Away from the Covid-19 Pandemic, I saw a news item which I initially ignored. I stumbled into it some days later so I decided to go through. According to the Punch, the President has approved the temporary employment of 774,000 Nigerian youths, to clear gutters, sweep the streets and markets for a period of three months.
The initiative which will be funded from the 60 billion Naira Covid- 19 Intervention Fund will last from October to December, 2020, according to the minister of Finance, Budget and National Planning, Zainab Ahmed. Hmmm…Reading this got me thinking. Is it a good idea to take our youths off the streets to sweep the streets? Literally? That sounds good.
Is it a laudable endeavour to channel the energy of our youths away from vices into projects such as clearing our gutters and sweeping our markets? Not a bad idea. I mean there is dignity in labour. However, I find this rather unsettling. This is not in any way demeaning this or any labour, or work. To me, this clearing of gutters, sweeping our streets and markets is an allegory. It typifies the present state of our youth: unwholesome, downtrodden, unkempt, uncared for, degrading, menial, dehumanizing, poor, vulnerable.
According to the report this initiative called the Special Works Programme “requires no skills or formal education.” How appropriate? Who are those youths with no skills or formal education? The children of the poor, of course. Who are the ones privileged to have quality education, with plum jobs waiting for them in blue chip companies and government agencies? Children of the political class, the powerful. No, you don’t expect them to clear our gutters and sweep our markets. That job description fits the children of the poor masses who for the last 21 years have suffered the brunt of irresponsible leadership in government.
Definitely, thousands of Nigerian youths will jostle for this job, with politicians, godfathers and mothers, traditional rulers acting as connection and go-between in determining youths “privileged” among the so many for this task. Ours is one of the youngest populations in the world. According to the National Bureau of statistics, about 43% of our population falls within 0-14 years, and 19.81% between 15-24 years out of an estimated population of 205 million, (UN). So, in effect, a large proportion of the Nigerian population has been born in the last 21 years during this democratic dispensation.
Let’s look at it this way, just as our democracy was to be nurtured and the country led into socio economic development, with our political leaders as the main and crucial actors, alongside, the destinies of these young Nigerians were placed in the hands of these leaders to shape and nurture into a secure prosperous future. And, what is the Scorecard? What is the impact of democratic rule on our young population? Woeful. Nigeria has one of the highest concentration of uneducated, unemployed, delinquent, poor unproductive youths in the African continent, and the largest out of school children in the world. A glaring and inexcusable failure of our political leaders to invest in our youth, who are our future, is a very huge and costly mistake with repercussions reverberating across the country.
Our leaders have failed to understand that when we invest in our young people, we are investing in the socio economic development of our Nation. This failing cuts across our elected leaders at the three tiers of government. When these young ones were being born, what was the plan for them, their education, health, security, productivity, the provision of decent jobs? The future looked far off. But the future is now here. What our political leaders have been sowing in the past is what Nigeria is reaping today; a dysfunctional society full of uneducated, unproductive and disgruntled generation of young people. After all, it has been said that an idle mind is the devils workshop. You only need to go to our communities and see a young generation idling and wasting away.
How could they have neglected our youths for 21 years, and now be anticipating development and a flourishing society today or in the future? Children cannot be neglected at their significant stage in life and 15 or 20 years later gather a few hundred of them and place in their hands sewing machines, Keke Napeps, Grinding machines, barbing tools, and call it Youth Empowerment. It is a shame that our political leaders have refused to reason that empowerment is not about things but about the mind, which comes through education and primarily formal education from childhood. Writing on Education and Heredity, pioneering American educator, A. E. Winship said “Education is something more than going to school for a few weeks each year, is more than knowing how to read and write. It has to do with character, with industry, and with patriotism. Education tends to do away with vulgarity, pauperism, and crime, tends to prevent disease and disgrace, and helps to manliness, success and loyalty”.
This is exactly what is lacking in our youths today, just because Government at all levels refused to adequately invest in their education. Today’s Nigerian society is regrettably a jungle of vulgarity, pauperism and crime because education was not given priority since our return to democracy. While UNESCO recommends fifteen to twenty percent of national budgets to the education sector of developing countries, Nigeria has been performing poorly, with the average allocation to education for most of the last 21 years in single digits. Only in 5 of these years did it enter double digits hovering an average of just around 10%. In fact since 2016 to date it has been abysmal at around 7% with this year’s allocation 6.9%. Even the Minister of Education decrying poor funding of the sector.
