ON December 30, 2015, as I stayed glued to my television watching the Presidential Media Chat of my country’s President – Muhammadu Buhari – he made mention of a very vital issue concerning his government’s plan to boost entrepreneurship especially among university graduates who in his words “should not always look to settle for white collar jobs or work in the civil service.”
To be fair, President Buhari’s predecessor (Goodluck Jonathan) tried a similar initiative known as YOUWIN, a competitive business grant where the best entrepreneurial ideas could win its bearer between five and ten million naira. While the program was well-designed, it soon became in many ways a conduit pipe for corruption and in effect, another white elephant project.
It is too early to tell if President Buhari’s new entrepreneurship framework would follow such equally futile track, but these two attempts at addressing youth and graduate unemployment underplays, if not totally ignores the importance of trying to re-adjust the mind-set of the target demographics.
Despite trying to create avenues to boost youth entrepreneurship and reduce unemployment, nobody has bothered to educate young Nigerians that the classroom-to-cubicle model of upward social mobility is an obsolete idea that no longer necessarily holds true. Education is still of extreme importance, but gainful employment following graduation is no longer a guarantee, and worse is the idea of predicating education to such ends.
Poor parents borrow money, sell lands and belongings to sponsor a child in the university with the consolation that there is a job in the banking hall, civil service, companies etc. waiting for them upon graduation. All these sacrifices are made to see that the child and indeed the family could move from the bottom of the food chain up the economic ladder.
And so, young people go through school with this unfortunate mind-set. When they are out in the real world, they see an entirely disconcerting reality, one they are often scarcely prepared for. Majority of teenagers heading into school are not aware that the world has moved on, and that university is there to equip you not necessarily with the technical abilities to become a professional but to be able to have the level of awareness, creativity and drive required to spot opportunities, create enduring relationships, develop interpersonal rapport that comes in handy irrespective of whatever endeavour one chooses to indulge in the wake of university life.
I feel that the government would never do enough in its push to grow youth entrepreneurship until it begins to invest in massive awareness campaign to alter the classroom-to-cubicle mind-set. This thinking is very germane because on the one hand it fosters in the youths a sense of entitlement just for making it though school. And on the other hand, it hinders them from understanding that one has to bear a personal responsibility for how navigating economic life post- graduation.
When I speak to students or young people, I try to do so from a personal perspective. I tell them that despite graduating with first class honours, the best student of the IR department in a Cyprus university and pursuing my M.Sc programme in the prestigious Aberwytyth Interpol Department, I could not secure any employment after two years of returning to Nigeria and finishing my National Youth Service Corps scheme. Note the idea of employment I invoke here is the white collar, wage earner employment, without which nothing else could be accorded respect in Nigeria.
Yet, I tell them that during this time, I discovered various sources of earning a living as a personal consultant and freelance writer and researcher. I attended workshops of NGOs, made contacts with like minds, and those with shared interests. Soon enough, some of them began to contact me to do some research jobs for them. I was not able to become their staff member but my engagements with them allowed me to lead a decent economic life, while remaining confident of making myself useful in an extremely competitive global job market should the need arise.
It would be fallacious to deny those times that I felt the world owed me a job, or that studying so hard to earn a high honours degree was an instant gate-pass to a boardroom where multimillion dollar contracts were being discussed. But the awareness and exposure I had gathered in my university life helped to temper this mind-set and helped me respond to the job challenge with a calm disposition and focus.
Today, as someone who teaches in one of Nigeria’s federal universities, I understand that zeal, hard work or knowledge is not what is lacking in young people. My class begins by 4pm and ends by 6pm. I marvel at the enthusiasm shown by these students, not minding the fact that most of them began the first lecture of the day at 7am or 8am. Yet this strenuous learning condition does not defy their enthusiasm.
Clearly, this is a generation that puts a high premium on university education, even if one may accuse them of holding onto an obsolete idea of social mobility through education. Just like in other parts of the world, young Nigerians need to be told that the school is meant to empower – and not necessarily to prepare one to sit behind a corporate desk. The ignorance of this idea, it must be said, prevents many youths from being inventive.
What is absent is a massive re-orientation campaign to take young people like me out of our classroom-to-cubicle illusion. They should realise that such world no longer exists, and that getting an education to simply develop a technical skill is not a rounded way of thinking about education, and that such mind-set does not prepare one enough for life outside the university walls.
Finally, I would want to reflect on an academic workshop I convened on November 7, 2015 in Abia State, and was attended by 22 students of Michael Okpara University of Agriculture Umudike. It was a project funded by a pan-Igbo group (Igbo Awareness for Development Initiative) to engage selected university students of Igbo origin. The topic of the workshop, which I carefully chose aimed to interrogate why young people in the South East of Nigeria leave the region for Lagos, Abuja, Kano, Benin or wherever they consider to have a far more rewarding economic life.
Why was it, I asked them, that any time an Igbo young person gathers some little money, his next move is to set out for greener pastures outside the South East region? In the discussions that ensured, most of them reiterated the old excuse of seeking economic survival, others felt the infrastructures were too comatose to support economic life, and few more others thought they just couldn’t get any decent paying jobs.
What I found interesting was that although many of them acknowledged the difficulty in resettling somewhere else in the country, and the often long period one has to wait for these jobs in supposed greener pastures, they never thought these hassles were enough to justify sitting back and create an opportunity for themselves back home.
They desperately, it seemed, need to be wage earners. It was a need so total or embracing that the thought of entrepreneurship stood no chance. But how many of Nigeria’s millions of unemployed youths can the civil service, the banks, insurance companies, oil corporations employ? How about we teaching these students, from their very first day within the university walls, that they are in school to develop their minds and acquire all the skills to be business owners and job creators too.
• Okorie teaches Peace and Conflict Studies at Michael Okpara University of Agriulture Umudike, Nigeria (firstname.lastname@example.org,twitter.com/Mitterism).