Defuse This Time Bomb, Now!

Ademola Adegbamigbe

Adegbamigbe

By Ademola Adegbamigbe

Among the Nigerian daily newspapers that published the photographs on their front pages, the caption by The Nation was the one that put the brain in a whirligig. “This is not the World Cup final,” the newspaper wrote, describing the sea of heads that came for the recruitment test of the Nigerian Immigration Service.

The way the National Stadium was filled to capacity on Saturday, 15 March, reminded me of the big arena in The Gladiator, an epic movie directed by Ridley Scott, where Maximus and the young Emperor Commodus fight each other to the death, even as the Roman gentry and rabble cheer on like bloodhounds.

During the Saturday recruitment exercise, 19 people died. They include three pregnant women and two men in Abuja, three people in Minna and five others in Port Harcourt. In Calabar, security men flogged the daylights out of the throng that turned up for the exercise. In Abuja alone, 70,000 people reportedly showed up. As they tried to enter the main bowl through one entry point, there was a stampede. Besides those who died, 50 were injured in Abuja alone.

Trouble started in Benin when, in their attempt to control the over 28,000 people who gathered for the test at Ogbemudia Stadium, soldiers fired into the air, making many to take to their heels. In the confusion, three pregnant women gave up the ghost. Such drama was enacted also in Minna and Port Harcourt.

There have been many comments on the arithmetic of the drama, and the morality of it in the first place. Why should people who were jobless be made to pay N1,000? Analysts believe that it was money, not the bid to get the best, that made the concerned authorities to invite 522,650 candidates to struggle for 4,556 vacant positions. For the Immigration Service or the Ministry of Interior, N522.7 million is not bad!

What happened has put in bold relief the danger that the Federal and state governments court on a daily basis. In one state in the South-South, 1,000 vacant positions in the civil service were advertised. But by the time the applications came in, the particular state government did not know how to handle 76,000 candidates that applied for the job. The experience of that state is applicable to others. In fact, a friend of mine who is a lawyer put up a handwritten advert outside his office, looking for a clerk that could receive letters and visitors for him while he goes to court. Among the applicants were graduates who were even “satisfied” with the N10,000 the lawyer was ready to pay per month! And when he hired a graduate among them, he offered to increase it to N15,000––on humanitarian ground.

To show that Nigeria is sitting on a key of gunpowder of (unemployment), let us paint a worst-case scenario. Imagine that after the Abuja tragedy, the over 70,000 angry youths marched in unison on Aso Rock, and over 20,000 others in each state laid siege to the state governor’s office, demanding that government at all levels did something about unemployment. Would the police or soldiers open fire on them? Or would the big men in those mansions vote with their feet?

This is just a matter of imagination, but it does not detract from the urgency of government taking steps to tackle joblessness in this land. Please remember the Bastille!

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President Goodluck Jonathan himself was touched by the tragedy and the embarrassment it caused Nigeria. That was why last week, he ordered that each family that lost an applicant should have three automatic job placements at the Immigration Service. He directed also that, apart from giving automatic employment to those who were injured in the stampede, a presidential committee be constituted to conduct fresh recruitment into the Immigration Service. Moreover, the Federal Executive Council cancelled the tragic recruitment exercise.

Good. But these are short-term steps. The President needs to do more. First, he should declare a state of emergency in the labour sector. Let him invite economic experts from the academia, public and private sectors, civil society, the media and elsewhere. They can help him re-focus his present macro-economic policy which tends to dwell on the maxim that government has no business in business. Government has.

John Maynard Keynes, the British economist and father of Keynesian Economics, argued that private sector decisions “sometimes lead to inefficient macroeconomic outcomes which require active policy responses by the government”. We must remember that he was the one who postulated that state intervention is necessary to “moderate boom and burst in the cycles of economic activity”, an idea which he included in his 1933 book, The Means to Prosperity, which President Franklin Roosevelt found useful during the U.S. depression.

Here, I want to suggest the Keynesian solution to handling depression: a reduction in interest rates and government should have huge investments in infrastructure and industries directly to create employment which, itself, will stimulate demands…Does it not embarrass us all that Nigeria is the only country in the world that produces crude oil and imports refined petroleum products! It does not make economic sense at all. Where are those who were granted licences to build refineries? If it has become impossible for them to build, can government not do it? This is one area to stimulate employment.

The second aspect is that government can tailor its fiscal policy to make banks lend money to those who want to do business at single digit interest rates. There are many fresh graduates who have ideas but don’t have the wherewithal to bring their dreams to reality. Moreover, government can shelve the demand for collaterals from such jobless graduates.

In the agricultural sector, huge opportunities abound. Governor Rotimi Amaechi, of Rivers, when he addressed members of the Guild of Editors in Port Harcourt about three years ago, narrated how an Israeli who wanted to travel from Rivers to Bayelsa State wondered what type of fertiliser Nigeria used for the green vegetation and lush palm trees along the East-West road! This is to say that Nigeria has great endowments in the area of agric, where young graduates can be financially empowered to keep busy. Government can directly invest in huge agro-business that can lap up a large number of the unemployed.

To also reduce the desperation of the unemployed, I suggest that government should have their statistics and come up with a monthly welfare package for them.  Perhaps, government may be asking: how can all these be financed? Simple. Our political leaders must be made to reduce their high lifestyles. In other words, if the cost of governance is reduced considerably, government can save money to defuse the unemployment bomb.

It is wrong to think that Nigerians are docile and cannot lay siege to any fortified castle demanding for their rights. In mob psychology, violence can be triggered by anger and hunger with the speed of sound. Again, remember the Bastille.

…Culled TheNEWS magazine