Managing the “Youth Bulge” in Nigeria By: Zainab Usman – “YOUNG VOICES” introduced by Nasir El-Rufai on Friday.

Nasir El-Rufai

Zainab Usman is a brilliant and articulate young lady that is currently a Doctor of Philosophy student at the prestigious Oxford University, UK.

She attended Therbow School and Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria earning an Upper Second Class degree in International Relations. She then proceeded to the University of Birmingham where she earned an M.Sc in International Political Economy and Development with Distinction, along with scholarships and laurels for leadership and academic excellence.

Zainab is fluent in French and Portuguese, and proficient in writing software. She has chalked up work and internship experiences with ECOWAS, International Crisis Group, and Sigma Pensions among others.

My attention was first drawn to Zainab by no less a personality than General Aliyu Mohammed Gusau who had read her seminal article – ‘Northern Nigeria: A people in Terminal Decline’ and recommended that I read it. I did and we ruminated over Zainab’s frank and objective article for weeks. I then proceeded to make contact with her.

Her blog “Zainab’s Musings” is a fountain of youthful wisdom and intellectual discourse. Zainab is a regular contributor to AllAfrica.com, Think Africa Press, People’s Daily and Daily Trust. Undoubtedly, she represents the best and the brightest of our younger generation. Today, she writes on managing the youth bulge in Nigeria. It is my honour and privilege to introduce Zainab Usman as our fifth Young Voice. – Nasir El-Rufai

 

Managing the “Youth Bulge” in Nigeria By: Zainab Usman

 

It was with utter astonishment that the audience at Kofar Sauri Sharia court in Katsina on that hot July afternoon, listened to 12 year old 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 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 promising pupil, keen and eager to learn but left in want of necessary school materials could easily be one of the millions of young people in Nigeria, a youth demographic, fast becoming a “youth bulge”.

According to the World Bank, nearly 70% of Africa’s over 1 billion people is under 30 years. Nigeria leads the pack with two-thirds of the 164 million Nigerians under the age of 30.

Countries like Nigeria, have the opportunity to turn this youth bulge into a “demographic dividend” which can power economic growth and development otherwise, this bulge is a ticking time bomb waiting to explode into a youth “disaster”, disillusioned and frustrated, a threat to the already fragile socio-political stability.

According to the conventional wisdom, the dividends of this youthful demographic can be reaped with adequate education, employment and economic opportunities. Despite Nigeria’s well-documented challenges in providing these opportunities to the youth demographic, our predominant focus on government’s glaring shortcomings has made us overlook the role non-government actors such can and should play in complementing government efforts to transform our youth bulge in Nigeria into a demographic dividend.

Education is a key building block of skills of a labor force, yet in Nigeria, literacy rates of the 15-24 age group range from 65% to 75% with stark variations between the northern and southern states. Though enrolment and completion rates have improved for primary education, enrolment remains low for secondary education, at 25.8% according to World Bank figures.

Importantly, few have access to quality education. Decaying equipment and facilities, poorly qualified teachers, poorly equipped tertiary institutions have all resulted in consecutive mass national failure in secondary school certificate exams of up to 98% in 2009, and half-baked graduates from tertiary institutions, at best unable to write formal application letters and at worst lacking transferable skills. Inadequate funding, mismanagement and corruption have contributed to the persistent systemic decay of the education sector resulting in a poorly educated and largely unskilled youth demographic.

The challenges of providing adequate employment and economic opportunities in order to engage the youth productively are glaring, with the over 20 million unemployed people and about 2 million new entrants into the dispirited realm of the unemployed each year, according to the National Bureau of Statistics. Unemployment among the under-30 age group is much higher at around 50% according to estimates by civil society groups.

Employment generation is a function of adroit economic policies, government job creation schemes, and private sector initiatives, flourishing within an enabling environment to create job opportunities. A skilled populace, given the right incentives interacts favorably with this business-friendly environment to be productive citizens. Though Nigeria is endowed with a vibrant population, a large market, and an even greater potential of harnessing all these for economic prosperity, the full transition from “potential” to “actuality” is yet to materialize. 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 in a fierce competition for scarce public sector jobs. Lofty poverty alleviation programs have characterized government employment generation initiatives, though it is too early to assess the success (or otherwise) of President Jonathan’s You WiN intervention of supporting aspiring entrepreneurial youth.

Thus if countries like Nigeria are to avert a demographic disaster already incubating a lost generation vulnerable to drug addiction, militancy and general disillusionment, then it is imperative that this youthful population is productively engaged. There are certain junctures where non-government actors could complement government efforts in providing education, employment and economic opportunities.

In the realm of education, since a major problem is that those enrolled are faced with low standards and poor quality, with those graduating from these institutions possessing little relevant skills, how could the quality of accessible education be improved? With the dearth of qualified primary and secondary school teachers who sometimes are barely able to communicate effectively in English on the one hand and on the other hand, an army of unemployed graduates, what incentives could be employed in luring unemployed graduates to fill the skills gap (generally not regarded by young people as a “cool” profession), albeit on a temporary basis, rather than staying idle at home?

Could successful young professionals and the numerous silent achievers (in Nigeria and in the diaspora) in various fields – academia, the corporate world, public service or entertainment – mentor teenagers and young adults at their various former schools, hometowns and communities, by sharing their success stories and 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 employment generation and creation of economic opportunities, the primary issues are limited job opportunities in a labour market saturated with millions of jobseekers, the unemployability of many job seekers according to employers, and the treacherous hurdles those with entrepreneurial ambitions have to scale through. Thus, a possible area of intervention for non-government actors could be in providing training in work-place skills to students and job seekers to prepare them for the labour market.

This is especially as many Nigerian graduate job seekers lack necessary skills and core competencies even for entry-level jobs, costing employers a small fortune on training new staff in basic office skills. In many developed and emerging economies, young job seekers are typically equipped with competencies, 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, work-experience schemes and Industrial Training (already included in many science-based courses in Nigeria) especially during the long periods of school breaks and ASUU strikes. Not-for-profit organizations could also design short courses affiliated to tertiary institutions, for a small fee, to impart transferable skills such as IT skills; leadership and project management; communication, negotiation and mediation; and administrative skills, all very relevant in the work place.

Families also have a crucial role to play in supporting young people with innovative yet unconventional ideas to allow these ideas mature to fruition. Parents and guardians ought to realize that not everyone is cut out for “secure” white-collar employment that pays a healthy pension. The world today is markedly different from that of the 1960s and 1970s in which the older generation 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, innovation and entrepreneurship of the Zuckerbergs, Steve Jobs and Chris Aires who dared to follow the unconventional paths they dreamt about.

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, employing others and adding value to the society. Access to funding and credit is usually a stumbling block, 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 people with innovative ideas.

These self-help measures should neither seek to replace the core responsibilities 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.

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