inspired you to become a child broadcaster at the age 17. Could you elaborate on that?

Nigeria is very irresponsible and reckless when it comes to its children and young people. Let us pause for a second: What do you see when you look at a child or a youth? Yes, a child is an innocent creature requiring guidance, protection, full development and survival. Is that all you see? For me, a child signifies a new beginning, a way to do life better. A generation of children is, therefore, an opportunity for any society to re-imagine itself. This means we must be absolutely intentional in making an investment in the full human capital potential of every child. Equally, we must require the youth to make formal contribution.


What motivated you to found Mentoring Assistance for Youths and Entrepreneurs Initiative (MAYEIN)? And, now you are based in the U.S., what is the fate of the initiative?

Just like numerous interventions tackling horrific gaps in public education in Nigeria, I was motivated by both the tragedy of the situation which is clearly an emergency and the defiant optimism that we can salvage public education, In fact, we must! MAYEIN is still running under the competent leadership of young people in my community, and this is because there is a silent army of young people in Nigeria who are responding to social problems by either volunteering or initiating community projects. It’s amazing!


As a lawyer, social activist and policy entrepreneur, if you were the president of Nigeria, what three policies would you make to better the lots of the citizenry?

I am of the view that the defining issues in Nigeria today are our population/youth; the environment—radically altered by climate change impact causing new land resource conflicts and displacement; and technology—which is redefining democracy, economic justice as well as social power. Will young people co-lead Nigeria’s next transformation phase or remain frustrated and fleeing observers? In response, my first policy will revoke the current youth policy which is a statement of tokenism, decouple the Ministry of Youth from Sports and set up a National Board of Youth with a clear mandate for youth progress within the national development agenda, and this will be measurable along a relevant set of indicators. The workings of this policy, I can share in a more detailed conversation. My second policy will aim at economic turnabout through an inclusive industrialisation plan that ambitiously targets a minimum of three labour intensive, complex value-adding, green industrial operations per 36 states, using structural incentives. My third policy will restructure public sector education by subjecting the running and management of every public primary and secondary school in Nigeria to a private-led school management board whose tenure is renewable on the basis of student performance.

After your studies in the U.S., what is next? Would you prefer to work in Nigeria or abroad?

I am returning to Africa to work on issues around the intersections of youth and gender. Africa must stop wasting its real wealth, and I consider myself a continent-based actor.


If you have the opportunity to teach in Nigeria, what would you do differently?

My goal as a teacher would be to find ways to abstract out of the physical classroom and make the real world into my actual classroom. I will combine various strategies including class discussions, site visits, student real-world projects, inviting practitioners, assigning group presentations; but most importantly, my pedagogy will adopt use of questioning.


What are the three things about Nigeria that make you homesick? And, what do you like doing at your leisure?

Primarily, I miss the food. I am not very social, so I hardly miss the social functions. I miss driving around University of Ibadan campus. During my leisure, I like watching the lake in front of my apartment or taking a walk around Hyde Park.


What advice do you have for young people, especially the female ones, who are aspiring to be like you?

The reoccurring narrative that young people are anti-intellectual, deviant and burdensome, and therefore to be managed or curbed, is misleading. So, let’s not internalise it. Our contributions to public life are often ignored and under-reported. But with the massive digitisation of the world, young people now can control both the narratives as well as the deeds. As young people, we have more direct access to information, connections and resource opportunities today than any previous generation. The internet does not deny you domain, browsing, connectivity or developer rights because you are young or female. It means that young people have access to a new form of structural power which can be used for positive social impact. So what are we going to do with it?