It was timely, even if it were a mere coincidence. The audience was princely and the discourse quite robust. The Uyo Branch of the Nigerian Bar Association had previously scheduled its Annual Week for March 2020. It had to be postponed when Covid-19 surfaced; a situation that resulted in global lockdown. Since then, every attempt to have it failed, until March 16, 2021, when the organisers believed the atmosphere was, health-wise, conducive enough to host the event.
The theme of the Week was: “Akwa Ibom State, the Legal Profession and the Emerging Global Economy.” A few days to the event, the National Bureau of Statistics released a stunning report to the effect that Nigeria’s unemployment rate has hit 33.3 per cent. This implies that more than half of the country’s labour force is jobless. Or put alternately, less than half of the labour force is fully employed.
The question is, how did we arrive here? From being a globally-rated biggest economy in Africa in early 2015, we have now become, as analysed by experts, a country with the second highest unemployment rate in the world. At present, economic eggheads and the NBS have stated that Nigeria’s labour force stands at 69.7 million. This is against the working-age population of 120 million people. So, if a whopping 33.3 per cent of the working-age population is unemployed, it means we have roughly 70 million jobless people in Nigeria. It could even be more because the country’s population has remained a matter of guesswork over the years.
This alarming figure of jobless Nigerians grew from the hitherto 27.1 per cent released in the second quarter of 2020. So, instead of going down, the scary figures have been going up. It is very likely that the next announcement by the NBS, at the end of this quarter, may be worse. I can hear someone saying God forbid! Agreed, but if we keep on saying God forbid, and do nothing about it, it would amount to a case of faith without work.
Available analysis by experts indicate that based on the unquestionable figures churned out by the NBS, one third of the people that constitute the labour force, are either doing nothing or work for only 20 hours a week. That groups them under the purely unemployed category. The figure of those categorised as under-employed has risen to 15.9 million. These are people who work for only 40 hours a week. Add all of this to those who only sleep and yawn all day and you would be as scared as I am! Little wonder the crime rate has gone sky high.
In Africa, Namibia still leads the pack in joblessness with 33.4%. But Nigeria is hot on its heels for the top spot. Daily in the media, we are bombarded with news of criminality bordering on kidnapping, armed robbery and banditry. There is no doubt that those engaging in these criminal acts are mainly the youth. These are people with abundant physical and intellectual energy lying unutilised. I have read somewhere that more than almost 70% of Nigeria’s labour population are below 35 years; jobless youth between 25 and 34 years of age account for 37.2% of the working age population. I have no proof of this but there is no reason to doubt it.
Even under this worrisome atmosphere, industries are shutting down. Those still operating are down-sizing their workforce. The cost of doing business has hit the ceiling. The entire environment looks economically hopeless as though Nigeria is under a curse. Pump prices of petroleum products are rising. Costs of transportation—air and land—are inexcusably, completely out of control. People, especially children are dying of preventable and curable diseases. Public hospitals have returned to what they were in the 80s: mere consulting centres. Families are starving because costs of food stuff have gone up. What are the solutions?
Udom Inoyo, a lawyer and immediate past Vice Chairman of Exxonmobil in Nigeria, was said to have led the discussion at the NBA Week in Uyo. From what we read in the media, he was blunt and factual, and almost went beyond the call of duty to raise challenges and questions that demand not just immediate answers but actions. He spoke with passion about his state while focusing on Nigeria. Most importantly, he made practical suggestions on the way forward. Though his presentation was Akwa Ibom-centred, its relevance had global, not only Nigerian implications.
Nigerians have no reasons to be jobless at the level we are facing now. But something is just not right. Every avenue of direct and indirect employment that existed in the past is no more. In Akwa Ibom State, for instance, with a population of less than eight million, majority of whom are in private businesses, if all the industries that existed in the 70s, 80s and early 90s were still functional till today, with necessary technological upgrading, the situation would surely have been different.
Just as Inoyo questioned: how many people can recall the thriving marine transportation between Calabar and Oron in the 1970s and even 1980s, which provided direct and indirect employment to hundreds of people? The distance between the two destinations was less than 30 nautical miles. As a student at the good old Calabar Polytechnic in those days, I was a regular traveller on this route. While such services are still littered all over Europe and most of them have been operating for decades, our own has been mismanaged into oblivion.
