Senate President Dr Bukola Saraki's Founder's Day 2016 Lecture
The Principal of Kings College, Mr. Oluseyi A. Thomas; staff and students of this great institution; eminent guests; fellow alumni and Kingsmen. I say a big thank you to the President Kings College Old Boys Association for the invitation to speak at this Founders Day lecture. The last time I was here was during the Centenary celebrations in 2009. Witnessing that occasion, made me really proud to be a part of the great history of this school. It therefore gives me a great joy to be back today and to be in this distinguished company of old friends, seniors, classmates and juniors.
As I stepped into this hall this morning, long forgotten memories of my last real performance here came rushing back to me. I just came to Kings College as an 11-year-old boy. It was really my first time of leaving home. As was the tradition, new boys were selected to give a performance as part of the initiation process to welcome them to this great institution. If you did well, you got a good applause. Otherwise, well, the brine was waiting for you.
I was generally seen as an ‘aje butter’, so I was a natural target. For this reason, I knew that no matter my performance that night, for me, there would be no escaping the brine. In any case, I didn’t think I gave an Oscar-worthy performance. Therefore, I must have been treated to a double, if not triple ration of the brine. But in the end, I was fine. I enjoyed the occasion and understood it for what it was: a tradition, designed over several years and handed down by generations of students who would later became great men; a tradition designed to remind a green-eyed boy that he had left the nest and from the moment he stepped into this hall, he had to learn to face the world and stand up for himself because it is only by accepting small challenges like that, that he would learn to deal with the bigger challenges that await him subsequent years and on the road to becoming a worthy Kingsman.
As simple as that event of many years ago was, the memories have stayed with me till this day. More importantly, the principles that it was meant to teach have also endured. I fervently hope that my performance today, unlike that of many years ago, would be good enough to earn me applause. If however, I fall short once again, and you are considering sentencing me to a drink of brine, remember that my security aides are just outside these doors.
When I came to this College many years in 1973, I had an option to go to Barewa College, which also offered me admission. But I didn’t like their uniform and the tie. So, Kings College was a clear choice for me. Like I said earlier, like most of the boys, I was leaving home for the first time. I was therefore, not sure how I was going to fare in a boarding house. Some of the boys liked me and made the pains of leaving home more tolerable. However, many of the boys also didn’t like me, for different reasons. To this second category, I owe a lot of gratitude because they taught me most of the very important lessons that had helped me through life up till this day.
They taught me some of my very early lessons about peer envy. They taught me that coming from a privileged background does not necessarily translate to an advantage. In fact, it could be a liability. In my own case, because of whom my father was, many thought I was a pampered daddy’s boy who could not hold his own or deal with difficult situations. I soon learn however, that when people define me this way, they also underestimate me. This continues to happen till today. However, I soon learn to convert this into a form of strength. It taught me to win by sheer mental strength, and never giving up in the face of challenges or adversity.
I also learnt that not all friends are true friends; and not everyone who does not want to be a friend is an enemy. I learnt that generosity could be a form of power and humility could be a form of strength. I learnt that by being nice to people, you could get them to be nice to you in return. I learnt that respect starts with self-respect. And, by learning all these, I also learnt the delicate art of winning people’s heart; a skill that I continued to perfect through my stay in KC because it was the only way I could have survived, but which has turned out to be the defining factor in my career as a politician!
All these lessons that KC taught me have combined to serve me in the course of my life, and continued to define the life I have lived. However, there were a couple of things I couldn’t achieve here. Even though, my ambition was clearly about becoming a doctor, I also wanted to be a great sportsman. I wanted to be the best triple jumper in KC. I also wanted to be a great debater, pianist, and dramatist. I tried them all. I joined the drama and debate club. I took lessons to play the piano and tried to join a band. I participated in a lot of other things. If it was there, I had to try it. Even though I didn’t come close to achieving greatness in any of these, they all taught me important lessons about discipline, commitment to a defined goal and teamwork. All of these, no doubt, prepared me for the role that I have played in public life, and proved beyond all doubts that KC is indeed a great training ground for leadership.
I recollect my first experience as a public officer. It was in 2000, when I was appointed a Special Assistant to the then President, Olusegun Obasanjo. Initially I rejected the appointment because I had been promised a ministerial post and coming from a position as an Executive Secretary at a bank, I thought it was a step down. In fact, for a year, I was almost in limbo in negotiations about the role until I was allowed to determine what my engagement would be. I appealed to my strengths and chose to be the Special Assistant on the Budget. Once accepted, I put everything I had into the role and before I knew it, I had built the portfolio into one of the most sought after within the cabinet; with several people openly lobbying for my job. For my age and level, I was the only Special Assistant allowed to attend the Federal Executive Council (FEC) meetings and given the opportunity to engage with the President on a personal level. I realized quickly that the work I had to do was more important than the position I occupied. I learnt that whatever opportunity you have, you have to make the best of it to leave things better than you met it. In the end, this is what would define you rather than the titles that you bear.
