•We need a radical redistribution of resources
It is perhaps the policy-makers’ worst nightmare: What to do about the hundreds of thousands of young men and women graduating year after year from our universities, polytechnics and other institutions of further learning into a sluggish job market in a time of recession.
As with other aspects of our national life, the actual numbers are hard to pin down, but if the 50 percent unemployment rate most frequently cited for university graduates is overstated, it cannot be by much. And the numbers are rising.
It has long been an article of faith that higher education is the passport to the good life.
In keeping with this belief, families consider no sacrifice too great to ensure that their children get a level of education that would best equip them to secure a foothold and thrive in the public service and the professions and in the larger economy.
The belief endures, and so does the will to back it, but both are everyday challenged by the lived experience of most of our young men and women.
Every Nigerian family today numbers in its ranks or knows or has heard of a university graduate or product of an institution of further learning who has never held down a job since graduating several years ago, or has had to settle for eking out a meagre existence from some form of work unrelated to his or her qualification and potential.
The opportunities that graduates of an earlier era took for granted are no more there. Looking for meaningful work has become so unavailing that many graduates have given up altogether or headed to graduate school as a temporary refuge. The rising expectation yesteryears have been supplanted by deepening frustrations.
That is a recipe for alienation and all that goes with it.
Former President Olusegun Obasanjo called attention to this danger last week while speaking at a Youth Governance Dialogue, at the Olusegun Obasanjo Presidential Library in Abeokuta, Ogun State.
“If we have youth anger or explosion because of lack of opportunity, it will consume us all,” he warned. The longer the “lack of opportunity” persists, the greater the prospect for such an explosion.
We wish Obasanjo had come to this epiphany while he was president. For eight years, he presided over an economy that was in reasonably good shape, with a huge foreign reserve, and revenues so assured that his administration paid off in one fell swoop a foreign debt of $12.4 billion many years ahead of its maturity, with dubious benefit to the economy.
True, Obasanjo launched programmes to create jobs, alleviate poverty and provide start-off capital for young persons going into business. But their impact has been slight. It is even doubtful whether he really understood the nature of the problem.
Graduate unemployment, already quite high during his first term, arose because, according to him, students chose to study sociology or mass communication when they should have focused on courses with greater practical application and utilitarian value. But at that time, there were hundreds of unemployed engineering graduates and teachers, to cite just two instances.
In whatever case, Obasanjo did not live by his precept. When his own time came, he chose to study Theology, at the National Open University of Nigeria (NOUN).
For the most part, his successors have sought to apply the same failed palliatives, — on a larger canvass in the case of President Muhammadu Buhari. This approach falls short of the bold, imaginative action required at the centre and in the states, to tackle what is nothing less than a national emergency.
An attenuated job market is not the only potential source of youth anger, however. For even where the youth are employed in large numbers, their salaries and allowances go unpaid for as long as eight months. Federal allocations earmarked for salaries are spent for other purposes and oftentimes diverted into the pockets of political officials who live in scandalous opulence, untroubled by the general misery around them.
As they pine for opportunity, the youth see these political officials appropriate unto themselves increasingly larger slices of the national patrimony with impunity. It is almost as if they have come to plunder, not to serve.
What all this indicates is a radical distribution of resources that will pay greater attention to the needs of the youth. It calls in particular for massive investment in job-training and retraining and work-study programmes to keep pace with technological change.
It calls for urgent reform of the school curriculum to provide for technical and vocational training in masonry, carpentry, electrical installation, plumbing, air-conditioning and refrigeration, motor vehicle repairs and maintenance, and other skill sets in which demand far outstrips supply.
Above all, it calls for an enabling environment. Epileptic power supply, fitful water supply and unreliable transportation system make it exceedingly hard to engage in any serious form of entrepreneurship.
Immediate results are not guaranteed. But unless the nation embarks urgently and earnestly on the programmes outlined above, it will be inching inexorably toward Obasanjo’s grim prognosis.