Flying in a plane is not exactly a phenomenal event. I mean, there isn’t really much to look forward to when you’re hovering 6, 000 feet above sea level and your heart is pumping at a rate you didn’t think it could. Once in a while, however, a plane full of people flies across the Nigerian sky, and during that hour, something phenomenal, almost magical, happens.
Arik Air Flight W3905 was one such phenomenal one. As it took off from Abuja on the morning of Saturday, January 16, 2010, there was no indication that history was about to be made. Until you realize that it was coming to Yola. You see, it wasn’t just any other usual flight to Yola, it was among many odd flights that week, during which a good number of the people who sit here today arrived in Yola to write our collective history. And so it is on a Boeing 737-800 that our story begins.
In the week during which that flight came, and in the 171 weeks following it, 289 people have thrived in Yola, in every sense of the word. We’ve eaten and slept here, we’ve laughed and cried here, we’ve been successful and failed here, we’ve loved and loathed here. Two hundred and eighty-nine beating hearts, 289 brilliant minds and 289 fascinating stories converged here, and so it is an honor more than any I have ever received to stand before you today and tell a story of hope, courage, and the triumph of the human spirit. Our story is like none you have ever heard. This is the story of the Class of 2013.
You see, our being here today is not a mere coincidence. The inevitable implication of our standing today is that we stand on the shoulders of giants and are shaded by the trees they spent their lives planting. We stand because [Tafawa] Balewa and [Obafemi] Awolowo, because Ahmadu Bello and [Nnamdi] Azikiwe stood. We stand because the Funmilayo Kutis, the Shehu Yar’Aduas, the Dele Giwas and Ken Saro-Wiwas stood. We stand on the tall and valiant shoulders of the [Wole] Soyinkas and the [Chinua] Achebes, of the [Chimamanda] Adichies and the [Zainab] Alkalis, we stand because many have made sacrifices and paid dearly for us to have what we have.
And so long before this moment, long before we ever came to AUN and our paths collided in beautiful disorder, the future started. As we sit here right now, at this very moment, we are already late. Therefore, the ability to waste any more time is no longer an option available for us.
Over the past few days, we have heard again and again from so many people about the wonderful and life-changing experiences we have had here, and so there is no need for me to reiterate that. It is in that spirit that I bring you a slightly different message today.
My fellow graduands, we leave our soon-to-be alma mater at an extremely crucial and troublesome time for our country. As I speak to you at this very moment, 70 percent of Nigerians live on less than $2 every day. Two dollars a day is about N300 naira. Two dollars a day, ladies and gentlemen, means that millions of children will go to bed hungry tonight. That hunger will prevent them from paying any attention in school tomorrow, thus preventing them from thinking as much as they should and can. That hunger will deny them a future long before they can even imagine one.
More than one-third of Nigeria’s children who should be in primary school are not in school. For all of those children, it means that a future with limitless possibilities like ours has been violently snatched away from them, never to be recovered and restored. Nigeria remains one of the three countries in the world where polio is still endemic. More women die from childbirth here, than in some war zones. Millions of women are unable to improve their quality of life and those of their families because of structural and institutional sexism which manifests in so many different ways. I could go and on about Nigeria’s problems, but all of these are not new to our ears.
Every human being deserves to live with dignity and with hope and with possibilities available to them. Do most of the people in our country live like that? How many Nigerians can wake up every day and be sure that their rights and dignities will not stripped away, or that their poverty will deny them all hope and possibility?
How many of us have a contextual and critical understanding of our history as a people. If we do not know where we are coming from, where we are will make no sense. If we do not understand where we are, we set off on the wrong path on the road to where we should be. If our priorities as a nation with regards to where we should be are wrong, then where we can be will forever be out of our vision and out of our reach.
How long will we keep making excuses for Nigeria’s relative lack of progress? Why do we continue to take one step forward as a people and three million steps backward? Why do we punish and vilify good people and values, and reward and uphold mediocrity and evil? What are our obligations to the Nigerian project? Is it okay for some of us to see service and holistic citizenship as making money and just paying taxes and occasionally voting? What are our obligations to fellow citizens? What obligations arise out of our privilege? Make no mistake, we are privileged.
