How many people have paused to reflect on the frustration of millions of Nigerians who have no idea where and when their next meals will come from? Can one truly appreciate the angst of millions of Nigerians in their 20s and 30s who have no jobs, no prospects and no hopes?
While all attention has been focused on Boko Haram, it is easy to forget the more deadly existential threat that is primed and ticking towards a massive detonation. But the coming explosion will not be restricted to the north: it will shake all of Nigeria: That is the danger of having 20 million youth with nothing to do.
Minister of Sports and Youth Development, Bolaji Abdullahi, recently admitted that 20 million Nigerian youth were unemployed. Other observers believe the figure is higher, especially in the north. In all, some estimates suggest that Nigeria has about 90 million people who are willing and able to work, but about 70 million have no productive employment. Whatever the actual figures may be, the truth is that unemployment is a major challenge to Nigeria’s growth and stability and is the reason why over 100 million Nigerians live in poverty.
Without confronting unemployment, the trillions of naira the federal government claims to spend on defence and security every year will not improve security. The additional tens of billions of naira state governors and local government areas spend in the name of ‘security votes’ will not help either.
Today, there are few jobs in the urban areas, while the largest employer of labour in the rural areas – agriculture – is largely subsistence and seasonal. Poor access to clean water, education, transportation and health services further exacerbates poverty. And to worsen matters, government does not seem to a functional and effective strategy to fight poverty and unemployment.
Corruption and injustice breed insecurity, but government turns a blind eye when resources that could be better spent tackling poverty and unemployment is stolen by a few: Rather than sharing 2.6 trillion naira to friends and party donors under the guise of fuel subsidy, then trying to divert attention by staging a macabre play on our psyche, government should use its ‘creative genius’ more productively.
A step towards tackling unemployment would be a database of all unemployed Nigerians. This could become a source of information about unemployed Nigerians and include details like age, gender, skills and length of unemployment and eventually make it easier to introduce unemployment benefits. If government insists on spending 70 percent of its budget on recurrent expenditure, the money should not be spent on already overfed politicians but on unemployed Nigerians. A small part of the over $15 billion stolen in the name of fuel subsidy would fund small monthly unemployment stipends for years.
Such gesture would significantly reduce petty theft and crimes and give less fortunate Nigerians a sense of belonging. There would also be a positive impact on the economy because most of the stipends would directly go to the purchase of goods and services. Of course, we must have the production and services base to harvest the opportunities.
More important than a social security net is the question of how government policies can actually create employment. Granted, government cannot employ everyone in the country even if it had the resources. Experience has shown that the private sector is the engine room of the economy that can create jobs and stimulate economic growth and development. Government policies should therefore stimulate small and medium scale businesses.
After every meeting of the Federal Executive Council, government gaily announces the award of contracts. But in real terms, how many jobs do the contracts create for the Nigerian economy? How do we ensure that foreign contractors and consultants, apart from repatriating their profits, do not employ foreigners for jobs that Nigerians are qualified to do?
Again, simply throwing money at a problem does not guarantee success. Which is why government’s N200 billion Agricultural Sector Intervention Fund ended up in personal interest-yielding bank accounts without making much impact on employment and food production. What happened to the N70 billion Textiles Fund, or the Aviation Sector Intervention Funds which have allegedly been diverted?
To create jobs, government must channel effort and resources to the right sectors and ensure that funds are not diverted or shared to cronies. A policy that ties award of contracts to the number of jobs beneficiary companies will create is long overdue. From major infrastructure contracts to basic office supplies and consultancies, the major consideration should be job creation. Regulatory mechanisms to verify claims by contractors and ensure that all jobs openings are filled on the basis of competence and expertise and not on patronage or nepotism may be needed.
It is clear that President Jonathan had no vision for Nigeria beyond his ambition to be president. That is why his approach to governance is simply to respond to crises as they occur. However, if he waits for the unemployment bomb to explode before reacting, there may be nothing left to react to.