Tonye Princewill

December 30, 2011

Unemployment: The devil is in the details

Unemployment: The devil is in the details

By Tonye Princewill

HAPPILY, “Unemployment” was a major theme in President Goodluck Ebele Jonathan’s Budget address, which he recently delivered to a Joint Session of both houses of the National Assembly.

If I do not want to sound pessimistic, the Budget of 2012 is a good beginning. But what Nigeria’s 16-plus million unemployed persons (conservative estimates) are waiting for is a happy ending—Forgive me for drifting back to pessimism so quickly, but unfortunately, this may not really be close at hand.

This has nothing to do with Government’s—or anybody else’s—sincerity. It’s just that the problem is complex, daunting and deeply entrenched. It has almost become a way of life. Having a job is a luxury and begging our way co-exists alongside our dignity, not in conflict with it.

Unemployment has both quantitative and qualitative dimensions. A lasting solution requires structural and institutional reform as well as infrastructural expansion. It needs attention. In my political organisation we have a saying, “Remember the youths because the young shall grow.” We would all do well to heed this sentence.

All of this, of course, is already in progress—and the centrality of unemployment in the 2012 Budget has certainly added crucially important impetus.

Said the President, “…it is time to give the Nigerian youth an opportunity to enjoy the dignity of a job…along with the security of an income that contributes to our economic development”.

Still, job applicants should not start counting their chickens (or their pay checks) at this point, because hatching is going to be slow; and there are plenty of hazards to contend with.

Even saying what unemployment is, can be tricky. The International Labour Organization (ILO), for instance, defines an “unemployed” individual as one who has lost or left his/her job and is seeking work.

But this definition is not as straight forward as it seems. It does not apply to persons under 15 or over 64, even though they may be jobless and looking for work. Nor are persons who work at least one hour per week included.

The National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) has modified the ILO’s definition, to suit Nigerian conditions. It defines the unemployment rate, as “the proportion (in percentages) of those who worked for at least 40 hours during the reference period to the total currently active (labour force) population”.

Using this criterion, NBS paints a grim picture indeed. According to its figures, Nigeria currently has 16,074,205 unemployed persons—23.9 percent of the total labour force. Over the past five years (2007 to 2011), an average of 1.8 new job-seekers entered the labour market, including 2,127,691 this year.

That is not the worst of it: More than 60 percent of the unemployed in Nigeria are between the age of 15 and 44 (37.7percent are 15-24; and 22.4percent are 25-44). What this means, in social terms, is that a majority of jobless individuals either have not started families or have only recently done so. I for one prefer the statistics I collect to guide me on a solution.

Nothing mentioned above gives me the picture I need. Who are these unemployed, where are they, what skills do they have, when did they acquire them? Any serious government can collect this information in no time. How else can you solve a problem if you can’t truly understand it?

Nevertheless, one doesn’t need to be an evolutionary biologist or a sociologist to grasp the strategic implication of these figures. After all, the primary function of a nation state is to create an environment, in which a people’s opportunity to produce and rear offspring successfully is maximised.

The impact of unemployment on crime, is usually the main justification for investing in job creation schemes. But the insidious genetic consequences are far more important. Jobless young males cannot choose mates and start families. Males with families, and no work, won’t rear offspring successfully.

Threats of this kind, to the reproductive process, cry out for urgent attention and effective action. In the past, I must say, we’ve had a lot more of the former than the latter. Much attention has been focused on the unemployment crisis–but mostly to little or no avail.

The National Directorate of Employment (NDE) was introduced in 1986, for instance, with great fanfare, to create jobs through public works, agriculture, small enterprises and graduate employment prorgrammes. But as the Federal Government’s own figures show, NDE has had minimal impact.

Confirming this, Mike I. Obadan and Ayodele F. Odusola, of the National Centre For Economic Management And Administration, noted, a decade after NDE’s creation, that “an annual average of 2.8 million…graduates enter the… labour market, with only about 10 percent of them getting employed”.

For some slightly more tolerant than me, the jury is still out on the National Economic Employment Programmes (NEEDS), and its state and local variants (“SEEDS” and “LEEDS”!). Unveiled in 2004, as an unemployment super-weapon, NEEDS’ most visible legacy so far, seems to be its contribution to Nigeria’s rich lexicon of bureaucratic acronyms.

This is not an outright condemnation, either of NDE or NEEDS. I’m sure the administrators of those agencies and programmes can cite many achievements. All I’m saying is that, if unemployment statistics are anything to go by, none of the old schemes have had any appreciable effect.