He asked further, “What happened to our Qua Steel Company, Eket; the Federal Government-owned Aluminum Smelter Company of Nigeria (ALSCON), Ikot Abasi; the Nigeria Newsprint Manufacturing Company, in Oku-Iboku; Qua River Hotel, Eket; the Biscuit Factory, and Sunshine Battery, Ikot Ekpene; Quality Ceramics, Itu; Palmil Industries, Abak; Ebughu Fishing Terminal, Mbo; etc. Can you imagine where the state’s economy would be today if all these businesses were thriving?” By that he meant: could you imagine the number of employment opportunities that would have been created for the people of the state in particular and Nigeria in general if these industries were still functional?
Although the audience comprised lawyers, not economists, Inoyo said any discussion on emerging global economy would require examining issues within perspectives. He made direct references to the major developed economies of the world, notably Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom, and the United States, who, in 1975 (joined by Canada in 1976) announced the formation of “an intergovernmental economic organization called G7.” He noted that the stability of the economies of these countries resulted in the “growth in other emerging jurisdictions.”
Mentioning the “emerging jurisdictions” to include the birth of new markets like Brazil, Russia, India, and China, Inoyo said these countries now account for roughly 30% of production globally. Then he stated, “I am sure we know where China sits today, clearly on top of the ladder! Other emerging markets include Mexico, South Korea, Colombia, Indonesia, Egypt, Turkey, and South Africa.”
But was Goldman Sachs right in 2005 when he identified the next group of countries to watch, to include Nigeria? With the present state of things, can Nigeria be part of what he called “The Next Eleven or N-11?” Other countries mentioned include Bangladesh, Egypt, Indonesia, Iran, Mexico, Pakistan, Philippines, Turkey, South Korea, and Vietnam. The audience listened in silence as Inoyo reminded them that, “as of 2015, Nigeria was assessed as one of the fastest-growing economies by real GDP of 7.3% (Vietnam: 5.6%, Indonesia: 5.5%, Bangladesh: 6.4%, Philippines: 6.3%). I am sure you know our current situation, including the rather interesting news that we have come out of another recession.”
He said something that tickled many minds. He was addressing the policy makers and those entrusted with their implementation, “No amount of pontificating will offer you an opportunity in that space unless you deliberately alter the current trajectory. You must be determined to alter your disposition towards things. You must see the opportunities and embrace them.”
Sensing that engaging in a dialogue on an emerging global economy may seem like a little stretch given the current economic realities, he said, “This is not the time to be despondent. Rather… This is an opportune time to think out-of-the-box, and I am happy that some people are already doing so, even here in Uyo. So, let us collectively agree on three things this morning: Imagination, Vision, Drive.” Then he used the transformation of Dubai in the United Arab Emirates as an example of a vision-made-real.
Inoyo’s presentation was deep and impactful. It called for a more purposeful leadership along the global thought pattern which is technology-driven. “Make no mistake,” he told the audience, “the economy of the 21st Century has already been defined, largely by technological advancement; and only those who adapt quickly to this reality will have a place on the table. This is even more, given the adjustments following the Covid-19 pandemic. Many sectors are already experiencing disruptions on account of new technology.”
Mentioned as examples are, the oil and gas sector, which he said “is now impacted by big data and analytics, the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) and edge computing, cloud computing, AI and machine learning, robotics and drones, 5G networks, and collaboration tools. This, therefore, means that in a country like Nigeria, with a huge population, largely youth, but with limited technological advancement, we must buckle up. We need to adjust to the new global trends across all sectors, failing which we would be left behind.”
While I intend to continue this discussion another day, it is worth ending this first part with the words of Alvin Toffler, an American businessman, as quoted by Inoyo, regarding the need for Nigeria and professionals to embrace the digital age. According to Toffler, ”the illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.”
Let’s take that further. The poor countries of the 21st century will not be those who lack abundant natural resources, but those who have visionless, dumb and deaf leaders from the local to the national level; leaders who have refused to learn from the past, improve on the present, then dream and plan for a better future.
Akpe writes from Abuja.