Two different worlds met during the #EndSARS protests. After the massacre at the Lekki Toll Gate descended into destruction and looting, it revealed the two sides (some say three) of Nigeria’s most valuable asset, its youth.
Who are these young Nigerians? Where do their worlds converge and diverge? Answers to these questions are important. They will guide government’s response in the form of policies that incentivise the private sector to create jobs and get the country out of current economic depression. Something must be done now to avert a bigger crisis. Insecurity is growing.
One group of youths, educated and tech savvy, used social media to organise peaceful protests across the country and draw attention to police brutality; another group were used as tools to disrupt the protests while a third group went on rampage looting businesses and killing police officers and burning public buildings. Their raid of warehouses filled with COVID-19 relief materials suggested they too were coordinated.
United by a common grievance each set responded the way it knew how to – all of them, protesters or hoodlums or criminals, are all victims of the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) known for its use of force, extortion and extra-judicial killings. Young Nigerians, between the ages of 18 and 35, are susceptible to victimisation by SARS.
One immediate conclusion after the #EndSARS protests is that it brought together varied groups of youth who have been living apart.
How did Nigeria get here?
Ten years ago, the British Council and the Harvard Institute of Public Health published a report, Nigeria: The Next Generation. The report calls young Nigerians the most precious resource of the country. A resource that could either end up being a blessing or curse, a demography that could yield a dividend or turn into a disaster, depending on how it was handled.
It laid out two possibilities, the upside and the downside, and repeatedly said the outcome depended on the quality of the decisions policymakers make. If all went well, Nigeria would reap a dividend in the form of one of the most healthy and skilled workforces in the world and that would generate higher income and lift millions out of poverty by 2030. Otherwise, Nigeria risked a disaster that could end up with many restless and frustrated young people.
The report notes that young Nigerians want change and use the internet to voice their demands. The lack of opportunities is frustrating. Their energy and potential can contribute to the future of the country, but it must be harnessed otherwise it can become a disruptive force, like the disaffected and disillusioned group who turned to violent protest.
We are ten years away from seeing which outcome is most likely to happen but the #EndSARS protests have given a glimpse of what can happen if nothing is done.
Where the two worlds diverge
Pictures, it is said, are worth a thousand words. Photographs of the protests shared on social media told a tale of two worlds. While the story they tell is not exhaustive they are useful for understanding the different worlds of each group, without falling into stereotypes. Each sketches an idea of why each group reacted the way they did.
One tale painted a picture of young men and women, well-dressed with dreadlocks or stylish hair. And judging from those who were interviewed or commented on Twitter one can say they are comfortable; earn more than the minimum wage; own a car, a gift from their parents or bought it themselves; they are educated and literate; employed or an entrepreneur; own a laptop and or a smartphone and active on social media; attended private schools and a few may have schooled abroad. These were called protesters.
The other tale, however, painted a different tale. In this picture all the youth are male. They are uneducated, violent, too poor to afford any luxuries or even assets, live from hand to mouth and have no job or legal source of income. They were labelled urchins, hoodlums and street criminals. They were the thugs paid to disrupt the peaceful protests whose demands, like 5for5, meant nothing. They took advantage of the breakdown of law and order that started earlier on 20 October, the day of the Lekki Toll Gate shooting.
Where the two worlds converge
Both groups had similar causes of discontent. From the brutality of SARS to the lack of economic opportunities, from unemployment to the economic hardship worsened by the COVID-19 lockdown. Both are unhappy that the government has done nothing for them.
Treating young people as a homogenous group is misleading. There is the argument about who the label youth applies to: 15-25-year olds or 18-35-year olds? Where are they located: urban or rural areas? Do they live in slums, are they educated, employed in wage work, farm or nonfarm jobs, do they work in the formal or informal sector? Data to answer these questions is so scanty that the most recent figure on the size of Nigeria’s youth was compiled eight years ago.
What we saw during the two weeks of the protests was a lump called youth of Nigeria break into several pieces. They have been classified into three groups based on their education, employability and social media presence.
From data compiled in 2012 by the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS), we know there were 64 million Nigerians between the ages of 15 and 35 -- 54% of them were unemployed and among them those who had never been to school were mostly aged between 30-35 years.
All of them are present on social media, especially Facebook and WhatsApp. A little over two-thirds of the 27m Nigerians active on social media are 18-34-year-olds. Twitter, with 1.96 m Nigerians, was where most of the campaign took place online and several hashtags related to the protests went viral on it. WhatsApp, with 10 times the population of Twitter, is perhaps what the group of youths involved in looting and burning used to organise themselves.
For some youths especially 15-24-year-olds, whether in the rural or urban areas, farming is the default job they settle for, until something better is available. A better job may be in informal retail, manufacturing, construction and professional services. So, while for the rural youth farming is an option even if it is seasonal, there are not as many options for the urban educated, and slum youth. In other words, they are not idle by choice nor do they lack the skills or education; there are not just enough opportunities.
Few, however, get a job in the formal sector, which is why most Nigerians are underemployed, unproductive and do not earn enough to escape poverty.
Two-fifths (82m) of Nigeria's total population live in extreme poverty, making it the poverty capital of the world – i.e. 40% of Nigerians live on N137,430 a year which is less than $1 a day. Poverty in Nigeria is predominant in homes headed by uneducated men who are farmers living in both rural and urban areas. Their children are likely to take after them because of the limited opportunities.
The lack of options is why the best and brightest Nigerians are going abroad. From medical doctors to university professors the lack of opportunities is driving a lot of the skilled workforce in Nigeria abroad. This is a huge loss in a country where their skills can save and educate the next generation.
A job as a farmer or trader requires little or no skills. In a world that is increasingly high-tech, where the sectors that can provide jobs are agro-processing and light manufacturing, what matters more is skilled rather unskilled labour.
What can be done?
The population is expected to reach 440m by 2050, it will be the third largest in the world. Providing productive jobs for this growing and, as the protests have shown, an increasingly restless young population should be the number one goal. Human capital has always been the greatest resource of Nigeria. It must be understood in order to develop it. To do it right, data is important.
More granular and regular data, like the National Baseline Youth Survey done in 2012, would help guide the much-needed decisions that have to be made about investments in education, health and infrastructure.
A healthy and skilled human capital together with infrastructure that connects businesses to markets, labour and suppliers will see investment directed into sectors like agro-processing, light manufacturing, information technology which will in turn drive demand and grow the economy.