A major story making headlines in both the print and broadcast media is that of the recent statement by a man who I dearly respect, a former Army Chief and Defense Minister in Nigeria, retired Lt. Gen. Theo Danjuma, on the need for Nigerians to defend themselves against the ongoing widespread massacres across the nation.
For some, his statement was a reckless call for anarchy at a time when already there have been talks of war, impending or imagined. For others, it resonates with the reality. A reality filled with the pain and languishes of many Nigerians who have lost friends, families, and property to the onslaught of attacks by terrorists masquerading as cattle breeders, a reality that clearly shows that our government has failed us. The security agencies have failed to protect us. But I would like to once again caution members of both camps: let us not talk about war because, if it happens, there will be nothing left of Nigeria. If war occurs, there will be no flow of oil, there will be no safe grazing fields for the cattle, the farmers will have no produce, leading to food scarcity and starvation. Indeed, the country may disintegrate into anarchy, which is worse than war because with anarchy you will not know who your enemy is or where to find him, as over a third of our population has no address.
As frightening as the situation is now, it may only get worse. You see, our dear country Nigeria is blessed with ample natural resources that can last decades, vast green lands suitable for agriculture, rivers, and lakes for fishing activities and, more importantly, we are blessed with human resources second to no other country in the continent of Africa. Nigeria recorded a population of 185 million people in 2016 and, with a 2.5 percent yearly growth, that number is set to rise to about 195 million people in 2018. Looking at these numbers, it can be said that we have a sizable population that can drive economic growth in any industry.
Unfortunately, this hasn’t been the case. A large portion of its enviable population size is filled with unemployed and unemployable people. The illiteracy rate in this country is staggering. With an illiterate population of 65 million to 70 million people, one can argue that this is cause for alarm.
Another fact is that Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country, is witnessing a growing youth bulge, with those under 14 years accounting for more than 40 percent of its citizens, according to the National Population Commission. To be exact, we are a country with one of the largest populations of youths in the world.
Now, if half of the population is not actively engaged in any enterprise, what else do you think will occupy their attention? The famous saying that an idle mind is the devil’s workshop rings very true here. From the herdsmen to the militias in the Niger Delta and the terrorists in the North, a common factor is the heavy presence of youth, hence my title for today’s column: Idle minds – Woes of an unproductive population.
Education is a vital part of civilisation. Any society that is passionate about its development should educate its people. What happened to our education sector? What happened to our universities? Nigeria used to boast of prestigious higher institutions that graduated the finest of scholars. Somewhere along the line, we lost our foresight and we have ourselves to blame for that. We once had an education minister who wondered aloud that he could not understand the craze about the pursuit of certificates. Little wonder that the universities are poorly funded, with lecturers poorly paid. It is no wonder that even the minister of education and distinguished members of our ailing government would rather send their children to universities abroad, and 99.9 percent of potential students are left here to languish in poorly-funded universities. We do not seem to understand that, without education, Nigeria can neither develop nor have the manpower to feed its economic growth potential. The small percentage of the educated elite cannot work in a vacuum and will not function in a poor economy. So, they too go to waste, if they choose to remain in Nigeria as traders and goods merchants.
There has been a steady migration of Nigerian scholars to universities all around the world. Every year, our children flood the halls of institutions in foreign lands. Some of them never return home, as they find that the grass might indeed be much greener on the other side. Meanwhile, their counterparts in our once-prestigious universities have to fight semester after semester for something close to a decent university education. When the universities are not on strike, the classrooms are overpopulated, making it a herculean task to learn or get a proper education. Along the line, due to the frustration of an unsatisfactory university experience, they turn to activities that don’t necessarily set them on the course for a brighter future. Sadly, our government has failed our children.
Our top priority in this country should be investing in our people. We need to take advantage of the human resources we have been blessed with. Policies should be put in place and plans should be made to ensure that education in this country is not an afterthought. It should be at the forefront of any economic recovery plan prepared by the government.
I have had the opportunity of travelling to different parts of Nigeria and one thing that still shocks me till date is the extreme level of illiteracy and poverty that has ravaged northern Nigeria. Yobe State, for example, has a literacy level of about 7 percent, which is currently the lowest in the country. This is followed closely by Zamfara State, with a recorded literacy level of about 19%. Taraba State, on the other hand, has a literacy level of 72 percent but that is still miles behind a state like Lagos State with a recorded literacy level of about 95 percent.
In recent times, a lot of insurgencies has stemmed from northern Nigeria. We have been unfortunate enough to witness terrorist groups like Boko Haram, whose major activities are carried out in northern Nigeria. If we take our time to analyze this situation, a direct link can be traced back to illiteracy. When a group of able-bodied men have nothing to do, the devil will surely take advantage of their idleness to propagate malicious agenda.
I’ll give you a scenario. During one of FADE’s numerous tree planting activities, we voyaged to Makoda local government in Kano State for the Makoda Wall of Trees project. Because of the time we spent there, I became quite popular among the locals and, every time I visited, an entourage of no fewer than 100 men awaited my arrival. It was always a bitter-sweet feeling seeing a lot of young men in their 20s, 30s, and 40s waiting around for me on a working day. They would then follow me to my final place of residence and sometimes camp outside for days because they knew I would usually gift them a small stipend to be shared among themselves. At the end of the day, they each ended up with a tiny amount of money, which did not justify the amount of time they had spent with me.
The problem here is not even unemployment, this can easily be solved by simply creating jobs. It’s a different case when you have middle-aged men who are unemployable, which means, even if there are jobs, these men will be unable to do the jobs. How did we get to this point? We let illiteracy spread too far into our communities and now we have a big problem on our hands. A big problem that has left our youth malleable to manipulation by the highest bidder seeking to wreak havoc in the nation.
If we journey down to southern Nigeria, we find a similar problem there. Men whose lands have been devastated by aggressive oil exploration activities are scattered all over the place. These men no longer have farmlands to grow their crops, their rivers and lakes are home to oil spills that render them useless to any fishing activities. When we have a group of desperate men who feel like a lot has been taken from them without any form of compensation, we begin to see insurgency rise in the form of militants and terrorists. This is where we find ourselves today as a country. We are a country that only just decades ago had functional industries that could provide well over 10 million direct jobs across the federation and more when enhanced.
Taking you back to my last column, it is clear that the only way for us to come out of this quagmire is to revive our failed industries. We need to admit to ourselves that it is not an absolute lack of funds that has caused our infrastructural decay but outright mismanagement of these funds. We are not cursed but corrupt.
So the questions then become: how do we engage our youth? How do we prioritise their future? We owe it to them to create an environment where they can thrive because, if we don’t, we are sitting on a ticking time bomb that will explode soon.