Nigeria Immigration Recruitment Tragedy: Matters Arising, By Tolu Ogunlesi

“If we can’t provide for today’s 100 million or so young people, how will we take care of double that number?”

When it rains it pours. These are not the best of times for President Jonathan. Just when the clamour for answers to the mystery of the missing $20 billion is mounting, the Nigeria Immigration Service, NIS, has decided to add to the president’s problems.

On Saturday, the NIS scheduled recruitment tests across Nigeria – in all 36 states and Abuja. Tens of thousands – perhaps even hundreds of thousands – of persons showed up. As you would expect of Nigeria there was nothing in place to handle all those people. As at Sunday afternoon, 18 persons were reported dead across the country. The death toll may yet rise.

They came looking for jobs, in a country that has mastered the art of hoarding jobs. They found death instead.

There are many questions demanding answers. But first let us present the known facts of the matter.

The last recruitment exercise by the Nigeria Immigration Service, in 2012, was a fiasco. It was reportedly conducted clandestinely (there were no advertisements), and triggered allegations that it was designed to favour candidates from one part of the country. Summoned by the House of Representatives Committee on Federal Character, then Comptroller General of Immigration, Rose Uzoma, argued that the Service kept the recruitment private because it didn’t want to admit terrorists into the Service.

The argument didn’t fly. The controversy that followed the recruitment led to the sack, in January 2013, of Ms. Uzoma, the first woman to occupy that office, three months to the end of her tenure. It also led to the cancellation of the exercise. Minister of the Interior, Abba Moro (his Ministry supervises the Immigration Service, Prisons Service and Civil Defence, through the ‘Civil Defence, Fire, Immigration and Prison Services Board’) was quoted back then as saying that the recruitment process needed to be transparent.

That appears to have led to the decision to openly advertise the 2013 recruitment, and to deploy an online platform for the process. But, like the last time, controversy was just around the corner. The candidates were charged N1,000 each for the registration process. Expectedly a ruckus followed. Nigerians did not understand why the Government would ask jobless people to pay for a chance at jobs. A group of youth, assembled as the “Nigerian Unemployed Youth Vanguard” undertook a protest march to the Ministry of Internal Affairs.

In response the Minister’s office issued a statement explaining that the fee “is the charge by the consulting firm to defray cost of accessing the website to fill forms. This is also intended to save the applicants the cost of travelling to Abuja to submit their application forms, as well as avoid other inherent risks, including unauthorised middlemen activities and other abuses […] The N1,000 charge was approved for the consultant after due consultations with all relevant government agencies.” Even when the House of Representatives ordered a cancellation of the fee, the Minister stood his ground.

The questions are many. Granted that a recruitment exercise is bound to cost money, why didn’t the NIS absorb that cost? Did the NIS not make a provision in its annual budget for the recruitment exercise? Shouldn’t it have agreed to pay the recruiting firm a fixed fee for the recruitment exercise, instead of pushing the cost on to the hapless applicants, and creating a scenario in which the more the people who applied (regardless of the fact that there were a fixed number of vacancies – less than 5,000, we hear), the more money the consultant stood to make?

We also need to know exactly how much revenue was earned from the exercise. News reports say that as many as half a million persons applied. Which means that at least half a billion naira was raised. Did all of it go to the consultant (and the banks which charged a processing fee) or did any of it go to the NIS or the Interior Ministry?

And of course we need details of the consulting company commissioned for this recruitment exercise. What’s the name of the company? When was it established? Who owns it? What is its track record? What was the selection process that threw up this company? Did it submit a proposal to the NIS/Ministry on how it planned to organise the recruitment?

Last year, following the controversy over the N1,000, the Interior Ministry complained that “some sections of the media are still hell bent on dishing out falsehood and half truths to gullible members of the public.” Now that these tragedies have happened, blaming enemies and disgruntled elements will not suffice. The Minister and the NIS Comptroller-General need to dish out the whole truth.

