Guest Columnist in Malam Nasir El-Rufai’s Friday Column

Last week Friday, I had the great honour of being featured in Malam Nasir El-Rufai’s Friday column, as the 5th Young Voice, from his fortnightly YOUNG VOICES in which he introduces a young Nigerian passionate about positive change.

As you are probably well aware, Malam El-Rufai, currently a chieftain of the party, Congress for Progressive Change (CPC) has served the Nigerian Federal Government in various high-level capacities, notably as the Director-General of the Bureau for Public Enterprises, as Minister of the Federal Capital Territory (FCT)  and as member of the Federal Executive Council, the highest decision making body in Nigeria, from 2003 – 2007.

He is well known for his thought-provoking, brilliant, enlightening and cerebral articles in his weekly columns with various Nigerian newspapers and online platforms and for his advocacy for good governance. In August 2012, Malam El-Rufai was listed as one of the 50 most influential Africans by the influential Paris-based The Africa Report magazine.

Importantly, unlike many of our African “big-men” and their larger-than-life unapproachable personas, Malam El-Rufai is very accessible  to young Nigerians via email, twitter and other social media platforms.

It is really a great honour to be featured as one of the YOUNG VOICES. Read more on Malam El-Rufai’s webpage HERE.


Managing the “Youth Bulge” in Nigeria (II)

The first part of this piece last week, HERE, examined the threats and opportunities posed by Nigeria’s rapidly growing and youthful population to the social cohesion, political stability and economic development of the country; how the dividends of this youthful population can be realized by providing meaningful, education, employment and economic opportunities and the main obstacles in providing and accessing these opportunities. This concluding piece looks at some junctures where non-government actors could complement government efforts in providing these opportunities, to ensure Nigeria’s youthful population becomes a blessing and not a curse.

In the realm of education, since a major problem as identified is not just of access to education, but that those enrolled are faced with low standards and poor quality, with those graduating from these institutions possessing little relevant skills, what role could families and communities play in improving the quality of accessible education? If there is a dearth of qualified primary and secondary school teachers who sometimes are barely able to teach or communicate effectively in English on the one hand and on the other hand, there’s an army of unemployed tertiary institutions graduates, what incentives could be explored to lure unemployed graduates to teach to fill the skills gap– albeit on a temporary basis  – in primary and secondary schools (generally not regarded by young people as a “cool” profession)with poorly qualified teachers rather than staying idle at home?

While not attempting to undermine the efforts of academics in Nigerian tertiary institutions, could there be a role for Nigerian academics and professionals in institutions abroad to go to Nigeria for visiting professorships or at least, for short periodic visits during their annual leave, serving as an important “bridge” for knowledge, expertise and resources transfer? Could not-for-profit organizations design short courses affiliated to these tertiary institutions, for a small fee, to impart transferable skills such as computer and IT; leadership and project management; team-work, communication, negotiation and mediation; and administrative skills, all very relevant in the work place?

Could young professionals and the numerous silent achievers (in Nigeria and in the diaspora) who have succeeded immensely in their various fields – in academics, the corporate world, public service or entertainment – mentor teenagers and young adults by speaking with students at their various former schools, hometowns and communities, sharing their success stories and giving them useful tips, in order to inspire, motivate and encourage them? This is especially as many young adults are in dire need of a new breed of role models who would remind them that hard work still pays ultimately, that being a kleptocratic bureaucrat or an unconscionably thieving politician is not the only sure way to “success” and “prosperity”.

With regards to employment generation and creation of economic opportunities, the primary issues are limited job opportunities especially in the public sector vis-a-vis a labour market saturated with millions of jobseekers, the unemployability of many job seekers according to employers, and the treacherous hurdles within an unfavourable environment that those with entrepreneurial ambitions have to scale through i.e. limited incentives, credit facilities and dearth of infrastructure. Thus, a possible area of intervention for non-government actors could entail providing training as noted above in work-place skills to students and job seekers to prepare them for the labour market. Currently, the University of Nigeria Nsukka has a center headed by Professor Benjamin Ogwo, dedicated to “re-training” jobseekers with skills required of 21st century workforce, to make them more employable. This short video clip below highlights the work done by this centre.

In addition to lacking necessary skills, many young Nigerian job seekers lack experience and core competencies even for entry-level jobs, making it stressful for employers who have to spend a small fortune on training new staff in basic office skills. In many developed and emerging economies, young job seekers are typically equipped with experience, core competencies and at the barest minimum, familiarity with an office environment, all developed from a range of volunteer jobs and internships while at the University, sometimes right from secondary school. There is need to inculcate such practice of volunteerism via internships and work-experience schemes, Industrial Training (already included in many science-based courses in Nigeria) especially during the long periods of school breaks and ASUU strikes.

With regards to the creation of economic opportunities, families have a crucial role to play in supporting young people with bright, innovative, promising yet unconventional ideas to allow these ideas mature to fruition. Parents and guardians ought to realize that not everyone is cut out for a “secure” white-collar employment that pays a healthy pension. The world today is markedly different from that of the 1960s and 1970s in which our parents grew up in, where lucrative public sector jobs awaited anyone bold or fortunate to graduate from the University. The 21st century is an era driven by creativity, entrepreneurship and innovation of the Zuckerbergs, Steve Jobs and Chris Aires who dared to follow the unconventional paths they dreamt about.

Saheed Adepoju, the 28 year old co-founder of Encipher Group, the Nigerian-based tech firm that has produced the country’s first tablet computer, ‘Inye’ modeled after Apple’s ipad

Parents ought to recognize promising talent and potential in their children and wards at an early age and nurture this with the right support and encouragement, as some would thrive exceptionally well as entrepreneurs, building their own companies, employing others and adding value to the society.   It is passion that drives real talent, and the creative expression of talent leads to bursts of innovation which, within an enabling environment leads to entrepreneurial success and prosperity. Access to funding and credit is usually a stumbling block in such situations, and apart from the obvious sources – vis government and financial institutions – communities and well-off individuals could raise funds to be awarded as startup capital especially to less privileged but the most creative and innovative people with brilliant ideas.

These self-help measures should neither seek to replace the core responsibilities and mandates of political leaders in providing education, employment and economic opportunities to Nigeria’s teeming youthful population, nor absolve political leaders of their governance failures. However, if we do acknowledge the government’s shortcomings in meeting up its responsibilities, then the onus lies on us also to complement government’s efforts (or lack of) in order to reap the “dividends” of our youth bulge and to ensure Sani Musa and millions of his peers have a bright future ahead.


Related Articles:

Managing the “Youth Bulge” in Nigeria (I)” ~ Zainab Usman

African Dream: Nigeria’s Saheed Adepoju” ~ BBC News

“Nigeria: the Young and the Jobless” ~ The Stream, Aljazeera English

South African Youths, 18 years after Apartheid” ~ Aljazeera English

Managing the “Youth Bulge” in Nigeria (I)

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.


Related Posts:

Managing the “Youth Bulge” in Nigeria (II)