…if Nigerians have succeeded immensely in other places, why are they not succeeding here? This is where we confront an institutional dysfunction that lacks the critical capacity to inculcate and harness the potentiality that the Nigerian youth represents.
The takeoff point for my reflection in this article is my experience with recruitment both as a public officer and even after my retirement from public service. There is no human resource manager in Nigeria in the public and the private sector that will not be familiar with this tragic experience. There are some positions to be filled, an advert is placed in the newspapers and what happens? Thousands respond to just two or three or ten spots. And these are not just mere Nigerians; they are super qualified and have been roaming the Nigerian streets for years, writing applications and struggling to make ends meet. Some three years ago, there was a sensational outcry when PhDs allegedly responded to an advert for drivers at Dangote Cement. If we check some other lowly sites in the job market, I am sure we will find more sensational news that strike at the heart of Nigeria’s youth unemployment tragedy.
I used to be a permanent secretary at Federal Ministry for Labour and Productivity, and I am aware of some of the policy disequilibrium and administrative bottlenecks that stifle labour matters and prevent efficient productivity. But nothing trumps youth unemployment as the number one condition that undermines the link between the availability of a vast human capital creativity and a national economic framework waiting to be creatively transformed by the boundless energies of the Nigerian youth. We really do not need a prophet to intimate us of the possibility of not dealing with the restiveness that comes from allowing the unemployment statistics to keep growing out of proportion. Increasing criminality will actually be the first stage in an imminent social conflagration whose consequences we may not be able to contain. On the other hand, we also do not need a seer to project the immense and entirely positive effects of channeling the raw entrepreneurial thinking of Nigerian youth into all sectors of the Nigerian society and economy.
There is therefore a fundamental question we cannot run away from: Why do Nigerians perform better in other climes than their own Fatherland? Recently, I got a post on WhatsApp detailing, in statistics, the global, and even ancient and continental, achievements of Nigerians. Consider these: Nigerians are the most educated diaspora community in the United States; the designer of Chevrolet Volt, Jelani Aliyu is a Nigerian; the Imafidon family has been voted as the smartest family in the UK; Toyin Falola is about the most decorated African scholar in the world today; Seven Nigerian youngsters were recently elected into UK parliament, and the story goes on, from academics to engineering, from investment to politics, and from entertainment to emerging technologies, and from sports to fashion. Unfortunately, our charity does not begin at home. The tragic side of celebrating these achievements is that they arose from internal disequilibrium. We have heard the story of Anthony Joshua, the boxer, and countless other sports persons whom Nigerian authorities rejected but who later went on to make a name for themselves and their adopted countries. We have heard of individual Nigerians who were driven from their Fatherland only to rebound in friendlier atmospheres.
Unfortunately, our charity does not begin at home. The tragic side of celebrating these achievements is that they arose from internal disequilibrium. We have heard the story of Anthony Joshua, the boxer, and countless other sports persons whom Nigerian authorities rejected but who later went on to make a name for themselves and their adopted countries.
So, what do we make of celebrating the global achievements of Nigerians in this context? Of course, it tells us what we all already know—that Nigerians are smart people with latent possibilities. But it seems we all know this except the government of Nigeria. Or, put in a better sense, Nigeria’s institutional dynamics is rigged in a manner that it rejects its own talents and continues to wallow in underdevelopment. This is the real tragedy of nation building in Nigeria. F. Scott Fitzgerald, the American writer captures the pessimistic depth of our condition: “Show me a hero and I will write you a tragedy.” No one can doubt Nigeria’s heroic foreign policy and peacekeeping efforts across Africa, for instance. Yet, we that can put other’s houses in shape have refused to confront our own dilemma: we have a huge army of unemployed youth and yet we are at a policy loss on how to convert their entrepreneurial energies into productivity and wealth. This is the open secret of most developing economies all across the world.
The story is different in Nigeria because we seem to have perfected the act of politicising or toying with cogent development variables in ways that undermine our development drives and aspirations.The 2014 Nigerian Immigration Services recruitment tragic exercise is a case in point where a lot of Nigerians lost their lives trying to vie for just 5000 employment slots. After that incidence, politics took over, and the lesson of the tragedy became lost. But that lesson still stares us in the face: Unemployment is not only killing the Nigerian youth, it is equally undermining Nigeria’s progress. There is no thinking nation that will deny the relationship between human capital development and national development and progress. It is in this sense that the youth are the future of any country. It is also in this sense that the leadership is often concerned about policies that have the youth as its focus. This is why unemployment is not only a socioeconomic but also a moral problem. Thus, if Nigerians have succeeded immensely in other places, why are they not succeeding here? This is where we confront an institutional dysfunction that lacks the critical capacity to inculcate and harness the potentiality that the Nigerian youth represents.
The institutional problem is located at two levels. The first level concerns those institutions charged with producing human capital. And I have the tertiary institutions in mind here, and a higher education reform blueprint. It is not just sufficient to churn out graduates, but also those who are functional enough to engage Nigeria’s predicament at the entrepreneurial level. This therefore requires a crucial institutional cum curricular reform that can adequately transform what is taught and who teaches in our schools. We have a sufficiently large number of tertiary institutions to create a functional pool of human capital that can redress Nigeria’s development impasse. But success must really be defined in terms of youth who will graduate without pining after white collar employment. If the tertiary institutions fail to tap into the entrepreneurial spirit of the Nigerian youth, then higher education has failed Nigeria. On the other hand, we have a host of other administrative institutions, especially the executive arm of government, which is tasked with the responsibility of harnessing the knowledge, technical insights and vocational techniques that the youth have been armed with. However, the starting point for a transformatory reform in this context is simple: education and employment are correlatives that cannot be politicised.
The Nigerian youth are not to blame for whatever is happening in terms of development in Nigeria… Now, it is time for Nigeria to pick her bruised and battered youth from the shameful heap of unemployment and mould them into what we can be proud ten years from now.
Politics is often the enemy of reform, since the two hardly have the same objectives. Politicians sometimes want to grandstand over what is superficial; reforms take time and reformers must patiently calibrate the reform elements while watching out for critical landmines. And a clash often becomes inevitable. However, the moment the Nigerian government understands that reform must sometimes defeat facile political gaming, then that would be the moment to bend political will to the urgent tasks of national development. I have pressed for a national productivity paradigm shift in so many of my essays. It seems to me to be the most fundamental of the reforms that Nigeria requires if democratic governance must be backstopped by solid development dividends. But there is no way productivity can ever become an enabling development achievement if Nigeria’s youth unemployment statistics keep rising beyond the roof; if Nigerian tertiary institutions keep cranking out unemployable graduates; and if those who are truly functional keep roaming the Nigerian streets with deep and latent bundles of entrepreneurial skills, competencies and creativity without the conducive atmosphere to assist in reinventing and rebuilding Nigeria.
The Nigerian youth are not to blame for whatever is happening in terms of development in Nigeria. All they ever want is some form of policy action that would not only involve them as active participants, but would also actively formulate and implement wide ranging institutional reforms, starting with the Nigerian Constitution, which will give the youth a critical participatory voice in their own country, and enable them to flourish in their Fatherland. Anthony Joshua, the Nigerian-born boxing rave, was eager to fight for Nigeria about nine years ago. He was blatantly rejected, and Great Britain claimed him. Now, it is time for Nigeria to pick her bruised and battered youth from the shameful heap of unemployment and mould them into what we can be proud ten years from now.
Tunji Olaopa is executive vice-chairman, Ibadan School of Government and Public Policy (ISGPP); Email: email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org