Premium Times (Abuja)

23 March 2014

Nigeria: Bloody Job Hunt

opinion

No one more the families and friends who suffered the loss of their children last week in Abuja, during the job application scheme can will fully appreciate the feelings agony of the families of the Job Hunt tragedy. Nothing anyone says or does will change the outcome. No one can bring those brilliantly qualified young men and women back.

What we can do though, as a nation is to have an earnest look and germane inquiry into what exactly happened so that we can prevent another such related crowd tragedy happening again.

It is a salient fact that Nigeria has a very high unemployment rate, despite the government's unceasing brandishing of figures showing growth in the economy. Unfortunately, the "growth" has not reduced poverty, neither is it commensurate with job creation.

According to the Bureau of Statistics, the rate of unemployment in Nigeria stood at 23.9 per cent in 2011, and in 2012 it maintained that 54 per cent of youths were unemployed. But it is a well-known fact that, unofficially, these unemployment figures are higher than stated; currently, unemployment has reached a disquieting rate, which has thus engendered the security quandary plaguing the nation - the Boko Haram menace, the incessant kidnappings, the various armed robberies and kidnapping incidents.

The true unemployment rate in Nigeria has been demonstrated by the number of applicants that showed up for the Immigration Service recruitment tests at different centers across the country.

It was reported that 6 million people applied for the jobs, which had been advertised. However, only about 530, 000 of those were invited for the interview to fill the 4, 000 spaces. In Abuja alone, over 75,000 candidates filled the National Stadium venue, an edifice that was initially built to seat no more than 60,491 people. Even though the authorities that, they went ahead and gave all the applicants a right of entry through a single gateway. In all fairness to the authorities, one can only imagine the pressure, and abuse the authorities must have had spewed at them by desperate young Nigerians determined to get into the stadium, but weren't allowed to.

Once inside, most of the applicants had no choice but to sit on the ground, as they couldn't get seats due to the overpopulation. With the tension, desperation and flared tempers in the atmosphere, it would have been a miracle for conflict not to erupt. The scene had been set, the props had been placed for the violence which erupted in the most unforgettable, unfortunate and bloody manner.

A Saturday, which started so well for young, qualified hopeful Nigerians, turned out to be nothing but a blood fest with over 20 deaths of applicants, including some pregnant women.

In the Abuja Centre, alone about seven applicants died in the stampede, while in Port Harcourt four applicants died. Also, the Minna center recorded two applicant fatalities, while an uncountable number of applicants received injuries in various centers across the country.

And the desperation for securing jobs and making money did not stop with the job applicants alone. Sachet water sellers, popularly known as "pure water," sold each sachet for N50 instead of the usual N10. On can imagine that, since most of the applicants were unable to buy the sachet water at the N50 price, there would have been a high rate of dehydration. And dehydration is because many of the applicants were unable to afford the water at that price; there was a high rate of dehydration.

And dehydration is a highly dangerous condition to have in such an atmosphere where there was so much overcrowding and heat. Those applicants would have experienced dizziness, light-headedness, tiredness, loss of stamina, heat exhaustion and crankiness. In such a situation, the tiniest provocation is likely to provoke an already dehydrated person.

Even snacks, such as 'gala', which are usually sold for N50, were being sold for N100. This trend continued with the soft drinks, which were sold at N200 a bottle instead of the N100. The exploitation didn't stop there; it went on and on as petty traders were also involved in the attempt at exploiting the unemployed applicants.

At the Port Harcourt venue, the Liberty Stadium, which mas made to accommodate 16,000 people saw the turnout of over 25,000 applicants for the exercise. This resulted into four fatalities.

Furthermore, at Government Girls' Day Secondary School, Minna, over 12,000 applicants showed up, prompting two applicants to slump and later die.

The huge invitation and turnout of applicants in the various centers was without a doubt an indication of disaster on this sad event. Any large number of people or crowds at such inadequate venues would certainly endanger people's lives and the possibility of a stampede is largely imminent.

And the designs of our stadiums where entrance and exit points are limited in order to protect the people in the stadium worked in a negative way. It was so bad at the time of the incident that most of the stadiums had few exit points and fences to protect the people inside. That is what adds so much to the tragedy. And the tragic truth is, that something which was done to protect the people in the stadium, played a large part in why so many of our own perished. Confining an over crowded people in difficult and desperate circumstances, and in a unpredictable environment is always a disaster waiting to happen, and on that fateful day, it did.

