Youth unemployment and the coming anarchy in Nigeria and South Africa

In normal democracies, the unemployment rate determines the fate of elected officials. In 2019, Donald Trump was so sure of being re-elected. But a Gross Domestic Product decline of 32 percent in 2020 and an unemployment rate of 6.7 percent (a tripling of the rate from the year before) virtually derailed his chances and he lost the election emphatically to Joe Biden.

Although many other factors may have contributed to his loss, the election results follow the socio-tropic theory of economic voting that supposes “strong effects of macro-economic conditions on the electoral fortunes of incumbents.” Even in an ultra-partisan and ideologically bifurcated polity like the United States, independents and swing voters in swing states still manage to decide the results of elections thereby forcing democratic accountability on leaders.

So, both the South African and Nigerian youths remain on the margins of their societies, incapable of playing any meaningful role in the political, economic, social and cultural processes of the society…

In the same vein, Francois Hollande, the former socialist president of France in 2017 declined to run for re-election after failing to significantly lower France’s stubborn unemployment rate. In 2014, he had staked his entire political future on lowering the unemployment rate. “Do you think I can say to the French people, ‘I didn’t manage it for five years, but I promise I’ll do it in the next Five?’ It doesn’t work like that,” Mr. Hollande told inquisitive journalists in a televised interview in 2014.

“If I don’t manage it (high unemployment rate) before the end of my term, do you think I will go before the French people in 2017? The French people would be unyielding and they would be right”, Hollande concluded.

By 2017, he had only managed to bring the unemployment rate down from 10.3 percent in 2012 to 9.4 percent in 2017. In fact, the rate was 9.8 percent in 2012 when he became president, meaning he only succeeded in reducing it by 0.4 percent in five years. No wonder his popularity dropped to a low of only 12 percent – making his decision not to contest again the only rational one.

Coming down to African countries, however, election results seem to have no bearing on the state of the economy or even the unemployment rate. Take Nigeria for example. When Muhammadu Buhari assumed office in 2015, the unemployment rate was just 7.54 percent. However, in 2019 when Mr Buhari won re-election, it has risen to 27 percent – and it had absolutely no effect on the outcome of the election. The unemployment rate kept rising and it reached 33 percent in December 2020, when the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) stopped publishing the figures altogether.

It happened that the presidency had asked the former Statistician-General of the federation, Yemi Kale, to massage the figures to reflect the administration’s efforts. But he refused. Since his tenure expired in 2021, no unemployment figure has been published. Various reports put the current unemployment rate at slightly below or over 40 percent, with youth unemployment hovering around 60 percent.

The case of South Africa is no different. Since the ascension of the African National Congress (ANC) to power in 1994, the unemployment rate (at 20% in 1994) has been inching higher yearly and now stands at 35.3 percent. Worse is youth unemployment, which, as of January 2022, is at a whopping 66.70 percent.

So, both the South African and Nigerian youths remain on the margins of their societies, incapable of playing any meaningful role in the political, economic, social and cultural processes of the society and becoming what a scholar once describes as the “lost generation”; a disempowered, stunted, and now bitter youth with fewer access to the means of becoming adults and their ‘youth’ at “risk of becoming indefinitely prolonged”.

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Faced with these challenges, both political leaders in South Africa and Nigeria have adopted scapegoatism as a policy to deflect from their failure to deliver. While in Nigeria, the past administrations and political oppositions are to blame, in South Africa, it is foreign nationals. Through a skillful process of projection by the political leadership, black South Africans have now come to see foreign nationals (black Africans) as the reason for their socioeconomic woes including poverty, unemployment, poor service delivery, lack of business space and opportunities, crime, prostitution, drug and alcohol abuse, and even deadly diseases such as HIV/AIDS. This perception is even stronger among the majority of citizens living in poor townships and informal settlements where they meet and fiercely compete with equally poor African immigrants for scarce resources and opportunities.

In Nigeria, youth restiveness takes the form of youth violence and crime. While crimes like armed robbery and kidnapping have become staples in almost all parts of the country, others – youth and adults trapped in the vortex of youthness are appropriating the space of youth as a means of accumulation and self-expression. In Nigeria’s Niger Delta, for instance, where violent insurgency is shaped by the politics of extraction and rent-seeking, remaining a ‘youth’ even when one is above fifty (50) years of age is essential to remaining relevant as violent youth groups have supplanted local or community elders as real sources of power in the oil-producing communities.”

In the north, while Boko Haram and the Islamic State franchises in Nigeria are mainly ideological, they have also not failed to cash in on kidnapping as a means of raising funds to further their insurgency. Currently, state governors in Nigeria’s northwest besieged by bandits and cattle rustlers are busy negotiating and dolling out huge amounts of money to the gangs for some period of peace and quiet as the Nigerian state has failed to arrest the situation.

If we are not to see a fulfillment of Robert Kaplans’ “coming anarchy” as the way of the future for Africa, its leaders must rise up to the occasion and begin to grow their economies and create jobs for their peoples. Scapegoatism can only work for a while, but ultimately, reality will catch up with all of us sooner than we think.