In 2008 alone, the country lost $20.7 billion in oil profits due to militant violence in the oil-rich but volatile Niger Delta region1. A Presidential Technical Committee report to the Nigerian government attributed the fiscal loss to armed militant activity on oil installations that resulted in shutdowns and spillages. The conflict has significantly hamstrung oil exports – the country’s prime revenue earner – from 2.6 million barrels in 2006 to a current figure of just 1.78 million barrels. The human component of this economic tragedy is even more appalling: at least 1,000 lives lost and an additional 300, including 44 foreign oil workers and businessmen, taken hostage.
The Nigerian government considers four of the nine states in the delta region as conflict zones, and foreigner travel to these locations is strictly restricted. The 70,000 square km area, a mainstay of the country’s economy, accounts for 85% of state revenue2. Armed insurgency in the region traces its roots to a perceived sense of neglect by both oil companies and the national government, a sentiment that is corroborated by empirical evidence. Despite its strategic and economic significance, human development indices for the Niger Delta region are starkly behind national averages. Further, the pollution resulting from oil and gas prospecting have decimated indigenous sources of livelihood like fishing, and brought home disease, malnutrition and high fatality rates, besides serious environmental repercussions.
The localize symptoms in Niger Delta are however only part of the problem. Poverty remains endemic despite the billions flowing into the national coffers. Successive government policies in the last century failed to include the wide majority of Nigerians; 76 million of whom are officially classified below the poverty line, while an astounding 35% of the population continues to live in abject poverty3.
Poverty however exacts an inevitable social toll, and for an impoverished people, crime is often an easy step from deprivation. Although reliable independent data is hard to come by, Nigeria has a massive unemployment rate that adds thousands of new graduates to its list of jobless each year. The country’s prominent ‘This Day’ newspaper reports in a September 2007 story that Nigerian youths constitute half the population, 95% of which is unemployed4. By the government’s own admission, over 70% of the population was unemployed that year. The figure has since been slashed to just below 29% to coincide with recent independent World Bank findings. Even at this rate however, over 40 million Nigerians are currently jobless. Significantly, policy changes effected after 1999 have done little to assuage the situation, largely because of a misplaced focus on capital-intensive ventures that generated few employment opportunities. The situation was made worse by acute infrastructural shortages, forcing hundreds of factories and informal sector industries to lay-off workers.
Consequently, youth crime has steadily been on the rise, fed by decades of under-investment in the social sector, together with deficient poverty-alleviation and ineffective unemployment-reduction initiatives. Over the years, billions in annual oil revenue pouring in to the country hiked the bar of its economic and social aspirations, resulting in a climate of criminal proclivity.
For a nation with millions of jobless youths, the gross outcome has been a surge in violent crime by individuals and gangs, including frequent muggings, assault, burglary, carjacking, extortion and kidnapping. Fraud is an especially huge criminal sub-sector here. In fact the US State Department specifically warns Nigeria-bound travellers to be wary of innovative scams hatched over the Internet that pose the risk of both financial loss and personal danger.
Over many years of political and social turmoil, the accumulation of small crimes has transformed Nigeria into an established transit point on drug routes headed for European and North America. Due to its strategic location, the country has also emerged as a centre of massive economic corruption and criminal activity. Since 1999 however, a climate of renewed collaboration with international law-enforcement agencies has resulted in substantial crackdowns on syndicated criminal activities across the country. A notable achievement in this regard has been a national initiative against drug money laundering, which resulted in Nigeria’s removal from the Financial Action Task Force’s list of non-cooperative countries in 2006. However, the country’s commitment to fighting economic crimes continues to be monitored.
The mix of poverty, inflation and unemployment in Nigeria has created a situation where opportunities for gainful employment are scarce, and criminality is often a means for survival. The same holds true for large parts of sub-Saharan Africa where legitimate opportunities are shrinking. Across Nigeria, the highest incidence is of property crimes, relating to survival – burglary, armed robbery, cheating etc. Inherent flaws in the criminal justice system only add to the problem. Tackling law and order is especially difficult due to the existence of a triple criminal justice system, which includes a Criminal Code, a Penal Code (based on Islamic edicts) and Customary Law, some of which are informal and unwritten.
Youth crime is currently one of the biggest hurdles on Nigeria’s road to accelerated economic development. One of the government’s core priorities, in the context of long-term developmental goals, remains the mobilization of its substantial youth population to lead an enterprise revolution. Nigeria’s emerging leadership has in principle at least awakened to the urgency of implementing fundamental initiatives concerning the creation of new jobs for sustainable and inclusive growth. For Nigeria, entrepreneurship development is a social as well as an economic imperative. The following aspects require critical consideration as part of any concerted government effort in this regard:
* In the contest of Nigeria’s troubled past, maintaining political stability and authority of democratic institutions are critical to the success of any worthwhile youth revival initiative.
* Improvement in per capita income, standard of living and related human development indices through implementation of informed social and economic policy changes.
* Effective poverty alleviation programs that focus on enterprise development as a viable means to legitimate prosperity. Mobilization of the youth workforce to promote rapid entrepreneurial development in rural and urban areas alike.
* Massive overhaul of the education system to correctly address local realities. Focus on vocational and skill development programs that translate to practical job opportunities.
* Rehabilitation programs for Niger Delta militants and other criminal elements that focus on equipping them with practical skills and leveraging their economic potential.
For a country beset by a bewildering array of problems, piece-meal measures can hardly be effective in the long run. Hopefully, Nigeria has at least started taking positive steps.
In June this year, the government of President UM Yar’Adua announced a declaration of amnesty for militants in the Niger Delta region. The proclamation acknowledges that militancy arose out of the state’s inability to meet the aspirations of the local population, and the need for sustainable development in the Delta states. It goes on to add that most of the militant are “able-bodied youths whose energies could be harnessed for the development of the Niger Delta and the nation at large5.”
As is the case with most seemingly intractable problems, the problem of Nigeria’s youth crime also contains its solution!