In a country whereby everyone should and can have the opportunity to grow and prosper, yet only so very few do, we are unique products of the unfair and unjust nature of the postcolonial state in Africa. We represent a category of Nigerians with more power and privilege than we are willing to admit and take responsibility for. We are part of the problem, but like the strange paradox that Nigeria is, we are also a major part of the solutions.
Nigeria has come a very long way since 1960, but we have a far longer and more difficult journey ahead of us. We can no longer afford to kneel under the destructive spell of mediocrity and fear. In the wise words of Achebe, our elders say, that the sun will shine on those who stand before it shines on those who kneel under them. If the sun will shine on our generation and on the Nigeria we seek to create, then we must stand up for what we believe every step of the way.
We have everything that we need to build something far bigger than ourselves. Why then should we settle for anything less than excellence?
My fellow graduands, our time has come. Ours has been an education for peace, truth and progress, and for a truly unified country. Our education must bring justice to the unjust. It must fix our economy, tell our stories, find cleaner sources of energy, and build ethical businesses to take over the Forbes list, make academy award winning movies, develop technology for the next century, and bring hope and justice to those that shall come after us. And it is possible. In our day, in our time, with our work and through our hands, that Nigeria can move from a mere possibility, to a reality more powerful than we ever imagined.
Ours will be the time when Nigeria’s children will hunger or thirst no more, where our brothers and sisters will not be cut down by violence in their prime, where our uncles and aunts will not burn in the attempt to clean out a fallen fuel tanker.
Ours shall be the generation to fulfill Fanon’s prophecy of discovering our mission and fulfilling it, because there is no more opportunity for betrayal.
All of these are possible, but like all other solutions, they come at a price. In the words of Kaushik Basu, people say unfair societies are self-destructive. In truth, they can last for centuries & that is why we need vigilance & conscious action.
My question to us all is, are we willing to pay the price of action? If we assume that we have nothing to do with the fate of our country and our continent, we are greatly harming ourselves, the legacy of those before us, and the capacity of those after us.
We are all that we have. We have no one else, absolutely nothing else. If we refuse to believe in the Nigerian project, if we refuse to take on the Nigerian challenge, ours shall be a generation unforgiven for eons to come, carrying with us a mighty burden of failed promises. Because we have lost the privilege to be ignorant or to choose inaction, this is a promise we must fulfill. May we never forget that our choices matter.
It is in reflection of all of these realities and in celebration of the future of possibilities that lies ahead, that we gather here today.
However, make no mistake, today is not just our day. Today is in gratitude to our mothers, who have spent countless nights in prayer, on their mats, holding their rosaries, in mosques and churches, in our living rooms and in their bedrooms, praying tirelessly during the night and working ceaselessly during the day that we may have an education worth having. Their prayers will never be in vain. This is in gratitude to our fathers, who continue to give everything and more so that we may fulfill our potential. This is in gratitude to our families, who have given up so much in order for us to be here, who are the true definition of sacrifice. This is in recognition of our teachers, who have dedicated their lives to bringing knowledge to us so that we may fulfill our purpose.
Today is in gratitude for the American University of Nigeria, and all of its staff, its administrators, and its leadership, who continue to give everything they have without hesitation so that our tomorrow is better than our yesterday. Today is in gratitude to our founder, our board of trustees, and our president, who continue to provide strong and committed leadership to our development and growth as an institution. We are only because all of these people are, and to them our gratitude and thanks are eternal and boundless.
As I conclude, it is important for us to remember that in our quest for a greater future, we must never place perfection over progress.
Nelson Mandela said that sometimes it falls upon a generation to be great. You can be that great generation. The only true way to let your greatness blossom is to dignify it via action. Dear class of 2013, how will we use the education we have been given to act for the greater good of us all?
Will we have the courage and dignity to act and to serve no matter the odds? Will we serve ourselves or will we serve our country? These are questions each person must answer in their own, and yet its answer will affect us all.
Dear class of 2013, a very very long journey ends today. You have crossed the finish line and the world awaits your contributions. As you go forth and conquer in strength and in faith, I wish you good luck and Godspeed. Congratulations!
Ms. Ibrahim rendered this commencement remarks, as class speaker, to the graduating set of 2013 at the American University of Nigeria in Yola recently.