‘Demographic time bomb’ or economic opportunity?

Recently there has been a flurry of articles across the Nigerian media spaces which suggest that our youth are a ‘time bomb’ waiting to explode. Some of these articles are based on the notion that our large numbers of uneducated and unemployed youth pose a threat to the nation’s security if urgent steps are not taken to address their situation. The authors of these articles find ready examples in the Niger Delta ‘militancy’ and the current Boko Haram crisis.

One such recent article was written by Paul Luberk and Michael Watts in NEXT newspaper. The duo demonstrate considerable understanding of the Nigerian situation by integrating a range of social theories – Marxism, youth bulge, greed, grievance, and horizontal inequality, to explain the causes of youth involvement in violence and the possible consequences of ignoring them. They have a point. Many of our young people are disgruntled, unhappy, disillusioned and have no sense of hope. Many leave university and are unable to find work for several years. Some do find work but are grossly underpaid. In the circumstance, many are unable to pay for health care, decent housing, and even food! Perhaps it is this sense of hopelessness and the inability of the youth to achieve their goals that could cause an uprising.

That said it is important to note that a large youth cohort also presents opportunities for economic growth over time. This is because if skilled, they could provide low-cost manpower needed for public works and infrastructural development projects. A youth population engaged in technology utilisation, innovation and viable economic activities presents enormous opportunities for economic growth. However, there are two problems. One is a skills deficit and the other is unfavourable business environment, which makes it difficult for small businesses to thrive.

To address these problems we need to invest massively in technical and vocational training both at basic school and senior secondary levels. We also need to invest more in the government technical colleges and crafts development centres. Unfortunately, there has been less and less emphasis in the development of artisanship and this is not healthy for economic growth and development. Then we need to make it possible for youth to own small businesses. We should address multiple taxation (harmonise federal, state and local taxes, and give tax breaks to youth-owned businesses), we need to address legal processes related to starting a small businesses. The one stop centre model established by the investment promotion council to encourage foreign direct investment can be replicated to enable youth receive advice and support towards completing legal processes related to starting their businesses.

Suffice it to say that our youth throughout the country are engaged in building small and medium scale businesses, some of them are thriving in the creation and utilisation of new technologies. Across the country, there are youth using their skills to do things differently, and these youth are law abiding tax payers. We can build on what currently exists and work towards achieving more. States could underwrite bank loans for youth starting their own businesses, and pursue vigorously ‘local content’ policies that ensure the youth resident in their states are employed on all public works projects. States need also to pursue labour laws which dignify work, regardless the category whether it is in a barber shop or a managerial position. This will encourage more young people to work, regardless where. It is also consistent with ILO’s decent work agenda, and I believe this is what many developed economies have achieved.

The other day, I saw young men my age collecting refuse, and I said to my taxi driver ‘our boys (and girls) are willing to work they just need to be given a chance.’ Contrary to claims that our young people are a disaster waiting to happen, I will say that many of our youth are creative, hardworking and innovative. With the right policies and support mechanisms in place, they will contribute immensely to the growth and expansion of our economy. We just need to give them a chance to prove themselves.