Remarks to Youth Reception

Maria Otero
Under Secretary for Democracy and Global Affairs 
Ambassador's Residence
Abuja, Nigeria
March 3, 2011

(As prepared for delivery)

Thank you Ambassador McCulley for hosting this important gathering. It’s a distinct pleasure to be here with all of you for the first ever Youth Reception at the Ambassador’s Residence.

This is my third trip to Nigeria since becoming the United States’ Under Secretary for Democracy and Global Affairs in August 2009. In this role, I have been to Nigeria more times than any other country in the world -- which goes to show how much the United States values our partnership with Nigeria.

The world is watching as Nigeria moves towards its presidential election in 2011. Over the past several days, I have met with members of your government and civil society. But my trip would not be complete without meeting with you -- the future scientists, teachers, activists, entrepreneurs and leaders of this country.

The truth is, you in this room are crucial to everything that Nigeria seeks to achieve through the upcoming elections and beyond. In a country where 80% of the population is under 40 years old -- you in this room and the youth population you represent from around this nation -- you all have a responsibility to drive progress. You cannot afford to leave your ideals to the older generation (like me).

At the very least, we could use your youthful energy -- but we also need your ideas and creativity to find new solutions to old problems. And with today’s technology and global connections, you are empowered with access to knowledge and resources unlike any generation before you.

So, this evening, I want to encourage you to embrace your role as change agents -- especially within the political process. Each of you has the potential to create a strong, more peaceful Nigeria.

Of course, I know this is not exactly an easy challenge to take on. Some of you have poured your hearts into helping your country. You have built institutions and campaigns. And I know progress is often evasive. You may even be at a point where you doubt that your effort will ever be rewarded.

But, as I’ve witnessed in the past several days -- and on all of my trips here -- there are people in this country, including many of you, who are working towards more stable and transparent elections. And each of you can add to that momentum.

The first step is by casting your vote. Each of you has the power to influence the conditions of your existence -- indeed, it is one of the greatest gifts of the Democratic process. Each of you can be an Ambassador of political engagement.

So, educate yourselves about the candidates. Learn about the process. Challenge your friends and family to do the same. Because your engagement in Nigeria’s political system is integral to your country’s future -- and not just in the upcoming elections, but in the basic functioning and stability of Nigerian society.

Of course, you don’t need to hear from an American diplomat to know the importance of your role in the political process.

Right here in Nigeria, young people are organizing -- on and offline -- to achieve shared goals. Vote or Quench is a youth driven, social media-enabled organization that is shedding light on Nigeria’s complex political arena, giving young people a low-barrier entry point into political engagement. [I think the founder is here with us today]. Vote or Quench is aligning with other members of a growing youth movement, which will be driving voter registration and calling for Nigeria’s first ever youth-centered presidential debate in the lead up to April’s elections.

You also have the Youngstars Development Initiative, in which young people from all six geo-political regions of Nigeria are working with USAID’s "U Can’t Swag My Vote" program. And through the National Youth Service Corps, young Nigerians are doing a year of national service --- many of whom are doing voter registration and working at Election Day polls.

These are just a couple of examples -- I’m sure there are many more stories in this room. But before I turn it over to you to hear some of those stories, I want to remind you that the President of the United States started out his professional career as a community organizer. It is with that same commitment to citizen empowerment that President Obama has prioritized youth engagement in our foreign policy, along with Secretary Clinton (my boss).

Last August, President Obama hosted the President’s Forum on Youth African Leaders in Washington which included three delegates from Nigeria. At the State Department, we’ve launched a Youth Task Force, which I’m proud to co-chair with Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy Judith McHale. We are exploring the many ways that the US government engages youth on our foreign policy priorities, and crafting a strategy to ensure that we are maximizing the potential of youth as leaders in their communities around the world.

And that strategy starts with listening to youth. We must listen as much as talk -- because your voices bring rich opinions and unique views to the global conversation. So with that, I’ll stop talking and open the floor to you. I am interested to hear what you are doing and thinking during this important time for Nigeria.