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Introduction

May I first thank Prof. Viola Onwuliri for inviting me to this 7th Prof. Celestine Onwuliri memorial lecture and also according me the honoured responsibility of delivering the Keynote speech at this event.  

I would like to note that since taking over the mantle of leadership of our State, which of course I found in unquantifiable ruins, this is my first public lecture. I am glad it is in honour of one of our very best and a rare patriot, Prof. C.E.O Onwuliri, who left us painfully in 2012.

When Prof Viola spoke to me about the possibility of my delivering this keynote speech, I did not hesitate but readily accepted not minding what my programmes may be on that date. I accepted because of my firm belief in the need to honour those who have excelled in both public and private life whether they are alive or dead. This sincerely, I found an intriguing impetus for the rest of us to take public life serious as history will always be there as a compass for our judgement at the appropriate time. I also accepted the invitation because those that know me well will tell of my desire for gender and youth inclusion in development, my belief in their respective capacities and the need to advance their cause through affirmative action.

Distinguished audience, I have been asked to speak on the topic “Partnering with women and youth for economic growth and sustainable development in Imo State”. The topic is quite apt and timely. It also squarely fits into the vision of our administration. Recall that in my inaugural speech, I devoted a section of the speech to restate our commitment to women and youth in our quest to rebuild Imo. I said “our government shall be sensitive to gender issues, and ensure gender equity in government appointments and activities. We shall equip Imo women and youth with resources, micro-credits, skills training and entrepreneurship programmes to ensure productive undertakings”. This is our agenda and our vision for women and youth in Imo State. In line with my commitment to my inauguration speech as Governor of Imo State, I hereby restate that our government, working with its partners and friends, will seek ways of harnessing our youthful population and women folk in a manner that releases their best potentials for sustainable growth and economic development. It also gives me great pleasure to be here today to hear from you, interact with you and hopefully, together, forge a way forward to our collective aspirations as N’dimo.

Background

Women and Youth constitute a greater segment of the active population in Africa particularly in Nigeria. Over time this critical component of the active population has not been adequately empowered to be productive and to contribute its quota to national development. This situation has continued to be a cog in the wheel of our economic growth.

According to available figures from the last census conducted in the state and projections there from, more than half the population of Imo State is between the ages of 15 – 64 years old, with a 49.7% versus 50.3% split between the population of women and men respectively. This means that across the 27 local governments, the youth population contributes at least a larger percentage of the population. What this implies is that using a working definition of Youth as defined in the African Youths Charter (adopted by UNESCO) to mean ‘’every person between the ages of 15 and 35’’, women and youths constitute a proportion of Imo State that cannot be overlooked in the scheme of policy initiation and implementation in the state.

Unfortunately, these demographic groups have generally been under-served by previous governments in this state and have generally been treated as burdens, hence they are treated like recipients of occasional handouts from government rather than being equal stakeholders in the task of socio-economic development.

The 2019 estimated population of Imo State is 5,953,610 with approximately 67% under the age of 30years, with a substantial percentage out of work. It therefore makes it imperative for something urgent to done to improve the skills and productivity of this segment of our population. If this is the case, then we have crisis in our hands, if nothing urgent is done to address the growing unemployment due to lack of opportunities. I do not intend to sound alarmist, but something practical has to be done, imminently so.

Therefore, the economic advancement of our State as envisaged in the blueprint of the new government must recognize the implications of these demographics. Any economic planning without considering the improvement of livelihood and capacity building, targeting this important segment of our population would be adjudged short sighted. In the industrialization and agricultural drive for Imo State, one of our major policy thrusts is the absorption  of our talented and industrious women and youths. In this partnership, we cannot afford to exclude any demographic group.

It is for this reason that our government is designing a programme to resuscitate and revitalize the four technical schools and our vocational colleges to provide our youth with the necessary skills required to galvanize industrialization of the State and equally make them wealth creators than dependants. We shall reform the entire educational sector to enthrone quality , effectiveness and functionality to meet the challenges of the 21st Century.

