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That successive governments have failed to lay a foundation for the nation's teeming youths to maximally develop their potentials is not contestable. But there seems to be light at the end of the tunnel.

In this interview, Senator Akinlabi Olasunkanmi, the Minister of Youth Development points the way forward declaring that vocational training is the only way out for the high level of joblessness in the country.

Since his appointment in 2007, he has shown so much passion about youth development initiatives. He is one man that believes that the future of Nigeria depends on her youth. Excerpts…

Nigeria just celebrated her 50th Independence anniversary. What is your message to Nigerian youths?

Let me first congratulate them on that historic occasion. We have every cause to celebrate and rededicate ourselves to nation building. First, I want to reassure the youth of this administration's firm commitment to their empowerment and balanced development. We have the political will to tackle all outstanding challenges. His Excellency, Dr. Goodluck Jonathan is a lover of youth, a leader who even as Vice President of this great nation has always identified with the aspirations and demands of the young ones.

Within the Federal Executive Council, Nigerian youths should know that Mr. President is a leading advocate for the youth. For us in the Ministry, we are working day and night to ensure that the many needs of our young ones are met.

My second message is an appeal to the youth not to despair but to take today's challenges as opportunities for growth and development. The commitment so far demonstrated by the administration should reassure them that a roadmap for youth development is on ground. The roadmap is feasible, workable and potent enough to meet the yearnings and needs of the youth. We therefore appeal for their continued support, understanding and patriotic zeal as we move into a new phase in national development.

You talk about an existing viable framework for youth development. What has changed since you took over in 2007?

When we came on board in 2007, the Federal Ministry of Youth Development was still at its infancy having been created only in February of that year. So, I took over a youth sector largely young and still without solid external and internal structures capable of fulfilling its mandate for the all round development of our youth. My first task then was to strengthen the internal structure of the Ministry. Then we proceeded to setting up zonal offices so that our officials can be on ground across the six geo-political zones. The zonal offices were opened, equipped and facilitated to liaise with state governments and Youth organizations in their zones. It is important to emphasize that the zonal offices have succeeded in reaching out to the zones and states.

After strengthening the Ministry's structure, I proceeded further to develop a comprehensive National Youth Development Agenda, 2008 to 2015. The agenda covers a whole gamut of activities, programmes and projects carefully planned to put Nigeria on international standard in the youth sector.

The agenda became necessary because by 2007, the sector was largely without the vigour and platform necessary to address youth challenges. The youth policy was outdated. The Youth Council was paralyzed; the two inherited Youth Centres were abandoned. The nation has no integrated plan to tackle youth unemployment.

By 2007, Nigeria was no doubt far behind, in the application of international best practices in the youth sector. Hence, the National Youth Development Agenda I created was a landmark one. We invited a United Nations Technical Mission to Nigeria to review and validate the agenda. After two weeks of activities in Nigeria, the mission issued a report from its New York Head-quarters validating the agenda describing it as ambitious and potent enough to build and sustain the Nigerian Youth Sector

In specific terms, how far have you gone in the implementation of that National Agenda?

We have gone very far. Today, Nigeria has a new youth policy that covers 18 areas of youth needs instead of 14 identified and recommended by the United Nations. The new policy, which is to be reviewed every five years states in specific terms what all stakeholders should do in Education, Health, Science, Agriculture, Environment and others. The new youth policy now has an implementation action plan which operationalised the policy itself.

My Ministry is moving further to transform the policy into an Act of the National Assembly. The Federal Ministry of Justice is preparing a draft bill in this regard. The idea is to make the implementation of the youth policy mandatory for all stakeholders in the youth development sector.

We have also completed the two inherited National Youth Development Centres at Owode-Egba and Shere Hill, Jos.

In addition, we have built six new additional Youth Development Centres, i.e one per geo-political zone namely Biu, for North East, Katsina for North West, Awka for South East, Ode—Omu for South West and Odi and Ikom for South South. It is instructive to note that youth vocational training has commenced in some of the centres. Aside the eight I just mentioned, we have commenced eighth more new youth centres in Takai, Samaila and others across the Federation. Vocational training and entrepreneurship skills are the way out of the unemployment crisis. That was why we popularized the concept of Youth Development Centres and I am delighted that many state governments have embraced the concept. The development of youth centres is a bold move by my Ministry to institutionalize vocational and entrepreneurship training in the country.

