• Sunday, April 21, 2024
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Buhari’s weakness exposed as youth unemployment dominates election – FT


Yau Umar said he had barely managed to earn $3 on a recent weekday at his open-air barbershop, which operates under a sheet of tin hanging off a half-built building in Kano.

A few years ago, he lamented, he had made five or more times that amount in a day. The barber pinned the blame for the plunge in his income on President Muhammadu Buhari, who he said was guilty of mismanagement that had sapped people’s earnings and turned even a haircut into a luxury.

“Buhari promised us, but he couldn’t do it — that’s why we can’t vote for him,” said Mr Umar, 26. Mr Buhari is seeking re-election on February 16 in Africa’s most populous nation and his record on jobs is one of his greatest vulnerabilities.

Running against him is former vice-president Atiku Abubakar, a wealthy businessman whose pointed campaign slogan is “Let’s Get Nigeria Working Again”. Mr Umar said he knew few people with steady employment in Kano, a city of 4m that is the commercial centre of the north — and a microcosm of a national problem.

Since Mr Buhari took office in 2015 the unemployment rate in Africa’s largest economy has soared, rising from 8.2 per cent to 23.1 per cent in the third quarter of 2018, according to the most recent data. Another fifth of the working-age population are underemployed. For young people aged 15 to 35, who make up more than half of registered voters, the figures are even worse: 55.4 per cent are unemployed or underemployed.

Abdulmalik Kabir, a 32-year-old market trader who had just finished a shave in the barber shop, said: “I voted for Buhari in 2015 and we were expecting him to do the right thing for Nigerians, but now we know . . . he is ruining Nigeria.” At a business forum in Lagos last month, Mr Abubakar warned that jobless youths were “like a time bomb”.

“We must create jobs — if not, we will get mobbed one day by the unemployed youths,” he said. Both he and Mr Buhari have announced plans for tackling the problem, with a shared focus on promoting apprenticeship programmes, vocational training and entrepreneurship. But Nonso Obikili, director at the Abuja-based Turgot Centre for Economics and Policy Research, said that neither candidate’s plan tackled “the systematic problems behind unemployment”.

One jobs training programme touted by Mr Buhari, named Npower, had provided training to only “a very small minority of youth”, said Mr Obikili. Mr Abubakar’s policies, meanwhile, regurgitate “the regular youth empowerment schemes that have not really had any impact over the years”.

Andrew S Nevin, chief economist for PwC in Nigeria, said that with the working age population of Nigeria growing at roughly 3 per cent per year, the country’s economy would need to expand at 6-8 per cent annually to reduce youth unemployment. In each of the past two years GDP growth has been only about 2 per cent.

“While these issues are being discussed in the election, the issue is whether the winner will take on reforming these difficult structural policies,” said Mr Nevin. Other solutions proposed by the presidential candidates included boosting Nigeria’s credentials as an investment destination and decentralising growth beyond the dominant commercial centre of Lagos.

But as is often the case in Nigeria, implementation remains key. There was no consensus at the barbershop. Sani Mukhtar, who sells mobile phone topup cards from the open-air shop, said the president was doing a good job. Yau Umar says he knows few people with steady employment in the Nigerian city of Kano The economy had slowed, Mr Mukhtar said, because Mr Buhari had slowed the flow of corrupt money that had flooded the economy during the administration of his predecessor.

That, combined with a recession brought on by the oil-price crash, had ground things to a halt. But the pain was worth it in order to stamp out corruption. “Buhari is a gentleman — Buhari is not a thief,” Mr Mukhtar, 44, said. “He’s done a good job on defence, on roads construction, on electricity and power.”

The administration has touted its achievements in all three areas — particularly infrastructure spending it said had dwarfed its predecessors — though a resurgent Boko Haram still threatens the country’s north-east. Even university graduates are finding it difficult to find good work. Badamasi Aliyi, 35, said many of his educated peers had found themselves repairing mobile phones or doing menial labour — or nothing.

Three years ago that realisation prompted him to co-found Startup Kano, an incubator intended to help small businesses get off the ground. “One of the reasons Startup Kano came into being was to show that entrepreneurship is a solution.” He said he did not blame Mr Buhari for the spike in unemployment and pointed to small business empowerment programmes the administration had developed.

Like many supporters, he also argued that the anti-corruption measures Mr Buhari had implemented would eventually save the country billions of dollars, even if for now they took some steam out of the economy. Back at the barbershop, Mr Umar argued with his friend, Mr Mukhtar, over who was to blame — Mr Buhari, whose four years had seen sluggish growth, or Mr Abubakar, whose party ruled the country for the 16 previous years.

Sani Musa, 32, a textile tradesman who said he would vote for Mr Abubakar, offered another common Nigerian refrain: maybe both were to blame. “It’s all the same,” he said.

By Neil Munshi — Kano