A bit of information about Abba Moro. A former local government chairman in his native Benue State, he contested and lost the PDP Governorship primary in 2006, and was subsequently appointed the State Coordinator of the Yar’Adua presidential campaign organisation. He went on to become Director-General of the David Mark campaign organization in 2011. At his ministerial screening in 2011, he was asked to take a bow – Naija-style – on the grounds that he was Senator Mark’s candidate.

It’s important to put this information out in the public just so we can all be aware of the forces that might be at play over the coming weeks and months as the clamour for a thorough investigation hopefully grows louder. I foresee this playing out the way the Stella Oduah BMW incident played out. I see plenty of presidential foot-dragging. It is our duty as citizens to ensure that there is no cover-up at any level.

If there are no satisfactory answers, President Jonathan ought to immediately fire everyone responsible for this fiasco and the needless deaths that accompanied it. At least now he’s proved to us that firing people is not a difficult thing (if we ignore the seeming untouchables like the Petroleum Minister).

The images and reports from yesterday provide further evidence of Nigeria’s tragic unemployment problem. This fact cannot be overstated: We’re sitting on a time bomb in Nigeria. A 2012 survey by the National Bureau of Statistics put Nigeria’s youth unemployment figure at 54 percent. One out of every two young people who should be gainfully employed is unemployed. That’s damning.

To the government’s credit it has rolled out a number of programmes to tackle unemployment, like YouWin and the SURE-P Scheme. A Nigerian Youth Employment Action Plan (NIYEAP) launched under President Yar’Adua in 2009 was stillborn. But the efforts have been negligible compared to the scale of the problem. Of course the President should not have to take all the blame for Nigeria’s employment problems. All the state governors are also deeply implicated in the problem. We need to ask all of them how many jobs they’ve succeeded in creating in the last four years? At least we hear the Federal Government making attempts to tell us how many jobs they’ve created. We hardly ever hear the Governors talking about their job creation successes.

And the unemployment problem is merely one dimension of a much larger problem: the near-total failure of our education system. We are churning out graduates who cannot usefully fit into the job market; who emerge from the system no more knowledgeable than when they went in. So even if the jobs were to start flooding in, I suspect there’d still be a grave employment problem in Nigeria.

Tomorrow, in Abuja, the 20th edition of the Nigerian Economic Summit kicks off, with the theme: “Transforming Education Through Partnerships For Global Competitiveness.” A recent advert by the organisers of the summit highlights the seriousness of Nigeria’s educational problems. The “fact sheet” points out that: “44% of Nigerian students cannot read a complete sentence on the completion of their primary education” and “Over 70% of Nigerian candidates in the 2013 finals of the Secondary School exams conducted by WAEC failed.”
We also know that about 1.5 million write the annual University Matriculation Exams, in competition for 600,000 spaces. There’s no safety net for those who don’t make it in this long, hellish race. They’ll end up at the mercy of government agencies and their ‘consultant’ accomplices, who collect N1,000 or N2,000 from them for jobs that most of them stand no chance of getting. (The NIS is not the only government agency that charges fees for recruitment; this fee-based ‘e-recruitment portal’ has apparently become standard operating procedure in the uniformed services – Police, Navy, Air Force, etc).

We’re living a tragedy. Based on our population growth rates, it has been predicted that by 2050 Nigeria will be the third most populous country in the world, after India and China, in that order. If even half of those 400 million citizens are youth (currently, three quarters of Nigeria’s population is below 35), we will need to take care of about 200 million young Nigerians; providing schools and jobs for them.

If we can’t provide for today’s 100 million or so young people, how will we take care of double that number?

Will the National Conference kicking off tomorrow pay attention to this issue? Or will they (elders and ‘stakeholders’ who have many more years behind them than ahead) spend all their time bickering over matters that have no benefit to the lives of Nigeria’s most important, and most beleaguered, demographic?

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