In a Premium times report he stated that “…indeed even among sub- Saharan African countries, we are trailing far behind smaller and less endowed nations in terms of our investment in education….” My emphasis on 1999 is because it afforded us the opportunity for a new beginning in nation building, which has education as its strongest pillar.
Ours is a neglected generation of young people, which we are doing to our peril. Our brand of democracy has woefully failed our youth. Democratic rule has been a huge disappointment, to a large extent, a scam.
A generation whose future ought to be assured, but now told to come sweep our streets. A generation strong, vibrant and with such energy to stir our communities and nation into economic productivity and prosperity are now being told to come clear gutters and sweep our market places. A generation whose minds ought to be stirred and harnessed into great discoveries and innovations, powering our industries, great entrepreneurs, great minds, resourceful and useful to family and society have been abandoned, neglected, left groping in the dark. As it is said in pidgin “na ourselves we dey do”.
We cannot continue like this. When we neglect our future the consequences are dire, as it is manifesting in our society today. Our leaders cannot continue with the mistakes of the past and expect different results. We should be honest with ourselves, this present Nigeria is going nowhere near development and prosperity. My reason? This present generation of youth who are supposed to be our future think thanks, strategists, technocrats, innovators, captains of industry, teachers, etc., are largely illiterate, delinquent and unemployed. How can we hope for a future with these youths? Many of them were born into abject poverty and government did nothing to educate them or lift their parents out of poverty. They are now suffering the consequences of government’s irresponsibility. Unfortunately for most of them, government is now too broke to be able to invest in them meaningfully. When financial resources were available in abundance, government officials misappropriated them for their own personal gains. Today, even if the government wants to invest in these youths, where is the money going to come from?
Our political leaders must, as a matter of utmost necessity and urgency map out strategies for a different and decent future. There must be concerted approach and deliberate steps taken to ensure that the next twenty years is not like the present. They must think out of the box, must be selfless because it is not about them, but the people. For what is at stake here is the destiny of our nation.
If 21 years of democracy is producing street cleaners, market cleaners and gutter cleaners today, what future is there for our nation?
We are wishing development by not educating the youth who will power the development.
I want to emphasize it again, education here is key, sound and equitable education for children of the poor, vulnerable and disadvantaged who form the vast majority of our population. They must be deliberately and dedicatedly educated.
For our youth who may not be able to go back to school, there should be aggressive push for learning opportunities as stated in SDG goal 4 in technical and vocational skills, for employment, decent jobs and entrepreneurship. Skills to enable them contribute to society and lift themselves out of poverty.
In addition to inclusive, quality education, there must be economic productivity. Government just has to create jobs. Let me quote from the National Bureau of Statistics ‘majority of our population lies between ages 0-14. This “…. Implies a large proportion of the population would soon be entering into the working age group. New job opportunities would therefore be required to meet up with the projected increase in labor force population…..”
However, the big snag here is the purposelessness of our leaders who over the decades did not seek to work to provide other sources of income to invest in our youths and in the development of the nation at large. Not with the alarming decrease in the price of our mono export commodity. It’s a known fact that oil alone cannot meet the development needs of the country. Our leaders seem to be the only ones who don’t realize this. For the survival of this nation our leaders must as a matter of grave national survival begin to dig for avenues to expand our revenue base outside of crude oil. They should go beyond the talk and put words into action. They should put their hands to the plough and work for the people that elected them into office.
We’ve just got to seek alternative sources of revenue to power our economy. Our huge advantage is our young people. They are a mine of economic wealth and power if consciously and purposefully harnessed especially in the agricultural and agro allied sector. Government at all levels should work with population experts and economists in ways to ‘…harness our youth for productive economic activity and to create jobs necessary for a growing labor force…’
If our political leaders do not do the needful now, in twenty years time, our youths will be asked to come clean our gutters, sweep our streets and markets or, hired as political thugs.
Finally, the revised National Youth Policy should not just be a Plan, but a Plan put into action.
*Faith Berewa is a staff writer with Sahel Standard