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Youth unemployment in Africa: a ticking time bomb or an opportunity?

Youth unemployment in Africa: a ticking time bomb or an opportunity?

Senegalese opposition politicians denounced the country’s high unemployment rate to mobilize youth against former President Abdoulaye Wade in the country’s 2012 presidential election. Joblessness was one of the main issues that drove the country’s many young unemployed into the voting stations to press for a change of government. The lesson of Senegal’s election violence is that youth unemployment, which is 15 per cent in that country, can fuel the fire of political violence and civil unrest. A World Bank survey in 2011 showed that about 40 per cent of those who join rebel movements say they are motivated by a lack of jobs.  (Photo: Graduation ceremony at a secondary school in Tanzania. Photo credit: Jonathan Kalan)

With 200 million people aged between 15 and 24 (the youth bracket), Africa has the youngest population in the world. The figure will double by 2045, according to the 2012 African Economic Outlook report prepared by experts from the African Development Bank (AfDB), the UN Development Programme (UNDP), the UN Economic Commission for Africa (ECA) and the industrialized countries’ Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), among others.

The story of Africa’s worrisome youth unemployment is often told alongside the story of the continent’s fast economic growth. Six of the 10 fastest-growing economies in the world are in sub-Saharan Africa. Youths account for 60 per cent of all African unemployed, according to the World Bank. In North Africa the youth unemployment rate is an eyebrow-raising 30 per cent. It is even worse in Botswana, the Republic of the Congo, Senegal, South Africa and several other countries.

Young women feel the sting of unemployment even more sharply. The AfDB found that in most countries in sub-Saharan Africa and all of those in North Africa, it is easier for men to get jobs than it is for women, even if they have equivalent skills and experience.

Africa’s unemployment statistics exclude those in vulnerable employment and those who are underemployed in informal sectors. “Young people [in Africa] find work, but not in places that pay good wages, develop skills or provide a measure of job security,” reports the Brookings Institution, a Washington-based public policy organization. More than 70 per cent of the youth in the “Republic of the Congo, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia, Ghana, Malawi, Mali, Rwanda, Senegal and Uganda are either self-employed or contributing to family work,” adds the report.

Gabriel Benjamin, a jobless university graduate in Lagos, Nigeria, says that it is common to find young Nigerian university graduates doing menial jobs. “They clean floors in hotels, sell recharge [mobile telephone calling] cards — some even work in factories as labourers.”  The International Labour Organization (ILO) reports that up to 82 per cent of African workers are “working poor.” According to the African Economic Outlook, on average, more than 70 per cent of Africa’s youth live on less than US$2 per day, the internationally defined poverty threshold.

 “This is an unacceptable reality on a continent with such an impressive pool of youth, talent and creativity,” stresses Mthuli Ncube, chief economist at the AfDB. Alexander Chiwanda, Zambia’s finance minister, puts it succinctly: “Youth unemployment is a ticking time bomb,” which now appears to be perilously close to exploding.

About 10 million to 12 million young people join the labour market each year. “As events in North Africa [the Arab Spring] have shown, lack of employment opportunities … can undermine social cohesion and political stability,” warns the AfDB. Ahmad Salkida, a Nigerian journalist who has had rare access to the militant group Boko Haram, told Africa Renewal that although the sect is mainly driven by ideology, pervasive unemployment in northern Nigeria makes for easy recruitment of jobless young people.

African leaders met in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, in 2009 to try to defuse the youth unemployment time bomb. They declared 2009–18 the “African Youth Decade” and resolved to mobilize resources, including from the private sector for youth development.

African governments have made some efforts to match words with actions. Ghana created national youth service and empowerment programmes to equip college graduates with requisite skills and help them find jobs. Mauritius developed a plan to encourage technical and vocational education for young people. Zambia introduced a national youth policy and a youth enterprise fund to stimulate job creation. The Nigerian government introduced a skills acquisition and enterprise development programme as a component of the existing national youth service corps.

The jury is still out as to the impact such national initiatives. Mr. Ncube warns against high expectations. There are “no quick fixes,” he advises, and recommends “stronger job-creation mechanisms.” Singing the same tune, the World Bank proposes a jobs strategy that pays more attention to rural development, invests in agriculture, is sensitive to the migration of youth to urban areas and prepares them for the contemporary labour market.

The influx of young people into Africa’s urban areas worsens unemployment there. They are looking for jobs in populous cities such as Lagos, Ibadan, Cairo, Nairobi and Johannesburg. With briefcases loaded with job applications, they move from office to office in search of jobs — any jobs — to keep body and soul together. They often confront obstacles, including discrimination due to their inexperience, according to the African Economic Outlook. Even those who are lucky enough to find employment are the first to be laid off when economic growth derails.

Currently, foreign direct investments in Africa mainly target mining and minerals, sectors that produce few jobs, according to the ECA. The OECD warns that natural resource–based economies such as “oil exporters Nigeria and Algeria, gold producers including South Africa and copper exporter Zambia” therefore need to diversify into other activities or “be susceptible if the bubble bursts.”

In February 2013, Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan stated on his Facebook page that the country was already diversifying its economy. He was trumpeting the decision by General Electric to invest $1 billion in power generation and oil production in the country. “This will provide jobs for thousands with multiplier effect for tens of thousands,” President Jonathan wrote. Last year US-based Walmart, the world’s largest retailer, invested $2.4 billion in South Africa’s major retailer, Massmart Holdings, in what has been cited as an example of the kind of jobs-generating investment Africa needs. Most analysts also agree on the need to revise Africa’s education curricula to include skills and enterprise development.

Despite current challenges, there is a sliver of good news: Africa’s growing youth population comes with high energy, creativity and talents, which are “also the key to future prosperity,” notes the African Economic Outlook. It now depends on whether African governments can grab the unemployment bull by the horns.

By Kingsley Ighobor, Africa Renewal

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