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Youth and governance: Is revolution the only outcome?

Onno Ruhl's picture

A few weeks ago, I delivered the convocation lecture at the Federal University for Technology in Owerri on the theme,“Nigeria’s youth: Turning challenge into opportunity”. While preparing for the lecture, I pulled up some numbers. Some of them really startled me.

Nigeria has 100 million people under 30, the rough equivalent of the populations of Egypt, Tunisia and Libya combined. It has 75 million people under 20.  In the 15-24 year age bracket, unemployment is estimated to be 46%, and most shockingly,  every year, about 1 million aspiring students pass Nigeria’s Joint Admission Board’s entrance exam, but only 200,000 of them actually gain admission that same year. This means that each year the equivalent of the population of greater Amsterdam, my home town, qualifies for university but does not get in.

When I cited these numbers during the lecture, the audience gasped in horror. The comparison to Egypt, Tunisia and Libya was found especially shocking. It conveyed a sense that revolution might be inevitable. But is Nigeria not a democracy? How can one have a revolution against democracy?

I cited these numbers to show how immensely large the challenge of Nigeria’s demography is. Revolution or not, if the problems underlying these numbers remain unaddressed, there are likely to be strong tensions in the future. Given the increased openness provided by the internet and social media, these tensions will not remain unexpressed.  So what does that mean for a democracy like Nigeria?  I have a few thoughts:

  1. It will be key to convince the young people of Nigeria that democracy is real. Credible elections will be required not to please the international community, but to convince Nigerians that democracy can work for them.
  2. Those who will win office will have to work extremely hard to address the problems that cause youth unemployment. They are unlikely to receive the benefit of the doubt: Nigeria’s youth need results now. Democracy must deliver for them!
  3. No Government in the world could employ the number of youth waiting for a job in Nigeria. Nigeria will need ambitious private sector led growth and to focus every policy on making it easy for the private sector to create jobs. This would be a big shift for most policymakers.


If the winners in April’s elections take this to heart, they will work to have education easily accessible and deliver the skills the market needs. They will invest in infrastructure to help industries become competitive, tell civil servants to make rules easy for businesses to create jobs, and manage Nigeria’s oil wealth to maximize growth and competiveness. If they do all of this and are open and explicit about their objectives and results, the young people of Nigeria may be convinced that democracy is giving them a better deal than any alternative. 

This is what a democracy is designed to do. It would bring accountability. For a young democracy like Nigeria that would be… a revolution.


Submitted by Tunji on
I agree with Onno. This is a revolution in waiting. We must look in the direction of the youth as we put together our future development agenda.

Submitted by toochukwu onuchukwu on
what the average Nigerian cries for is and will always remain CHANGE.we anticipate a lot from our leaders for they contribute immensely to the formation of incompetent they are will always tell on their output.I go with what Mr. Onno Ruhl said about revolution...that could be our last resort.

Submitted by Onno Ruhl on
Thank you for your comment. My own suggestion would be to try revolution through accountability. In some states in Nigeria, improvements are already very visible and leaders are more and more responsive to the needs of the people. If this can be replicated at Federal level, a lot can be achieved quickly. Don't anticipate change, ask for it!

Submitted by Bonaventure Fandohan on
I think you just identified what should be Nigeria future president’s primary focus. The clock is ticking and wasting time can be detrimental to this country and the region. Anyway, it will be difficult for political leaders in Nigeria to continue the cronyism. The revolution is just around the corner from this giant oil and gas producer of West Africa. Whatever you call it; change can no longer pass by this wonderful country. Thank you for bringing up the early warning sign. The rest is up to Nigeria’s leading class.

Submitted by Emmanuel Ogharu on
Thanks Onno, We Nigerias believe that our young people are realizing that revolution, crises, destruction of property are setting us backwards in terms of developmental gains. It is evident that the process of bringing leaders this April 2011 pool has eliminated mediocre and we look forward to dividends of democracy at all levels.

