Managing the “Youth Bulge” in Nigeria (I)

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It was with utter astonishment that the audience at Kofar Sauri Sharia court in Katsina on that fateful afternoon earlier this month, listened to the 12 year old pupil, Sani Musa, charged with theft, tell the court that he had to steal some metal scrap, in order to get money to enable him continue with his studies. He shocked the court further by producing the books, schoolbag and other school materials which he bought with the money obtained from disposing of the scrap metal. Family members testified to the court that Sani had been complaining over a lack of school materials and acknowledged him to be “hardworking, intelligent and… the best student of his school”. The court subsequently acquitted Sani Musa and resolved to shoulder his needs in school henceforth.

Now this situation of a promising pupil, keen and eager to learn but left in want of necessary school materials is one faced by thousands of young people in Nigeria. Sani Musa belongs to a youth demographic, under the age of 30 years fast becoming a “youth bulge” in developing countries, a situation where a large share of the population is comprised of children and young adults. According to the World Bank, nearly 70% of Africa’s over 1 billion people are under 30 years. Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country, leads the pack with a “very young age structure” where two-thirds of 164 million Nigerians are under the age of 30.

Countries like Nigeria, have the opportunity to turn this youth bulge into a “demographic dividend” or active and productively engaged youthful population, that can power economic growth and development otherwise, this bulge is a ticking time bomb waiting to explode into a youth “disaster” which in the face of scarce economic opportunities become disillusioned and frustrated, imperiling an already fragile socio-political stability.

Diagram the demographic stress of countries around the world. Nigeria has been placed in the “Extreme” category. Source: Population Action International (PAI)

How to effectively engage the “youth bulge” is the current zeitgeist – theme in the air – featuring prominently in many international conferences on Africa. According to the conventional wisdom in this zeitgeist, this rapidly growing youth demographic can become a demographic dividend with adequate education, employment and economic opportunities. The onus of providing such opportunities generally lies with governments and we are all too familiar with how Sub-Saharan African leaders have continuously fallen short of these responsibilities. The premise here is that our predominant focus on the central role of government in providing these opportunities and government’s glaring shortcomings has made us gloss-over the role non-government actors such as parents, communities and not-for-profit groups can and should play in complementing government efforts to ensure our youth bulge in Nigeria translates into a demographic dividend so that young people like Sani Musa have a future to look forward to.

Nigeria’s population pyramid, showing the “youth bulge” at the base.

The importance of education to a country’s overall progress cannot be overemphasized. According to a 2006 IMF report, “the skills of the labor force, built largely during childhood and youth, are an important determinant of a country’s overall investment climate”. These skills are built when primary, secondary and tertiary education opportunities are provided to young people. Nigeria’s challenges in providing education are well documented, with literacy rates of the 15-24 age range at 65%-75% for females and males with stark regional variations between the Northern and Southern parts of the country. While enrolment and completion rates have increased for primary education, the enrolment rate remains low for secondary education, at 25.8% according to World Bank 2010 figures.

Importantly, very few of these have access to quality education – across all three levels. Decaying equipment and facilities, poorly qualified teachers sometimes barely able to speak English, poorly equipped universities and tertiary institutions have all resulted in consecutive mass national failure in secondary school leaving certificate exams – up to 98% in the 2009 NECO exams – and half-baked graduates from tertiary institutions, at best unable to write formal application letters and at worst lacking transferable skills, for a career path they are already uncertain of. Poor funding, corruption and persistent systemic decay of the education sector are all key factors resulting in a poorly educated and largely unskilled youth demographic.

Following closely is the challenge of providing adequate employment and economic opportunities in order to engage the youth productively to power economic and human development. According to World Bank economist Justin Yifu Lin, “one basic measure of a country’s success in turning the youth bulge into a demographic dividend is the youth (un)employment rate.” Yet, Nigeria is saddled with almost 20 million unemployed people, with about 2 million new entrants into the dispirited realm of the unemployed each year, according to the Nigerian National Bureau of Statistics. Unemployment among the under-30 age group is much higher at about 37.7% though civil society groups place the figure closer to 50%.

