This admission by a captain of Nigerian industry confirms the essential suspicion about the quality of education in Africa’s second largest economy. Tangentially, it gestures towards the problems of massive unemployment, brain-drain and manpower shortages that continue to cripple domestic efforts to achieve rapidly sustainable growth. For qualified youths looking for a job, it also explains the prolonged and intensive pre-recruitment tests that Nigerian corporate houses insist on before hiring local talent.
Western education first came to Nigeria with missionaries in the middle of the 19th Century, who set up the country’s first schools. By the time Nigerians declared independence from colonial rule in 1960, there were three distinct education systems in operation: indigenous community training and apprenticeship in rural areas, schools of Islamic learning and finally formal education provided by European-influenced institutions. Although pressure on the formal education system remained intense in the years following, the collapse of global oil prices in the early ’80s forced huge reductions in government spending on education. The outcome was a gradual degradation at all levels of learning, from primary schools to universities, and a corresponding fall in literacy and employment rates. According to a 2005 report, the overall literacy rate had fallen from almost 72% in 1991 to 64% at the end of the last century2. More disturbing facts were put forward by the Employment and Growth Study launched by the Nigerian government and the World Bank’s International Development Agency in 2008. According to this study, unemployment levels remained unfazed between 1999 and 2006 despite a 7% growth of the non-oil economy in the same period3. Moreover, while job opportunities grew corresponding with the labour force, youth unemployment actually showed substantial increase. The report notes accordingly that “Nigeria’s growth performance has not responded to the employment aspirations of its population as a whole”. Despite considerable initiatives in the fields of education and employment generation, one out of five Nigerian adults continues to be unemployed according to some estimates, and only every tenth university graduate ever manages to get a job.
The findings are revelatory in the context of Abuja’s frantic efforts to prioritise educational restructuring as a tool for economic competitiveness. It is also a sad commentary on the efficacy of well-intended but probably token policy initiatives – like the compulsory entrepreneurship training programme for all college graduates ordered by former president O Obsanjo.
While the relative merits of such measures can be debated endlessly, the focus on enterprise is hardly in question. Emerging out of a turbulent economic and political history at the beginning of the new millennium, the civilian leadership in Nigeria was grasped with the formidable challenge of reversing decades of economic stagnation and negative growth trends. Abuja’s answer to accelerated development was vigorous enterprise promotion in the SME space. The government simultaneously embarked on an enthusiastic reforms programme aimed at correcting basic macroeconomic imbalances, eradicating poverty and raising average living standards. To further consolidate national ambitions, it signed the UN Millennial Declaration of 2000 for universal human rights and formally adopted targets to establish Nigeria as one of the top 20 world economies by 2020. With its abundance of natural and human resources, Nigeria is primed to drive an enterprise revolution that will deliver explosive growth and sufficiently diversify the economy beyond its traditional obsession with oil and gas. Education is critical to this scheme of things because of its direct link to productivity, and because the extent of Nigeria’s economic growth is fundamentally dependent on the skills of its workforce.