While I believe that what happened on that fateful day was a very grave and expensive mistake. Because, in no way, could I imagine in my wildest dreams that tragedy that happened to the organizers carefully orchestrated the job applicants. It was negligent, insensitive and a mistake. And a mistake is a mistake; It would be hard to believe for a moment that the authorities intentionally planned for this catastrophe to happen. Thus while I don't think the authorities purposely sabotaged the applicants, there is no doubt that what happened during the immigration recruitment exercise was indeed an expose of the government's ineptitude, lackadaisical attitude, improper coordination and the absence of tact in carrying out functions and activities.

Indeed, the Nigeria Immigration Service is a very prominent governmental agency responsible for ensuring that non-citizens coming into the country are without any blemishes and have no ulterior motives for coming into the country. One would expect that such an establishment saddled with such a sensitive role would show adequate concern and responsibility in terms of how it recruits new intakes into its ranks. And if it didn't in the past, may this incident provide a lesson from which all agencies may learn today.

In a non-encouraging manner, the interior minister, Abba Moro, stated that the applicants' impatience should be blamed for the stampede that resulted in some of the deaths, and that the applicants refused to abide by the instruction handed to them by the recruiters. This statement by the minister sounds like an attempt at shifting the blame from his office and the Immigration Service to the applicants. Have I missed something here? Did the Minister not get the memo that young men and women actually died during the exercise and families lost their loved ones. Does he not think it's a tad bit insensitive to make such inconsiderate statements at this very time?

Noteworthy, however, is that, during registration for the recruitment exams, the Immigration Service authorities barefacedly and insensitively demanded a fee of N1, 000 from each intending applicant. This is certainly in defiance of various directives from the House of Representatives that the executive/government agencies should stop asking or extorting money in the form of fees from unemployed citizens seeking jobs. All in all, at N1, 000 per candidate, the Immigration Service would have made a profit of N6 billion (i.e. from 6 million applicants, shortlisted for interview or not).

It's only in a country like Nigeria that jobseekers and the unemployed are made to pay for unavailable jobs. It is indeed unbecoming of such a significant agency of government, as the Immigration Service would be found culpable in trying to extort money from teeming unemployed youths. And, who knows, the 4, 000 or so vacancies may have been filled by the candidates of ministers, lawmakers, governors, directors and Permanent Secretaries. Why asking those without godfathers to apply? "... I'm just saying!"

It is also alleged that the chaotic arrangements for the recruitment exercise that eventually turned bloody was merely a justification for the money paid by the applicants. Curiously, though, since the Immigration Service authorities and the Ministry of Interior had the data of applicants, especially with regards to the Abuja center, why wasn't the exercise decentralized in order to accommodate the huge population? On this issue alone, an inquiry should be launched with immediate effect.

Unfortunately, such an incident is not the first we have witnessed in Nigeria and is hardly likely to be the last. Conducting such an exercise in such a haphazard manner is not unusual for Nigerian institutions in carrying out their functions and activities. Major activities carried out by governmental agencies are often marred by inadequacies and inefficiency of its officials and management. However, with regards to the immigration recruitment exercise, the agency's inefficiency resulted in the fatalities and injuries recorded across the country where the exams were held.

What happened last Saturday was a real tragedy. No matter how badly we feel, we must live with and confront the reality of tragedy. What we need to do is take stock to see how we can prevent such calamities in future. But I can bet my bottom dollar, if we come back in the next 5 years, the safety situation will hardly change. Chances are it would probably be worse. The problems surrounding safety will still exist.

The incident has elicited various condemnations and calls from all and sundry for an investigation into the tragedy. I, too, add my voice in demanding a proper inquiry into how such a tragedy could have been allowed to happen and how we can prevent another such related event from happening again. The government should and must provide enough compensation to the families affected. We shall be watching... and writing. My condolence goes out to all who lost friends and relations in the tragedy.

Ms Musawa, Principal Partner at Laurus Lex Legal Practice in Abuja, and an expert in marine, and oil and gas law, is a syndicated columnist for Premium Times.

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