Protests and Unemployment, poverty bomb – #EndSARS
Protests and Unemployment, poverty bomb as two weeks of extraordinary nationwide peaceful protests by youths gave way to brigandage and mass looting, Nigerians got a bloody ringside preview of the impending explosion of the poverty and unemployment bomb ticking loudly and dangerously in the country. Triggered by the cold-blooded shooting and violent dispersal of unarmed, orderly youths in Lekki, Lagos, vandalism, arson, and mass looting perpetrated by hoodlums, thugs, and the hungry, have since grounded many parts of the country, overwhelmed the security apparatus, and exposed the anger of the majority. The chilling images of the tollgate killings only served a gut punch to the youth already suffering from the twin indignity of abject poverty and excruciating unemployment. And unless unemployment and poverty are quickly and effectively checked, an unrestrained mass uprising might erupt with unpredictable consequences for the fragile union.
All stakeholders in the Nigerian project have cause to worry. In the last edgy three weeks, reports of killings, rioting, vandalism, and looting seized the soul of a country just struggling to shake off the economic paralysis of the coronavirus epidemic. Apart from the unquantifiable loss of scores of lives, the economic loss runs into more than N1 trillion, as the Lagos Chamber of Commerce and Industry gave a figure of N700 billion for the first two weeks.
As this newspaper has repeatedly warned, Nigeria is sitting on a powder keg, as unemployment and poverty in the world’s seventh most populous country have brought it to the edge of the abyss. Proof of this is all around us. Beginning in Lagos, the epicentre of the #EndSARS peaceful protests, mobs of hooligans, hired thugs and petty criminals overran many states. Many buildings, public and private, were looted and torched, as were vehicles, businesses, police stations and buildings housing paramilitary services. This was followed by the looting of shops, malls and government warehouses, as well as the homes of politicians who had inexplicably stored food items, household products and machinery provided by the government and donors for distribution to the poor.
Beyond the injustice of SARS, a country that hosts so many poor and jobless can hardly know peace. After years of pent-up anger, leadership failure at a critical time dropped lit matches on the fires of stricken poverty and acute unemployment among youths. Many of the young people who do have work are nevertheless living in poverty. The figures speak for themselves: Nigeria seized the unflattering title of the world poverty capital from India in 2018. Today, 105.09 million people, 51 per cent of the population, are living in “extreme poverty” according to the World Poverty Clock. In the northern states, it is as high as 70-80 per cent. Prolonged economic downturn, exacerbated by COVID-19 pandemic-induced contraction and incompetent governance, has worsened poverty. Unemployment jumped to 27.1 per cent in the second quarter of this year, the National Bureau of Statistics reported, up from 23.1 per cent in Q3 2018. At 21.7 million, the number of jobless tripled in five years and exceeds the population of 35 out of Africa’s 54 countries, a Quartz analysis revealed. One out of every two of the 80.2 million labour force is either jobless or underemployed. In the youth segment, the picture is grimmer.
Among those aged 15 to 34 years, 34.9 per cent are unemployed with 28.2 per cent underemployed. Some 13.9 million youths, almost three million of them university or polytechnic graduates, are without jobs. In total, with 28.6 per cent underemployed, 55.7 per cent of the active labour force is either jobless or underemployed.
These are the root causes of the ongoing unrest. Though indefensible, sometimes riots become the language of the unheard when the government believes only in the language of force and confrontation in addressing lawful protests. The enlightened educated youth want an end to police harassment, jobs and opportunities; the jobless and wretched are in despair, poverty and joblessness are fuelling anger at a rapacious political class and poor governance. The Senate last December added its voice to those of a former president, Olusegun Obasanjo, the World Bank and the European Union that have over the years repeatedly warned of the dangers of festering unemployment and poverty in the country. Experts say that a high rate of unemployment indicates that an economy is operating below capacity and is inefficient. This often leads to low output, GDP and incomes and can trigger negative multiplier effects such as higher crime and vandalism rates, “alienation and difficulties in integrating young unemployed people into society.” Political instability is not far off either. Conversation, an online journal, says Africa will remain turbulent because it is poor and young, but also because it is growing and dynamic.
