Africa’s youth: a ‘ticking time bomb’ or an opportunity?

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 Brookings Institution considers underemployment a problem serious enough to warrant greater attention, since it masks the reality in countries that post low unemployment rates.

Simply put, underemployment is not a solution to poverty, concurs the International Labour Organisation (ILO), which reports that up to 82% of African workers are “working poor”. According to the ‘African Economic Outlook’, on average, more than 70% of Africa’s youth live on less than US$2 per day, the internationally defined poverty threshold.

Ticking time bomb

“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 Chikwanda, Zambia’s finance minister, puts it succinctly: “Youth unemployment is a ticking time bomb,” which now appears to be perilously close to exploding.

Chikwanda’s analogy draws attention to the consequences of high youth unemployment in a continent where 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 intervene

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 mobilise resources, including from the private sector for youth development. Their plan of action emphasised the need to address both unemployment and underemployment. Two years later, meeting in Equatorial Guinea, they once more promised the “creation of safe, decent and competitive employment opportunities for young people”.

African governments have made some efforts to match words with action. 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; it also introduced a business plan competition, dubbed YouWin, which grants winners start-up financing.