Three years later, I was faced with another opportunity to serve when I decided to run for the office of the Governor of Kwara State. Leading up to the election, I had an interview with NTA at their studios in VI and the experience stays with me till this day. The interviewer asked me what she thought was a daunting question. She asked me why I thought I would be of any use to the people of Kwara given that, in her opinion, I had been born with a silver spoon, had never been hungry in my life; and could not possibly empathise with any of the issues facing the masses. There is a common mistake we make as people, to underestimate anyone who is different or coming from different circumstances; and it happens at all levels. My answer to her was simple: seeing as I was not hungry, my concern upon resumption of office would be to make sure none of my people were either. When you put people in public office who are hungry, their first concern is to stem THEIR hunger before they think about anyone else’s. My focus is, was and always will be, service for the greater good of all.
This attitude stayed with me when I became the Governor of Kwara State three years later. All that we achieved in those years, remain a reference point in creative governance in Nigeria up till this day. From the pioneer commercial agriculture programme, popularly known as the Zimbabwean farmers; to the Kwara Aviation College, which continue to produce a new generation of aircraft pilots; the first-of-its-kind Community Health Insurance, that provides broad health services coverage for rural dwellers for a mere N200; to the most comprehensive education reform programme ever attempted in Nigeria, Every Child Counts, my government was able to prove that with innovative thinking, and well educated leadership, we could find new solutions to the old problems that we have always grappled with in our country.
Our dear country Nigeria is so hugely blessed. But why have we remained rooted to one spot like a man running on a treadmill? Why have we failed to achieve the limits of our potentials, despite our rich endowments in human and natural resources? The answer, my dear Kingsmen, cannot be far-fetched. We are where we are today because we have failed to develop a system that ensures that only the best and the most competent of our citizens assume leadership positions. While other countries continue to ensure that only the brightest and best of their citizens occupy public positions, whether elective, appointive or even in the bureaucracy, the opposite appear to be the case in our country. While other people continue to hand the destiny of their country to men and women with Ivy-league credentials, we continue to wallow in mediocrity. A combination of mutually destructive competition for power; pursuit of parochial interests no matter how defined, and utter failure of the elite to devise a vision of development and build a consensus around it; all these have conspired to ensure that those who have real contributions to make don’t even get to put a leg in the room.
Well, I am delighted however to see that Kings College has produced a Senate President. The point I seek to make here is that we need to understand that by virtue of being a Kingsman, you are already earned your right to be in leadership position in this country. Whatever limitations we have, we shall deal with it. But the vision, the philosophy of this great institutions, starting from when it opened its doors to the first set of 10 students 107 years ago, was to produce men who would be leaders of our country. We must not lose sight of this. I am confident that as long as we continue to keep this vision alive, someday soon, in our politics, the choice of who becomes President of Nigeria will based on capacity as opposed to religion, origin or language.
Our country, Nigeria is going through a very difficult time. The present is challenging, the future looks very bleak. Just like the National Bureaus of Statistics has confirmed, GDP growth in the second quarter of 2016 at -2.06% following a decline of 0.36% in the first quarter, meant that the Nigerian economy has had two consecutive quarters of economic contraction and therefore has formally slid into recession.
One of the questions that I get asked very frequently these days is, how did we get here? During my welcome address to the Senate earlier in the week, I tried to answer this question. The collapse in oil prices from over $100 per barrel to about $48 recently set the broad stage for the challenges that we are currently facing. However, our situation has been compounded by low sovereign savings with FX reserves having declined from over $65bn in 2007 to about $30bn by 2015. The implications of this is that we must do something drastic and quick to restore confidence back into the economy and get people investing and spending again if we are to end the despair in the land.
Another question that I have also been repeatedly asked, which I consider to be even more important than the first questions, is whether we can get out of this recession and how must we proceed from here. I am fully aware that as the first alumni of this school to occupy the position of President of the Senate, I have a responsibility built on Truth, Honesty, Patriotism, Integrity and most importantly, Service; to work in collaboration with my Distinguished Colleagues at the National Assembly to get us back on track. And contrary to what you might hear, we are doing just that. Especially, as we have a President that is committed to doing what it takes to return Nigeria back to the leadership position that the country occupied on economy and opportunities in Africa.