Helen Clark of United Nations Development Programme in a report noted that ‘Africa’s large youth population presents an enormous opportunity for development’. I posit that as much as it presents an enormous opportunity, it also poses a clear and present danger, if untapped. I also subscribe to the view that by harnessing the potential of Africa’s youth by investing in education, skills development, and other social initiatives, we can reap enormous dividends and spur the continent’s development. We are determined to provide education suited to the ICT fueled blue, green and grey economies of the future; an example being the partnership with Microsoft on the training of 200 women and girls from across the 27 local governments areas as  already happening at CBT in Imo State University, IMSU, and will be ongoing for about 12 weeks with focus on the knowledge of coding, web design, mobile apps and basic ICT for adult women.

Interestingly, in a study in 2013 entitled State of Women in Cities, it was noted clearly that women are the pivotal drivers of commercial growth and that wealth in their hands leads to much more equitable outcomes in terms of quality of life for families and communities. The same study advocates the imperative that women and men should enjoy equal rights and opportunities in cities on moral/ethical economic and political grounds. This will not only engender women’s well-being but it will increase their individual and collective prosperity as well as the prosperity of the cities”. Women should be given equal opportunities. Indeed asking for it diminishes our estimations of our women who I strongly believe can compete with our men on any front.

I am a strong advocate of the age long axiom that when you train a woman, you train a nation. It is therefore on these premises of necessity, backed by age-long empirical evidence that we as a government shall focus on women and the youth as potential forces to drive economic growth and sustainable development in our State.

Incidentally, women were in the fore front of my campaign for office, toiling day and night to deliver the new Imo, with limitless opportunities. Youths on their part, were the foundation of carrying our message to the people.

It is also based on these indisputable facts that global bodies such as the United Nations and its agencies, World Health Organization (WHO), International Labour Organization (ILO), UNESCO, etc, focuses attention on women and young people as critical change agents towards the achievement of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Despite prospects, we have real challenges

Women and the youths have played an important role in the repositioning of political leadership in Imo State. Many of our erudite women have excelled in political offices, in business, education , Science and Technology, and indeed all sectors of the Nigerian economy. This display of capacity is evidential proof that incorporating women and young people in the Rebuild Imo Project will be mutually beneficial. Given that women and young people are key participants in the different sectors of the Imo State economy such as Healthcare, Transportation, Education, Civil service and the private sector, the Rebuild Imo Project shall lay emphasis on carrying our women and youths along as they bring much to the table when economic growth and sustainable development is the case in point.

To properly address the subject matter, we must acknowledge the real challenges we face in the State. In doing this, an analysis of our strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and perceived threats will be imperative and set the pace for engaging with these challenges.

In terms of strength, Imo state has arguably the most educated female population in Nigeria. We also have the highest school enrolment in the country, highest number of candidates for Senior School Certificate Examinations as well as the Universities and Tertiary Institutions Matriculation Examination (UTME). We are constantly inundated with news of the successes of our intelligent and high flying youth of both gender in the national results of WAEC, JAMB, UTME, and at graduation from universities and post graduate programmes across the world. This continues to underscore the educational acumen of our youths and it is a quality our government has taken note of and will exploit for the benefit of our people.

This correlates with the number of Imo indigenes graduating annually and participating in the National Youth Service Corps (NYSC). Such endowment is indicative of inert strength. 

In terms of weaknesses, the present administration has inherited a situation where youth unemployment is at an all-time high.  Education, which used to be the pride of the State has been made less functional than it was a decade ago. Participation in sports among young people is fast declining, leaving out lots of energy and time for nefarious and unwholesome activities, which some engage in.

Our opportunities abound in the strength and quality of our population teeming with millions of educated and naturally endowed women and young people, participating actively in various aspects of the economy. Such demographics and zeal can be compared to a “loaded gun”. Armed with these key ingredients, we only need to effectively and efficiently implement our blue print for a developed and prosperous Imo State.

It would be insincere if we do not acknowledge the fact that our plans for a revamped Imo State using the instrumentality of our women and youths is subject to threatening factors. Given the lack of direction in policy formulation and implementation as well as the arbitrariness of development planning in the past few years, there is a lacuna that must first be filled before tangible development can take place.

However, we have taken the right steps so far by virtue of our blue print as articulated in my Manifesto and by the Transition Technical Committee. It is worthy of note that the appointments in the government so far has taken the foregoing facts into consideration. An all-inclusive government featuring women and young people in positions of trust is what we have tried to do so far. In the recently constituted Interim Management Committees of Local Governments, we made sure that Our Youths and Women were involved as equal partners. As more of our appointments are made, Women and Youths will be accommodated as joint stakeholders in project Rebuild Imo.