The issue of youth centres is linked with our designing of a National Action Plan to tackle the growing menace of youth unemployment. We are glad to say that the youth Ministry has produced the Nigerian Youth Employment Action Plan, the first of such in the history of Nigeria.

My Ministry did not stop at that. We have also produced the Nigerian Youth Employment Templates. This document in specific terms operationalised the Nigerian Youth Employment Action Plan, listing specific jobs and details of its actualization.

The job plan is good but the youth complain of lack of access to start up capital. Is there any specific plan to address this issue?

Yes, we have taken necessary action in that line. Firstly, all the youths we are training at our youth centres are given seed capital and start up materials after their training. But to address the issue holistically, we are working on the establishment of the National Youth Development Fund. The Ministry of Justice is almost finalizing the draft bill for presentation before the Federal Executive Council. The fund is to provide seed capital to young entrepreneurs through national and state financial institutions. Such fund presently operates in Kenya and South Africa with commendable results. Nigeria will soon set up her own youth fund through which enterprising young men and women will have access to seed capital.

We however need the support of all stakeholders especially the organized private sector and our development partners to make the establishment of the fund a reality.

The Youth Parliament recently held its Independence Anniversary sitting. Is there any significance in the sitting and even the existence of the Parliament?

Let me start with the second leg of your question. That we have the Nigerian Youth Parliament is of historical significance. I watched their sittings and I am proud that the seed of leadership training we planted is already germinating. A new crop of young political leaders tutored in the art of legislative politics are coming on stage now. But that is not the only significance.

The youth parliament also exists at the state level. I recently read the interview granted by the speaker of Ekiti State Youth Parliament and again I was elated that our intended goals are been realized.

We set up the Youth Parliament to create a seamless political transition between the old and new generation of leaders. We want our youth to be trained in political and legislative leadership. We want to fire their imagination in national development so that a new digital crop of leaders can subsequently take over from the present leaders.

As to the first leg of your question, the Independence sitting of the Youth Parliament is significant for several reasons. Firstly, the sitting reminded us all that the youth are part and parcel of Nigerian Independence struggle. We all remembered that the struggle for independence started in the European capitals where young Nigerian students in London and others launched political activism.

For our youth to now sit in a Youth Parliament on the occasion of Nigeria at 50 is to remind us of the Enahoro's, Awolowo's, Aminu Kano, Nnamdi Azikiwe, Mbadiwe, Benson, Balewa, Ibrahim Imam, Tarka and others. That sitting is a reminder to us all that the nation owes a lot to her youth.

Is the Youth Parliament enough to answer the yearnings of the youth for participation in public decision making?

There are other institutional structures. Remember we inherited a paralyzed National Youth Council of Nigeria. Today, the Council is very vibrant with new generation of leaders. The Council and the Parliament are twin bodies which gives vent to feelings and opinions of our youth on the public policy process. The two bodies are functioning well; their operations have strengthened the voice of youth in the running of the country.

Is there any way the impact of government's policies in the youth sector can be measured?

We have developed the Nigerian Youth Development Index, which was modeled after the UN Human Development Index. We conducted a nationwide research into the status of Nigerian Youth in 2008. On the basis of that, the index was developed. The idea is if we are low on most ratings today, what is our rating tomorrow? So the index will then be reviewed by 2011 so that we can gauge the impact of implementation of government's policy between 2008 and 2011. We engage reputable experts in the youth sector to develop the index.

We have the National Youth Development Index for impact assessment. Additionally, we introduced the Nigerian Youth Development Report, which chronicles progress recorded at Federal, State and Local Government levels. The report also covers progress and contributions of Non-Governmental organizations and other stakeholders in the youth sector.

You have been consistently retained in this office, since 2007, what factors account for this?

That question should not be for me. But all the same, let me say I felt honoured by that fact and I must put on record my appreciation to late President Umaru Musa Yar'Adua and His Excellency, Dr. Goodluck Jonathan for appointing and reappointing me into this office. It is also a very huge privilege for me to have been retained in this Ministry which is statutorily charged with the all round development of over 60 million Nigerian Youths.

It is thus with high sense of responsibility that I have been discharging my duties. The sector is very sensitive but our youth have demonstrated unique understanding while supporting me and my staff in the discharge of our mandate.