Of course youth unemployment is a not a phenomenon exclusive to Nigeria or Sub-Saharan Africa as many developed countries, notably Greece, Spain and Portugal are plagued by high youth unemployment rates (49.3%, 48.9% and 34.1% resp.) with the recent global economic downturn. However, if countries like Nigeria are to avert a demographic disaster already incubating a lost generation vulnerable to drug addiction, militancy, insurgency and general disillusionment, then it is imperative that this youthful population is productively engaged.

Youths on a rampage during the 2011 post-elections riots in Nigeria

Employment generation is a function of adroit economic policies, government job creation schemes, existence of an enabling environment — infrastructure, law and order and an efficient regulatory system – and private sector initiatives, flourishing within this environment to create job opportunities.

Jobseekers in Abuja in June 2012 waiting to submit application forms for entry into the Civil Service

A skilled populace, given the right incentives interacts favorably with this business-friendly environment to be productive citizens. However, Nigeria remains a country with immense untapped potential – vibrant population, large market – and an even greater potential of harnessing all these for economic prosperity, but for the most part, the full transition from “potential” to “actuality” is yet to takeoff. The 2012 Ease of Doing Business Index ranks Nigeria 133 out of 183 economies in terms of starting a business (116), getting electricity (176), and access to credit (78). This difficult terrain not only stifles entrepreneurial innovation but has engendered a survival-of-the-most-connected fierce competition for scarce and “lucrative” public sector jobs. Lofty poverty alleviation programs have characterized government employment generation initiatives though President Jonathan’s You WiN!  – Youth Enterprise with Innovation in Nigeria – intervention of supporting aspiring entrepreneurial youth holds some hopeful prospects for employment generation.

While these sobering facts portend bleak prospects for the teeming youthful population in Nigeria, there are specific junctures where non-government actors could stage interventions in complementing government efforts in providing education, employment and economic opportunities, to turn this impending youth-bulge disaster into a dividend.

(TO BE CONCLUDED IN PART II)

Related Posts:

Managing the “Youth Bulge” in Nigeria (II)

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7 thoughts on “Managing the “Youth Bulge” in Nigeria (I)

    Ashiru Hamza Mohammad said:
    July 20, 2012 at 12:49

    An informative piece indeed. There is no gainsaying that investing on the youth should be the best-buys of any government public policy. While I strongly agree that NGOs should support governments effort, I also would want to appeal to civil rights organizations to come to the rescue of this youth-bulge and save them from this quagmire. Its all about advocacy and social justice. This is why I am of the opinion that organizations such as the World Bank should be advocating and fighting for good governance rather than aid-driven gestures. The Nigerian currently reviewed and yet to be implemented curriculum of both the secondary and tertiary institutions are steps in the right direction, in that entrepreneurial engagements are seriously identified and considered to be the hallmark of the current paradigm. Just as Nigeria needs to rightly manage its resources, so is the need for it to invest on its youth-bulge. I only pray that the have the right brain to think, the eyes to see, and the ears to hear.

    Abba Wada said:
    July 20, 2012 at 16:05

    The situation is getting out of hand. Government isn’t doing enough. Besides the solution to the current insecurity has much to do with Government ability to turn the you
    th bulge disaster into dividends.

    [...] a comment The first part of this piece last week, HERE, examined the threats and opportunities posed by Nigeria’s rapidly growing and youthful [...]

    [...] first part of this piece last week, HERE, examined the threats and opportunities posed by Nigeria’s rapidly growing and youthful [...]

    bauchichronicles said:
    August 9, 2012 at 18:05

    Reblogged this on bauchichronicles.

    [...] Source: Managing the “Youth Bulge” in Nigeria (I). [...]

    [...] one of Nigeria’s most astute female bloggers and OpEd contributors. Zainab Usman and her Zainab Musings as her blog is called, is one of many of Nigeria’s youth, in their prime, of high [...]

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