Ladies and gentlemen, without sounding immodest it might interest you to know that prior to my election as Governor, I had spent twelve remarkable years in the National Assembly facilitating programmes that empowered women and youth using several federal government agencies. The litany of these programmes are available for any interested person as I do not intend to bore you with the details here.

I assure you, therefore, that in Imo under my watch there will be no glass ceilings for women and youth or heights which they are not permitted to attain. I dream of an Imo State where women are not marginalized because of their gender or for any reason at all. I dream of an Imo State where the youths are properly educated and up-skilled to engage the challenges of the 21st Century. I dream of an Imo State where healthcare and various social services are available not only to the privileged, but to all. I dream of an Imo State where entrepreneurship thrives because progressively the various levers of policy, regulation, and implementation encourage economic growth and sustainable development. I dream of Imo State as a land of justice where peace thrives for all.

Multi-sectorial Partnerships incorporating Women and Youths

As I have mentioned earlier, we have taken the issues of women and youth empowerment as an agenda of government and we are determined to make it count.

In addition to a capable civil service, we also need a robust private sector. A private sector, capable of self-replenishment can only be possible if an enabling environment is created, which provides equal opportunities transcending the barriers of age and gender in which individual talents and business acumen begin to thrive. Beneficial interaction between the private and public sectors is a sine qua non for a well-developed private sector economy. This realisation we shall undertake by empowering women and young people who are the major players in the private sector.

You will agree with me that funding is a key impediment to the implementation of business plans, especially by individuals. Our government will strive to bridge this gap by working with institutions such as the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN), , development banks, development partners and other multilateral agencies to provide access to soft loans targeting women and young people in the area of Agriculture, Commerce and Industry, Technology as well as Education. This will provide the required funding for start-ups in these sectors and thus positively reduce unemployment to the barest minimum.

Our government shall ensure that young people get the right orientation towards becoming employers of labour, instead of aspiring to qualify for employment. This we shall achieve through various community development projects and empowerment programmes targeting young people and Women especially school leavers and graduates and designed to fund the acquisition of entrepreneurial skills and mind-set. The present administration shall provide easy access to information on what services women and young people can access. This would range from security to healthcare and financial services. This openness would establish the much needed interaction for technology transfer, ideas cross-pollination and the monitoring, evaluation and implementation of economic policies that impact on women and young people in Imo State.

More so, we shall provide enabling environment for the establishment of Small and Medium scale enterprises in various areas of the economy. Taking into account the attendant limitless capacity to employ the teeming population of young people, we shall undertake conscious, calculated and timely interventions. These would include improved security, lowering of entry barriers, and most importantly, tax holidays. The overall aim is to woo investors, local and foreign alike.

What we stand to gain

When implemented, the above interventions will transform our state into a new era of a limitless capacity for internally generated revenue (IGR). With revenue derived at different stages and from different sectors, positive growth seems certain. This would ensure the actualization of SDGs 1, 2 and 3. That is, No poverty, Zero hunger, Good health and wellbeing.

Secondly, implementing these strategies would set a precedence upon which further traction can be achieved. We shall capitalize on the established policies, methods, processes and channels and set a standard for subsequent administrations and a model for other states in Nigeria.

Conclusion

Ladies and Gentlemen, while concluding this piece on partnering with women and youths for economic development and sustainability, may I observe that the major economic success stories such as the European Union, the BRICS nations, the Asian tigers, etc., have all leveraged the demographics of women and youth population in their respective economies. Time has come therefore to retrain and reposition our Youths and Women. Time has come to unleash the enormous potentials of our Women and Youths. Time has indeed come to galvanise and mobilise the energies and abilities of our Women and Youths for the great and urgent task of Rebuilding Imo State, to the glory of God and mankind. We urgently need all the energy, brains, brawn, imagination and talents that our young people and Women can bring to bear on our problems. Imo cannot be creative and innovative without the full participation of its Women and young people. My ambition is to be that Governor that made this possible.

Imo bunkeanyinile. Thank you for listening. May God bless you all, bless Imo State and the Federal Republic of Nigeria.


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