One of the more dramatic questions to be asked of the coming decades is how states will respond to population changes – their decline in some countries and their growth in others. One of the significant nations, I think, will be Nigeria. Nigeria has seen its population more than double since 1990, and almost half of its people are no older than fifteen. In the next twenty years, it is predicted to rise again by more than 62%, making it the fifth most populous country in the world, with a population far younger than those of other large states.
All is not hopeless in the Giant of Africa. It has a growing economy: rich enough, indeed, compared with more unfortunate neighbours, that it attracts almost as many migrants as it sees off to other nations. Its government has worked hard, it seems, to root out corruption, and has received acclaim for its steady progress on the matter.
The trouble is that its progress has to be more than steady. The needs of its millions of newcomers have to be met, and the conditions of its youth provide cause for concern. Its poverty rate is high, and has been creeping upwards. Further education is a rare opportunity. Worst of all, perhaps, job creation has fallen behind the pace at which youths are maturing. Unemployment and underemployment is thought to have doubled in the past six years.
Nigeria’s former president, Olesegun Obasanjo, has warned the government to tackle youth unemployment. Professor Festus Iyayi, a Nigerian intellectual, has hit upon a reason why this should matter to them…
High levels of youth unemployment can become a significant factor in shaping orientations about the legitimacy of the state: it can feature in evaluations of regime failure and decisions of regime change. In effect, high levels of youth unemployment pose dangers for the stability of the extant social order.
Indeed. And if you were a young Nigerian, angered by joblessness and deprivation, who might seem to be an alternative to the state? For some, it is could well be a group like Boko Haram: the bloodthirsty separatists who took a break from massacre people in churches and schools last week to slaughter people in a mosque. Fourty four worshippers were slain, while twelve civilians were killed in a nearby village.
The Nigerian government claims to be winning the fight against Boko Haram, and to have killed its second-in-command, but even if the struggle with this organisation is won, it may have set an obnoxious example to African militants. The Islamic supremacists of Ansaru, an offshoot of Boko Haram, have spent the last two years kidnapping people in states west of its stomping grounds.
Quite apart from the threat of radical ideologues, there is the problem of organised crime. The government has bought peace with some of the worst oil thieves, but it continues at daunting levels and is claimed to have enriched a thriving class of mobsters that, in their ruthlessness and sense of self-preservation, seem to ape the behaviour of their distant Italian cousins.
It is a cliche of Western perceptions of the third world, formed out of a thousand earnest charity appeals, that its inhabitants are the passive victims of deprivation. This obscures not only its working and middle classes but the fact that many people do not hang around waiting for jobs, money or death but turn to darker sources of income – and identity.
When the majority of a population are youths, and if they find it hard to gain employment or acquire resources, they might well ask themselves why they are obeying the whims of old, incompetent, often corrupt officials. This might inspire some of them to become budding politicians and entrepreneurs. Others, though, are liable to become extremely angry, and receptive to the ideas of forces of anger in their countries, and extremely desperate, and open to providing for themselves and their loved ones by all available means, regardless of their legal or, indeed, moral nature.
What matters is working with them before such thoughts arise, rather than struggling with them afterwards. A group of jobless men protested against President Goodluck as he worked towards disbanding Boko Haram, saying that he ignored his people until they committed violence. “We believe that the government listens more to those who cause mayhem than those who seek peace and dialogue,” said a protestor, “But the government should note that there is a limit to which a group that has been pummelled by poverty and hunger can go in exercising patience”. Only listen to criminals, in other words, and previously law-abiding citizens might choose to act in such a manner as to make sure they are heard.
It seems probable to me that coming decades will feature a lot of angry young men; stewing and, sometimes, boiling over in countries marked by rising and declining populations. In the former, young people may be frustrated by the difficulties of supporting themselves. Amid the ageing populations of Eastern Europe, East Asia and the Middle East, meanwhile, young people may be vexed by having to support an awful lot of other, older people. They must be involved with and invested in their societies, or many could choose to disregard them altogether.