What we are working towards is so that when you get out of school and wish to embark on whatever career path you desire; be it entrepreneurship or in the employ of a company or even in public service, that you have an enabling environment to thrive in. I am sure like in my time, there are one or two of you that are already testing out the entrepreneurial waters, brokering deals here and there (trade me your cornflakes for my milk); but if you wish to register a business and legitimise yourself, you will hit some hurdles that at your young age would be most daunting. It is not uncommon for people as young as 18 or 21 to start businesses in other developed economies—Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook who recently visited Nigeria, launched the site at the age of 20—and I am confident as fellow Kingsmen, you possess the will, creativity and innovation to come up with products and services that can change the way we live in Africa; and the world. So, at the Senate, we are working to protect your opportunity to do just that. If it is easy to start, run and grow a business, it is easy for young Kingsmen like yourself, to find or create jobs; andcontribute to the King’s College Alumni legacy and traditions of service to one’s community and country.
By this time next year, a portion of you will be resuming in universities and tertiary institutions across the country and around the world. We now have a law in Nigeria that further protects you and your female classmates from unwanted sexual harassment from your professors and administrators. You might think that this is an issue that only affects girls but any one of you could find yourself on the receiving end of unwanted advances; or you can have a classmate who has an undue advantage due to unscrupulous activities of having been propositioned by a professor. We are working to make sure you all have a level playing field in both your access to quality education, the opportunities that come with it and a conducive environment to grow your minds. We are also working on a law to make sure that when you write your JAMB, the results are valid for two years as opposed to one, to lessen the stress and rigours of seeking admission.
We have reformed the bills on Railways allowing for private sector to come in, play an active part and bridge the gaps in moving people, goods and services across the country. Our hope is that in a few years, you all can decide—say for instance as part of your graduation activities—that if you wish to travel to explore Nigeria, you can just hop on a train and do so safely, affordably and on time; just like your counterparts in other countries.
I know the parents of those of you who have to come to school from outside of Lagos will be happy about that. But beyond the ease of moving people up and down, we will be able to move products and goods faster and more efficiently. So when you order something online—as your generation is wont to do—it gets to you safely and affordably.
We are aggressively promoting the patronage of “Made In Nigeria” products and services as a way to reverse the expenditure on imported foreign goods that heavily deplete our limited foreign exchange reserves; something that we cannot afford to happen in an oil-export economy faced with falling oil prices. Government is the largest spender on goods and services; and so we have passed a bill compelling that when there is any procurement to be done, the government MUST patronize a Nigerian-made business; and only IF it cannot find the product or services locally can it look outside of our shores to import. The goal is to increase domestic expenditure on goods to 90% with 10% on imported goods.
You as students, teachers and alumni can do your bit to support the policy. We should see our local brands of cereal, dairy, backpacks, school shoes, notebooks and study materials dominant in your private purchases. We all have to buy Nigerian to Grow Nigeria. And it starts with you. Make the decision to choose Nigeria, to choose the legacy, to choose service and choose your fellow man; and together we will choose the future that we want and need.
I am confident we have the right capacity to get out of this recession very quickly. For this to happen however, we must be willing to embrace a new way of thinking about the problems and the solutions. A mind-set that is exclusionary and is not open to a different notion of solutions is likely to keep us longer where we are than we should ordinarily be.
We must begin to act and speak in a way that inspires confidence and encourage people to want to want to do business with us and bring investments to our country. An economically strong Nigeria is good for Africa and for the rest of the world. So, everyone wants to see Nigeria climb out of this recession as quickly as possible. They are willing to work with us. But we must demonstrate that we truly want them to work with us by giving them confidence and speak the language that they understand, the most important of which is that we are able to show them why Nigeria is still a good place for them to bring their money.
The biggest challenge facing Nigeria, even in the best of times, is how to create jobs for our 60 million young people between the ages of 18-35? Many have pointed asset. However, we know what we must do to ensure that they do not become a demographic burden. We must event in high quality education and we must earnestly being to build a job-driven economy that can put our young people to work and turn them into a productive force.
Great Kingsmen, distinguished ladies and gentlemen. We must not allow the difficulty of the moment to destroy our hope of a great future. I have no doubt that what we are currently experiencing is a passing phase. I have no doubt that the sun will shine again on our glorious country. I have no doubt that a future of greatness awaits the young men in this hall and across our country. However, this is the time, more than ever before, that anyone who has something to contribute must step forward in solidarity. I appeal to all Kingsmen here this morning. All of us as old boys must rediscover the spirit that has driven us to successin our respective endeavours and bring that spirit to bear now, in helping Nigeria out of this current situation. In any group of Nigerians who have gone to school in Nigeria can dig us out of this challenge, I have no doubt that Kingsmen can. Let’s do it.
Thank you all for listening.