Nigeria is a victim of this terrible contradiction. As the faulty political structure produces poor governance and brazen corruption, successive governments have failed to tackle three key factors that create jobs and reduce poverty — diversification of the economy, transport infrastructure and power. Diversifying production and revenue away from oil and gas industry that hardly creates jobs and reduces poverty, into high job creation and poverty reducing sectors of the economy, especially agriculture, mining, SMEs, manufacturing and technology, will put the country on the path of inclusive economic growth.
Many countries have trodden this path. By 2017, India’s IT industry employed four million persons directly and over 10 million more indirectly, generating about $136 billion in export revenues. SMEs account for 62 per cent of employment and 50 per cent of national value added in Brazil. These outcomes derive from deliberate policies.
But with over 200 million people and only about 6,000 megawatts of electric power available (compared to South Africa’s 51,000MW), creating jobs and reducing poverty amid a population growth rate of 2.6 per cent is a mirage in Nigeria.
The country is structurally defective in two ways. First, the political and administrative structure is one where out of the 37 national and sub-national governments and 774 local governments, only the overbearing center appears to give any thought to the economy. The states have just income and expenditure plans and the LGs complete the parasitic tripod. Without resource control, fiscal federalism, and local security apparatuses, the system cannot deliver a robust development, which the growing and dynamic youths sorely need. As the Northern Christian Elders Forum led by Theophilus Danjuma pointedly reminded the country again in the aftermath of the #EndSARS mass protests and deadly military shooting-induced riots, the current system is structured to produce poverty, hunger, joblessness, anger, depression, insecurity, Protests, and Unemployment
The President, Major General Muhammadu Buhari (retd.), his regime, and the entire political leadership need to stop living in denial. The prospect of rebellion in the country by the poor, the unemployed, and the alienated is real. The frustrated young man who set himself ablaze in Tunisia in December 2010 and triggered the Arab Spring-inspired like-minded youths throughout the Middle East who had nothing to lose. Urgently, the country needs radical reforms to defuse the ticking bomb. Unless it is restructured, Nigeria’s extremely faulty and awfully skewed federalism cannot and will not produce the foundation for a robust economic transformation of the country. Programs touted by Buhari in his speech like TraderMoni are too minuscule; they cannot achieve the goal of lifting 100 million out of poverty. And the astonishing threats of a military clampdown by the Chief of Army Staff, Tukur Buratai, cannot repress the spirit of a people ready to shake off the yoke of social and economic injustice.
To avert what the Conversation describes as an ugly trend of translating from “government vs. an armed group” to “government vs. many armed groups,” the regime should immediately declare a national emergency on job creation for young Nigerians. Urgent measures are needed on multiple fronts that will successfully target the roots of the problem, especially the power sector crisis, poor transportation infrastructure, and low investments in human capital. There should be a revival of the productive sectors; implementable programs to stimulate small-scale entrepreneurship by the two tiers of government need to be worked out and properly coordinated. One very important factor militating against adequate job creation has been the absence of a stable power supply for Nigerian manufacturers to compete with their counterparts the world over. The electricity logjam should be broken by all means.
The Buhari regime’s over-reliance on public sector finance of the economy has turned out to be a fatal misstep. There should be greater private sector buy-in in policy formulation and execution such as the Economic Recovery and Growth Plan, budgets, and sector-specific projects. Facilitated by legislation and regulations, states should devise programs to attract investors, both local and foreign, into agriculture, mining, and manufacturing.
The message is loud and clear: the youth have found their voice. Policymakers must listen to their cry and wipe their tears. The poverty and jobless bomb may explode if the federal and state governments fail to take urgent, effective measures to reform the polity and create an enabling environment for rapid inclusive economic growth.