By Misan Rewane
There were many spontaneous celebrations across Nigeria when it became clear that opposition leader General Muhammadu Buhari was the winner of Nigeria’s presidential elections. When President Goodluck Jonathan agreed to graciously relinquish the presidency, it sent a powerful signal to the world that African leaders can choose to put the interests of the people before their own.
As we prepare for the official transition of power between these two men on May 29th, young men and women are looking for fresh solutions to the many difficulties our country faces. They are looking for prospects and hope for the future. Now is the time for Nigeria to meet the aspirations of our young people by taking careful stock of the challenges ahead, and by answering their call for a new style of leadership with policies that are inclusive and equitable.
One of the answers youth seek is to the question of how the new government is going to deal with Boko Haram, a group that has spread fear and insecurity across Nigeria and captured the attention of the world. The group even took center stage in our recent Presidential campaigns. As the leadership of Nigeria changes, the security challenge facing Nigeria must be addressed.
The militant group – whose name translates to “Western education is forbidden” – has been responsible for thousands of deaths and kidnappings since 2009, ramping up its campaign of violence and intimidation over the past 12 months. While their most brazen and distressing act of violence to date was, without question, the kidnapping of more than 230 girls from the town of Chibok in April 2014, Boko Haram has also been responsible for displacing over 1.5 million Nigerians from their homes since 2009. As a result, the United States’ placed the organization second on their global terror list in 2012. And with the estimated killing of 10,000 people by Boko Haram last year, they are unquestionably and largely responsible for placing Nigeria in fourth place on the 2014 Global Terrorism Index.
Beyond the tragic loss of lives, terrorism took a staggering economic toll on Nigeria. In 2013 it was estimated that terrorism cost the Nigerian economy US$28.48 billion—a number that has likely increased in light of the escalation of the ferocity of attacks in 2014.
While the origins of terrorism are undoubtedly complex, economic conditions are often cited as an important determining factor in the spread of terrorist groups. Over 20 million young people are unemployed in Nigeria, and as the economy continues to be hit by the falling oil prices and the subsequent inflation that follows from a depreciating currency, things are likely to go from bad to worse. As austerity measures are put in place and companies slow down on hiring and even cut jobs, those hardest hit will be young people who have limited work history, further adding to the pool of unemployed youth.
With a youth unemployment rate as high as 50%, these young Nigerians likely make easier targets for recruitment for groups such as Boko Haram, as they seek meaningful roles for themselves in a society that has left them bereft of the means to support themselves and their families.
Though both leading political parties have pledged to tackle mass employment with promises of more and better jobs for Nigerians, security as an issue has always been perceived as a separate and more pressing political problem. But it’s not.
Throughout the election, promises to stamp out corruption, re-establish security and improve infrastructure (power, health, etc.) received the most attention from candidates.
But now, as we all roll up our sleeves to get cracking at nation rebuilding, youth unemployment needs to be first on the agenda. Aside from the obvious socio-economic need to create meaningful employment for our youth, it is also the most effective strategy to fight Boko Haram – by cutting off its blood supply.
The Nigerian government needs to develop a counter-insurgency approach to Boko Haram. Focusing on providing skills and training for marginalized youth so they can access economic opportunities will be the key to such an approach, and could cut off the supply chain of able and willing bodies upon which Boko Haram and other militant groups in Nigeria depend to hold territory, displace communities and instill fear into the lives of ordinary people.
While fighting Boko Haram and restoring national security is urgent, let’s be sure to do it right, rather than merely turning youth unemployment into a talking point or symbolic effort.
As Nigeria transits from #NigeriaDecides to #NigeriaDemands, Nigerians should be asking the tough questions of our new leadership and of ourselves. Are our educational institutions at the heart of the skills mismatch between youth and industry? What is the road map for tackling youth unemployment and who needs a seat at the implementation table?
In answering these questions and addressing youth employment, General Buhari can help ensure that fewer youth respond to the lure of Boko Haram, and instead help them find ways to contribute to Nigeria’s economy.
Misan Rewane is co-founder and CEO of WAVE (West Africa Vocational Education) and is @misanrewane on Twitter.