Monday, December 29, 2008

Unemployment and bulging youth population

The United States National Intelligence Council has raised the alarm that Nigeria is one of the parlous economies that are expected to remain on rapid population “growth trajectories” by the year 2025, when the nation is projected to add 55 million people to its present population. The bulging youth population, according to the NIC report, is a demographic feature that is linked with the “emergence of political violence and civil conflicts.”

Indeed, the urgent need to expand the economy in order to accommodate the rising youth population is already a big challenge. According to official sources, over 80 per cent of the nation’s youths are unemployed while 10 per cent are underemployed. These statistics are grim for a nation whose children of age 0 – 24 constitute 60 per cent or 80 million of its over 140 million population.

The youths have no avenues to expend their mental and physical energy. As a result of this, the nation is constantly under siege. Armed robbery is a daily affair as banks and individuals are constantly under attack. The mounting wave of prostitution, banditry, thuggery, kidnapping and other crimes, is directly related to lack of gainful employment. Crimes blossom in an environment of frustration and despair.

Apart from rising youth unemployment, the nation has not been able to provide enough facilities for education, sports, health and other essential services consumed by young people. A 2008 UNICEF report says approximately 10 million children of primary and secondary school age are out of school. At the tertiary level, the nation is only able to admit less than 15 percent of applicants into the various universities.

At the heart of the unemployment crisis is an economy which became introverted with the coming of oil as its mainstay. The unprecedented inflow of petro dollars in the ’70s and ’80s suddenly drove up the value of the naira, making domestically produced goods uncompetitive. All structural adjustment efforts by the military were insincere and therefore failed to reverse the trend. Import dependence and a shrinking real sector have led to massive loss of jobs to foreign producers.

The challenge before the Yar’Adua administration, therefore, is how to foster a conducive environment for wealth creation. A stable macro-economic milieu backed by fiscal prudence is the first step. And that has to be achieved by pruning the escalating cost of running government. It is almost impossible to rehabilitate infrastructure and reduce the cost of doing business when more than 80 per cent of public revenue is being consistently used to pay the salaries and emoluments of public office holders and the little allocated to capital projects is being largely swallowed up by graft.

A leaner and effective bureaucracy can also be achieved through privatisation and other market reforms. The liberalization of the telecommunications sector by the Obasanjo administration instantly created thousands of jobs. The Yar’Adua administration should replicate this success by opening up the energy and other major sectors to private investment flows. The importation of refined petroleum products, for instance, does not make sense as it only helps to create jobs for foreign refiners. Millions of jobs can also be created by encouraging the local production of fertilizers and other farm inputs, with which the nation is richly endowed.

To drive down the cost of doing business, the nation’s decrepit infrastructure should be rehabilitated. And this can be achieved more quickly through private sector participation. The road network and the rail system can be fixed through an appropriate public-private sector arrangement. All anti-investment laws should be repealed to open up all sectors of the economy to private investments.

More importantly, the education curriculum should be restructured to empower the youth with the knowledge and skills required to convert the nation’s huge potential into goods and services needed at home and abroad. The teeming army of idle youths is a time-bomb that should be gradually defused.