Sunday, March 1, 2009

The unemployment bomb

By Obi Nwakanma

JUST last week, the federal government released the unemployment figure in Nigeria. The Bureau of Statistics, not always on the mark in these matters, has to indeed confirm that a whopping 40 million Nigerians are unemployed.
This is a startling number by any standards. It means that we have over 65 per cent unemployment rate among employable Nigerians. This figure has national security implications. Let us consider the old cliché about the devil’s workshop and the idle hand, and we may not look too far in sensing the incipient catastrophe that threatens this nation with that many hungry and angry people on the loose and in the margins.

For many years, our kinship and extended family systems had borne the brunt and the weight of our social crisis, providing the basic social security safety nets that have largely cushioned and prevented the violent rupture that should naturally come with this level of economic insecurity. But increasingly the severe weight of the problem is also weakening the once solid foundations of the kinship system and the extended family traditions that were once the vital recourse of people largely unprotected and ignored by the formal system of governance.

As our societies grow more complex, such basic, some might even say primordial forms of social security will definitely, increasingly become insufficient in dealing with the complexity of social belonging.

Of the most significant indications of the absence and increasing irrelevance of government in the lives of Nigerians, the most fundamental is in its inability to create a systematized means of social security: there is no unemployment benefit, no disability benefits, no access to credit for those who might in fact wish to explore private entrepreneurial alternatives; no well organized small business initiatives, no social welfare scheme, and so on and so forth to stem the direst consequence of social disorder, the result of increasing anger, alienation, and distrust of one’s own nation.

Forty million unemployed Nigerians is, let me repeat it, a national security threat. I will illustrate my claim by telling the story of Chima X. He grew up a typical Nigerian lad. He was raised in a small town in the Eastern Nigeria, full of dreams and hopes of a good life: a good job, nothing extraordinary, just work that would place food on the table, pay enough to secure a decent apartment in the city, a nice little car, and in good time a small family - marriage to nice girl with whom he would raise nice little kids, whom he would send to nice little schools.

He would have enough for his social commitments and civic responsibility: pay his dues to his town union, and make the yearly contribution to the community fund. Make his donations - just his widow’s mite - during the yearly town union launches at Christmas. Basically earn his dues and the ungrudging respect of his peers through fulfilling his social roles.

His dreams were that simple. Nothing earth shaking. He did not want to be a millionaire, or to be president of Nigeria. Just like a typical Igbo man, he would be content to be the lord of his own small domain - his house, beyond which threshold, he becomes a rightful agnate, with others, to the land.

That is, he simply wanted to be a true citizen: free and content, and with no big debts to pay. His provenances were simple and straight forward. Nothing special. Both his parents were educators, and taught in high schools. They had lived frugally and with apparent contentment, and provided Chima X and his siblings with basic, good education.

They had not much store, but they earned social capital as fine educators, those whose services, though not always now publicly acknowledged, had been pillars of their communities where they once earned respect as teachers, in an era when the teacher was the moral compass of communities in the East. They pinned a lot of hope on their children having an even better life than they had, and continuing the tradition of fine community service, and of bringing more social improvement and progress to their ancestral town.

They did not expect them to make a life, as they themselves did in their ancestral town, but to range farther afield as they may wish, but always touch base with home, even as they contributed to whatever society among whom they lived. It was a simple dream by parents who themselves had nothing much else but hope and prayers, after educating their children, to offer. Well, Chima X goes to the university, and graduates with a good second class degree in chemistry.

He does national service in some rural location in Ondo, and discovers that there is indeed much to be done if his country were to move, given its enormous resources and potentials, to walk at least among the company of medium industrial powers like Brazil, India, Korea, and such people with whom Nigeria had once been classified. He had the dream of all young people.

To be part of a transforming work force. To be, as the surrealist Congolese poet Felix Tchicaya U’Tamsi would say, “a pagan in the pagan renewal of the world.” In essence, to be acutely present in the social and economic transformation and regeneration of Nigeria. He was a good chemist.

A man of ideas. A believer in Nigeria; even “detribalized.” Six years after national service he was still in Lagos where he was busy looking for a job. Indeed he had come to Lagos, that melting pot of nation like most of his friends after national service, looking for jobs and opportunities, and applying for occasional openings listed in the classified sections of the newspapers.

The economic policies of the Buhari and the Babangida regimes that destroyed the manufacturing, industrial and commercial capacity of cities like Aba and Onitsha, had led towards evisceration and massive emigration of capital and labor to places like Lagos which prospered through deliberate banking and custom policies that rendered other places sterile. So Chima X came to Lagos. He soon found that Lagos was not an ordinary melting pot, it was a toxic cauldron: a haven for sharpers, smugglers, gun runners, and many who lived big on illusion.

Chima X was however lucky: he had found accommodation in the home of an old buddy, who had not, it soon came to seem, made the mistake of going to the university, but had come to Lagos as soon as they finished secondary school, and found a little niche for himself after some hard apprenticeship as a wharf rat at Apapa.

He lived on wharf ratting. He made good dough fronting for corrupt custom officials who wanted to dispose hot items through the under ground. It was thanks to his magnanimous soul that Chima X could live in Iyana-Ipaja. He also gave him occasional transport money to pound the streets of Lagos.

He pounded that street literally and metaphorically until the streets of Lagos echoed back to him. Nobody seemed in any urgent need of a chemist. He sought employment in every government agency; even in a private school that paid peanuts. He soon grew despondent until one day, he ran into another old buddy from the university. A chemist too.

But he was looking sharp and well fed unlike many chemists we know. He said he was a manufacturer’s agent. But that was not all the story as Chima X came to find. His old buddy had found a lucrative job passing old Soviet era munitions to whoever needed it across the borders of West Africa.

There was much arms floating around in West Africa from the wars in Liberia, Cote D’Ivoire, Sierra-Leone, and any enterprising young man could make something of himself mopping it up.

There was also the international connection with the old Soviet era commandos, and former South African crack commandos who had become mercenaries, recruiting and training, and supplying arms for troubled spots on the coast of West Africa.

Nigeria’s Niger delta is one lucrative spot. The rich Gulf of Guinea has since become a mercenary’s haven. Chima X, trained chemist, could find his own niche. And so did he. The last time we heard, he was busy crossing the borders of West Africa, a manufacturer’s agent for incendiaries.

Anybody who thinks this fictional scenario an impossibility should look closer. The attempts to overthrow the government of the small, oil rich Equatorial Guinea two weeks ago by non-state actors with their staging posts in Nigeria, is a flash light on the potentials for the massive recruitment of available, well trained human resources by states or even non state interests.

The recruits need not indeed be angry, they just have to be hungry and without the distraction of fulfilling work. It is up to the government of Nigeria to defuse this unemployment bomb. The alternative will not be pretty.

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