I once visited a church in a small village where the moderator apologised that the Youth Fellowship would not sing that day because “all of them have gone to the city”. Today I sit to write this special article commemorating the 2013 International Youth Day with the theme Youth Migration: Moving Development Forward and that church’s youthlessness returns to my mind.

According to the IOM, there were 27 million youth migrants globally in 2010. They represent 8% of the total 214 international migrants. According to Mo Ibrahim Foundation (MIF), the general mean age on the African continent is 20 (it rises steeply to 62 years for African leaders). According to the Youth Division of the African Union Commission, “About 65% of the total population of Africa are below the age of 35 years, and over 35% are between the ages of 15 and 35 years – making Africa the most youth full continent. By 2020, it is projected that out of 4 people, 3 will be on average 20 years old.” There is no easy way to break this to you, but if you are more than 13 years old now; then you will be a too old and in the minority in 7 years.

By definition, the youth as a species has unique characteristics different from all other beings – including the related child and adult species in the human kingdom. Two key characteristics I propose as universal among members of the youth species: the youth is uniquely an urban species which thrives best in modernity. Secondly, the youth is a migratory species – just like the dolphins.

In the first instance, if you are a painter; you would be attracted and inspired by the picturesqueness of tapping palm wine, herding cows, hawking fura da nono and doing all such ‘village things’. But if you are/were a rural youth, you already know that there is no ‘life’ (or swag) in such “mundane” activities. It is fine to try to tap palm wine for the few seconds needed to capture a decent Facebook profile picture, but no young person looks forward with delight to a career atop palm trees. In fact research cites “boredom in agriculture” as a leading reason for rural-urban migration.

Additionally, when rural youths follow their favourite “idols” in the entertainment industry, they know that D’Banj is unlikely to throw a concert in Kpakungu in the near future. So to attempt to “follow” and worship an urban idol from the rural area is as hopeless as trying to worship God from Hades – but there are no rural idols to choose from. We are witnessing a rapid change in youth-life where (aided by the internet and mobile telephony), the youth species is evolving at a geometric pace while urbanisation is proceeding on an uncertain arithmetic pace in rural areas – the rural youth is like a snail grown bigger than its shell.

Often, youths move perhaps from Lere to Lagos or from Pankshin to Paris “in search of greener pastures” and with the hope of an eventual return. Studies from Cape Verde, for example, indicate that youths considered migration to Europe as a necessary part of their youth. But why are they not content with the move to the big cities but want to go abroad as well? It begins with the need to escape the constrained life that is possible in the village by chasing the promises of the local city – say Lagos. Youths just want to trade their life of corn, goats and palm wine tapping for a chance to ‘tweet’ about the city in its glory.

After the move, say from Borokiri to Lagos, the realisation that there is no Lagos Dream waiting presents the youth-migrant with a new dilemma; it might have been tolerable to be poor in the village where one is not surrounded by big city lusts. But what to do when you move to Lagos and then find yourself poorer and pressed between the Devil and the LASTMA? Option one, you go back to the village and try to tell them that there is no money to be had in Lagos. Option two? Just “cut out” to an even bigger city. Honestly, urban poverty is severer than its rural cousin.

But what needs to be done so the youth can have the best of their young lives?

I begin with the need for co-existence, tolerance, understanding and acceptance among youths. There is a lot that the youth can teach the old folks about this exercise in coexistence. In Plateau State there is a social identity called “Jos Guys” (eg P-Square, Mikel Obi, MI and Rochas Okorocha etc). Being a Jos Guy says nothing about your indigeneity and citizenship. A meeting of Jos Guys typically discusses where (in Jos) one grew up; which old padi one might have met recently – and importantly, how long ago since one made pilgrimage to Jos. In our hearts, in our cliques, villages and cities, we must make room for the newly arrived.

I wonder, must my hometown always be the same as my father’s or can I transplant my roots as I move along? This returns us to the tough question of citizenship and indigeneship in Nigerian law. But the markers of tribe and ethnicity are really too old-school for us youths – we have to move on by building a new “National Padihood of the Youth”. And you must repent now, if all your besties are from the same village.

There is a lot the youth can do for itself; this is in part the mission of Youth Hub Africa. We need more such hubs within which youths can really be young since formal “youth forums” usually bring together too many “career youths” who think and act like grandparents but speak about youth-issues forever. The youth must also train itself not only to become employable, but also to be migrable.

In policy, it is crucial to structure social processes in a manner that allows for the youth to come to life; structures must make room for migration and for urbanity. Tertiary education must run on a fixed and scheduled calendar to allow for internships, exchange studies and for inter-semester migrations. Children growing up in the villages must be exposed to the city very early; if a child works in a city during school breaks, s/he will likely have a to-and-fro relationship with the city. This cyclicality is unlikely if the first visit to the big city happens later in life.

Here is the call to empathy. The sheer number and energy of the youth in Nigeria is amazing; youths live in cities unperturbed by lack of infrastructure, full of life and of hope for a better tomorrow. Sitting in the comfort of your air-conditioned car you almost fail to notice the hot the and how very different your reality from theirs. So easily you roll up your windows to escape the smell of rotting fish and the boiled eggs they hawk and you forget to wonder whether there isn’t too much boiled egg in the city per capita considering that you never bought any.

The life of the young person in the city could be lacking in many ways, but it is a life of hope. Hope is the stuff that makes youth-life impossible in the village; because there isn’t any. In spite of the hope that we live on, the future that confronts the Nigerian and the African youth is a grim one. We must then be realistic in our expectations for the migrating youth in our cities; we all should watch “Welcome to Lagos.”

For the future the young will continue to move – there is no stopping this march of history. What can change are the answers to these questions: why will the youth of tomorrow migrate? Will they migrate on account of failure to “get a life” in their present locations? Where will they go to? Will they ever go back to where they began from? Will they thrive?

One can only hope.


Daniel Nengak

Daniel Nengak

Nengak Daniel Gondyi is presently a post-graduate student in International Migration and Ethnic Relations at Malmö Högskola in Sweden. He is also a Senior Programme Officer of the Abuja based Centre for Democracy and Development, CDD. He holds a Bachelors’ in International Studies from the Ahmadu Bello University. Read his full profile here.

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Rotimi Olawale, co-founder of is a youth development expert. For more than six years he has been involved in leading youth advocacy efforts mainly around the Millennium Development Goals. In 2006, he represented Nigeria as a youth ambassador at the United Nations Global Youth Leadership Summit held at the UN Headquarters in New York. Rotimi has held several global leadership positions including; member, UNFPA Global Youth Advisory Panel for 2 years; member, African Youth Panel. Rotimi is currently involved in shaping local, national and global policies to benefit youth and also leverage opportunities for young people. He was listed by the Nigerian government as one of 15 Nigerian youth on the world stage in 2008.