Averting demographic disaster in Nigeria

by Joel Nwokeoma

The startling and scary conclusions of a study on Nigeria released last week by the British Council should ordinarily provoke every responsible government into deep introspection and action. Though not entirely novel, yet, the study’s findings that the country is on the “cusp of a demographic disaster” unless its stagnant economy rapidly expands to support its teeming youth population, has added to the disconcerting volumes about the Nigerian Project from many concerned quarters in recent times. This latest study, indeed, should serve as a wake-up call to the country’s economic and political leaders.

The study, led by the Harvard School of Public Health and involved an academic team drawn from universities in Nigeria, USA and the UK, rightly observes that, “If Nigeria fails to plan for its next generation, it faces serious problems as a result of growing numbers of young people frustrated by a lack of jobs and opportunities. If these young people are healthy, well educated, and find productive employment, they could boost the country’s economy and reinvigorate it culturally and politically. If not, they could be a force for instability and social unrest.”

As noted earlier, this would not be the first time some concerns have been raised about the country’s bulging unemployed youth population in the midst of a depressing economy. In 2005, the CIA released a report by the U.S National Intelligence Council which predicted that Nigeria risked a break up by 2015, essentially, because its huge unemployed youth population is susceptible to violent crimes and destabilising influence. Similar sentiment was expressed by the Foreign Policy magazine in a July 2009 article in which it asked if Nigeria was in danger of becoming an “extremist haven” because the country was inching up on the “Failed States Index” with a “worsening security situation, comatose electricity system, non-existent infrastructure and mediocre leadership.”

Curiously, the leadership of the ruling Peoples Democratic Party was thumping its chest last week that its 11 years stranglehold on Nigeria’s political leadership has resulted in “a quantum leap” for the national economy. The National Bureau of Statistics alluded to this “quantum leap” last Friday when it was reported to have said that the country’s Gross Domestic Product grew to 7.69 per cent in the second quarter of 2010 from the 7.45 per cent recorded in the corresponding quarter of 2009.

This assertion, however, flies in the face of the claim by the British Council that Nigeria’s GDP “remained flat as its population multiplied in the last two decades”, obviously, as evidenced by the extant socio-economic realities in the country. In fact, the 1990s was declared a “lost decade” for the country with per capita GDP falling below 1980 levels

Talking about the “demographic disaster”, the study notes with trepidation that Nigeria’s population of 150 million people will swell by another 63 million by 2050, with more than 40 per cent of the population younger than 14. Given this, therefore, it warns that “Large cohorts of unemployed or underemployed young people destabilise their societies, fuelling crime and creating conditions where civil conflicts becomes more likely. A country that is not well prepared to make the most of its Baby Boom generation can find itself in the midst of a demographic disaster.”

Events in various parts of the country in recent times ranging from sectarian violence in the North, militancy in the oil-rich Niger Delta region, armed robbery and kidnapping incidents in major cities and towns all point to the dangers an unengaged but active youth population can pose to a country. This is not talking about the huge population of Nigerian girls reportedly engaged in prostitution across the world.

Like many others before it, it is most likely that the government could discountenance this latest warning. Nigeria progressively descended into the nadir of economic stagnation chiefly on account of the actions and inactions of previous administrations which systematically discarded rigorous planning for ad hoc and tentative approach in the management of the national economy. The consequences are, among other things, the dearth of opportunities especially for the rapidly growing youth population in the country.

For instance, it is instructive that while it is observed that “Illiteracy remains high as an educational gap grows wider” in Nigeria, an estimated 340,000 out of the 867,000 candidates who were successful in the recent Unified Tertiary Matriculation Examination would not be admitted into any of the nation’s tertiary institutions because of “limited spaces” to absorb them.

According to the Registrar of the Joint Admissions and Matriculation Board, Prof Dibu Ojerinde, admission into tertiary institutions in the country this year can best be described as a “survival of the fittest” as there are spaces available only for about 527,000 prospective students.

Interestingly, the British Council study sadly points out that “even an education cannot guarantee a job…as about 30 per cent of those who completed secondary education remain unemployed in Nigeria.” A shortage of jobs, it further says, is a serious challenge, with young Nigerians taking many years to become productive contributors to society.

It is for this reason that it is recommended that Nigeria needs to create 25 million jobs over the next ten years to get its youth population working and contributing to national development. However, it will continue to remain a big puzzle how a country, which according to a recent report by the Economic Confidential, an online economic intelligence journal, generated N34 trillion between 1999 and 2009 and reportedly makes an estimated $38 billion annually from oil exports to the U.S alone, could be in such economic strait.

In fact, a 2006 United Nations Development Programme report on the Millennium Development Goals says Nigeria has made little progress despite its great mineral wealth put at $72.2 billion in 2004, and as a result, may end up not meeting the MDGs by 2015.

Admittedly, the path to Nigeria’s economic recovery so as to avoid the impending “demographic disaster” lies in the revival of its national economy through diversification from oil, which experts say “contributes 40 per cent to national GDP but only employs 0.15 per cent of the population.” Conscious efforts should be made by government to reposition the economy so that employment opportunities could be provided for the country’s bulging youth population. Central and critical to this is the resolution of the power sector conundrum. It should also sustain its anti-corruption posture in order to maximally utilise public funds for common good

All the loopholes that impede private sector participation in exploiting the abundant resources in the country should also be plugged A World Bank report entitled “Doing Business in 2007: How to Reform”, said Nigeria regressed from the 94th position it occupied in 2006 projections to the 108th after appraising the business environment of 175 countries. The country’s economy, it said, trailed behind such African countries as South Africa, Namibia, Mauritius, Kenya, Botswana, Ghana, and even war-weary Ethiopia in “investment-friendly indicators.”

Nigeria’s political leaders should be more mindful of the dangers an obscenely affluent and flamboyant lifestyles side by side a huge unemployed, angry and desperate youth population poses to the country’s democracy. This alarm bell must be seen for what it is: A call to action by all!

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