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By Arinze Igboeli
AWKA, Nigeria It has been nearly 14 years since the People’s Democratic Party took charge of Nigeria’s government, presiding over an oil-rich state that is a significant player in the global economy.
On the surface, the country’s fast-growing telecommunications industry and abundance of natural resources would, in theory, bestow Nigeria with a fleet of small, strong emerging markets.
But with the current national unemployment rate at almost 24 percent and millions of Nigerians out of a job, including nearly 20 million young adults of working age – 18 or older – politicians and activists alike are pointing fingers at the PDP’s inability to follow through on initiatives designed to reduce unemployment – and keep it reduced.
According to data released by the Federal Ministry of Youth Development, in 2010, the unemployment rate stood at 21 percent. By 2011, however, it had skyrocketed to nearly 42 percent.
The House of Representatives’ Committee on Youth and Social Development arrived at an even higher figure: 57 percent. The rate subsided in 2012, with 21 percent of Nigerians unemployed, but the erratic rise and fall of the unemployment rate in such a short period demonstrates that the problem is far from under control.
In July, during a visit to a software manufacturing plant in Lagos, Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, the Minister of Finance and Coordinating Minister for the Economy, was asked by a reporter which issues she felt were most pressing.
The continuing trend of high unemployment, she said, had become especially worrisome. “I know this is what keeps Mr. President awake at night as well,” she added. Okonjo-Iweala also cited Nigeria’s lack of institutions designed to implement job creation policies as a main culprit.
But to the chagrin of the Nigerian Governors Forum, a coalition of governors from the country’s 36 states has called for Okonjo-Iweala’s resignation – she also claimed that the federal government had made strides in job creation.
In her speech, Okonjo-Iweala also announced that over 2.5 million seasonal and full-time jobs had been created over the past year in nine agricultural sectors, including in cassava, sorghum, palm oil, cotton, cocoa, dry and rainy season rice, and maize production.
“We are creating jobs for skilled and unskilled people in this very important area of the economy,” she explained. Procter & Gamble, she added, “has built a new factory and they have invested $250 million in manufacturing baby products.”
But on the ground, life among Nigeria’s working class paints a less optimistic picture. In urban and rural areas alike, poverty is rampant and welfare programs are scarce. Agriculture and manufacturing industries, too, are suffering, with plant owners closing shop for more profitable work in surrounding countries like Ghana.
There is even evidence to support a relationship between rising poverty and an increase in violent crime and terrorist activity. Shehu Sani, a prominent Nigerian human rights activist, attributes the emergence of Boko Haram – an Islamic Jihadist militant organization based in northeastern Nigeria – to the unemployment and poverty problem.
In political circles, Dr. Christopher Kolade, chairman of the government’s Subsidy Reinvestment and Employment Program (SURE-P), which diverts money from oil sales to infrastructure and welfare projects in federal and state government, has been a prominent voice in the call for reforming policies to tackle unemployment.
The litany of problems facing the working class is not lost on opposition parties, who have interpreted the lagging economy as opportunity to leverage their standing in the eyes of voters. The country’s next presidential election will not occur until 2015, but some parties, including the All Progressives Congress and the People’s Democratic Movement, are already promising to make job creation a priority if eventually voted into power.
And there is evidence to support that they could deliver: in the six states where the APC is the ruling party in local government, mass employment programs have been undertaken. For citizens, a dominant focus on employment spells progress.
To date, a number of large-scale government programs have tried to rein in the unemployment problem, including the 2000 Poverty Alleviation Program, the 2002 Youth Empowerment Scheme and the 2004 National Economic and Empowerment Development Strategy.
More recently, President Goodluck Jonathan’s government has heralded the 2012 SURE-P program as a possible solution. But detractors say such projects are largely symbolic, with political posturing being the end goal, not job growth.
By many accounts there is room for progress, and the key could lie, some say, in Nigeria’s growing population and a newfound focus on educating young Nigerians.
According to the World Bank’s Economic Report on Nigeria, released this May, “Nigeria’s annual growth rates that average over 7 percent in official data during the last decade place the nation among the fastest growing economies in the world.”
The report also states that growth has been especially concentrated on trade and agriculture. On education, the United Nations Development Programme states that nearly 88 percent of Nigerian children are currently enrolled in schools.
But according to Dr. Nasir Issa-Fagee, President of the Academic Staff Union of Universities, improvements still need to be made. In an interview with The Daily Post published in July, Issa-Fagee said that most graduates lack the skills necessary to do their jobs properly. “I don’t really know what our priority is,” he said.
“Is it that we just continue churning out graduates with certificates who may not perform because they have not been trained adequately because of lack of training facilities, research, laboratories, workshops and adequately equipped libraries?”
The growing number of unemployed Nigerian youth, said Folorunso Aluko, Director-General of the Ekiti State Job Creation and Employment Agency, is due to a “lack of vision and focus by policy makers.”
It is this lack of vision, or perhaps a lack of perspective regarding whether policies and programs’ effects trickle down, that will determine whether the PDP remains the dominant party much longer.
In the meantime, Dr. Okonjo-Iweala has the opportunity to be a major player in economic discussions. There is no shortage of competition and over a year until elections – ample time to guide the trajectory of a rapidly changing and resourceful Nigerian economy.
Arinze Igboeli is The Atlantic Post’s Nigeria correspondent, based in Awka.