It was with utter astonishment that the audience at Kofar Sauri Sharia court in Katsina on that fateful afternoon earlier this month, listened to the 12-year-old pupil, Sani Musa, charged with theft, tell the court that he had to steal some metal scrap in order to get money to enable him continue with his studies.
He shocked the court further by producing the books, schoolbag and other school materials which he bought with the money obtained from disposing of the scrap metal.
Family members testified to the court that Sani had been complaining over a lack of school materials and acknowledged him to be "hardworking, intelligent and... the best student of his school". The court subsequently acquitted him and resolved to shoulder his needs in school henceforth.
Now this situation of a promising pupil, keen and eager to learn but left in want of necessary school materials, is one faced by thousands of young people in Nigeria. Sani Musa belongs to a youth demographic, under the age of 30 years, fast becoming a "youth bulge" in developing countries, a situation where a large share of the population is comprised of children and young adults. According to the World Bank, nearly 70 per cent of Africa's over 1 billion people are under 30 years.
Nigeria, Africa's most populous country, leads the pack with a "very young age structure" where two-thirds of 164 million Nigerians are under the age of 30. Countries like Nigeria have the opportunity to turn this youth bulge into a "demographic dividend" or active and productively engaged youthful population that can power economic growth and development; otherwise, this bulge is a ticking time bomb waiting to explode into a youth "disaster", imperiling an already fragile socio-political stability.
How to effectively engage the "youth bulge" is the current zeitgeist - theme in the air - featuring prominently in many international conferences on Africa. According to the conventional wisdom in this zeitgeist, this rapidly growing youth demographic can become a demographic dividend with adequate education, employment and economic opportunities. The onus of providing such opportunities generally lies with governments and we are all too familiar with how Sub-Saharan African leaders have continuously fallen short of these responsibilities. The premise here is that our predominant focus on the central role of government in providing these opportunities and government's glaring shortcomings has made us gloss over the role non-government actors such as parents, communities and not-for-profit groups can and should play in complementing government efforts to ensure our youth bulge in Nigeria translates into a demographic dividend so that young people like Sani Musa have a future to look forward to.
The importance of education to a country's overall progress cannot be overemphasized. According to a 2007 IMF report, "the skills of the labour force, built largely during childhood and youth, are an important determinant of a country's overall investment climate". These skills are built when primary, secondary and tertiary education opportunities are provided to young people. Nigeria's challenges in providing education are well documented, with literacy rates of the 15-24 age range at 65 per cent and 75 per cent for female and male respectively with stark regional variations between the northern and southern parts of the country. While enrolment and completion rates have increased for primary education, the enrolment rate remains low for secondary education, at 25.8 per cent. Importantly, very few of these have access to quality education - across all three levels. Decaying equipment and facilities, unqualified teachers sometimes barely able to speak English, poorly equipped universities and tertiary institutions have all resulted in consecutive mass national failure in secondary school leaving certificate exams - up to 98 per cent in the 2009 NECO exams - and half-baked graduates from tertiary institutions, at best unable to write formal application letters and at worst lacking transferable skills, for a career path they are already uncertain of. Poor funding, corruption and persistent systemic decay of the education sector are all key factors resulting in a poorly educated and largely unskilled youth demographic.
Following closely is the challenge of providing adequate employment and economic opportunities in order to engage the youth productively to power economic and human development. According to World Bank economist Justin Yifu Lin, "one basic measure of a country's success in turning the youth bulge into a demographic dividend is the youth (un)employment rate." Yet, Nigeria is saddled with almost 20 million unemployed people, with about two million new entrants into the dispirited realm of the unemployed each year, according to the National Bureau of Statistics. Unemployment among the under-30 age group is much higher at about 37.7 per cent, though civil society groups place the figure closer to 50 per cent.
Of course, youth unemployment is a not a phenomenon exclusive to Nigeria or Sub-Saharan Africa as many developed countries, notably Greece, Spain and Portugal are plagued by high youth unemployment rates (49.3 per cent, 48.9 per cent and 34.1 per cent respectively) with the recent global economic downturn. However, if countries like Nigeria are to avert a demographic disaster already incubating a lost generation vulnerable to drug addiction, militancy, insurgency and general disillusionment, then it is imperative that this youthful population is productively engaged.
Employment generation is a function of adroit economic policies, government job creation schemes, existence of an enabling environment - infrastructure, law and order and an efficient regulatory system - and private sector initiatives, flourishing within this environment to create job opportunities. A skilled populace, given the right incentives, interacts favourably with this business-friendly environment to be productive citizens. However, Nigeria remains a country with immense untapped potential - vibrant population, large market - and an even greater potential of harnessing all these for economic prosperity, but for the most part, the full transition from "potential" to "actuality" is yet to take off. The 2012 Ease of Doing Business index ranks Nigeria 133 out of 183 economies in terms of starting a business (116), getting electricity (176), and access to credit (78). This difficult terrain not only stifles entrepreneurial innovation but has also engendered a survival-of-the-most-connected fierce competition for scarce and "lucrative" public sector jobs.
To be concluded next week