Submitted by Abdulrahman Abdu on
Sir i was highly moved by your political analysis related to youth and democracy in nigeria. yet let me called the mind of my fellow nigerian youth to re-think and anayse ONNU statement if i quote him rightly "It will be key to convince the young people of Nigeria that democracy is real. Credible elections will be required not to please the international community, but to convince Nigerians that democracy can work for them." you said let nigerian youth understand real democracy, yes accepted and correct, but for us to persuade a self convinving democracy even if is not accepted or pleased the international community, sir this not in new world order of liberal democracy rather pushing the legs of nigerian youth to use democracy to pursude their will by any means and at last the international community where you currently belong to continue to use the same and deep us into more deepening crisis and economic bondage. while the words are unifying, encouraging for sustainable democracy in our mother land.

Submitted by John Y. on
I agree with the article completely. It an excellent demonstrationof the Strength of Statistics. However, as startling as the numbers are, what is even more startling is the fact that this is happening in the "Midst of Plenty", in a country abundantly endowed with natural resources, where a little effort will make a lot of difference.

Submitted by Bencien on
The only thing that can save Nigeria is self-employment. But how do you go for self-employment when there is no electric or solar light to operate whatever equipment you have? When the roads are in bad shape! When there is no portable water! Nigerian youths are able-bodied, energetic and creative. But how can they utilize their potentials when the environment is not conducive? So the only solution is GOOD GOVERNANCE, not opulence as being exhibited by our bourgeoise. Unless this trend is curbed, there wouldn't be an alternative to a REVOLUTION - which will surely come in the nearest future.

Submitted by Lawal Gada on
This statistic is very alarming to any sensible person not only a Nigerian but any national. What then need to be done? State of Emergency on Education, unemployment and secuty. I hope that the proposed 9 new federal universities should be a reality not just a political promise.

ONNO, you have given us a very startling revelation, but the solution id far fetched. Systemic evaluation of progress development is vital to sustainability and redirection on any development issues. As a local development Practitioner in Nigeria, bringing what works in other developed countries or bringing international evaluator to assist in the area of development in Africa countries has been a mirrage except that the World bank and other developmental organizations are not realy sincere in the bringing of AIDSto developing nations. We have identified lapses in the education sector which has been for a long time and nothing critical (sustainable) has been done by the policy makers and the development organization. If what ONNO has said is realy good to go by, then it is important that every policy analyst and planning officers in this country Nigeria must go through a re-orientation to know how to get the future Nigerian job to avert this in coming crises which will affect our un born generation. One important issue which struck my mind is on the Sustainable SME operation in Nigeria, as most business owner die and leave their wealth of experience and many employee jobless after their demise. On the role of development practitioners, more should be trained to have systemic approache to project development in African countries which is sustainable and long lasting My advise to NIGERIAN Micheal ALE President Association of Project Development Practitioners APRODEP

Submitted by Onno Ruhl on
I agree with you that SMEs are extremely important for solving the unemployment problem. Most jobs in most countries are created by small enterprises, Nigeria has excellent potential for this! The key will be for Government to make it easy for SMEs to succeed....

ONNO, Thanks for your intelligent and prompt respose, i have not meet you one on one in Nigeria but i have noticed most of your institutions activities in Nigeria which is a welcome idea. i have read of Nancy Birdsall of CGD on the idea of CASH ON DELIVERY which i think will assist the governments in developing countries and the development partners (billateral and multilateral agencies) in the execution of their programmes and projects alike. World Bank through IDA has been supportive to programmes and pojects in developing countries and i think it is important that most of these issues are discusses with the partnering agencies as they are identified. Good to know that impact evaluations are carried out both before and after projects are executed, but, their should be a paradigm shift on the way projects are executed by the development partners, although support goes to countries on governance, corruption and institutional reform, but much emphacies should be place on the aspect of SMEs sustainability in Nigeria and other african countries. Watching through the current dispensation in the developing demoncracy in Nigeria, how are people settled and identified as SMEs operators, where tricycles, machines (OKADA) grindoing machines and cutlass with hoes are distributed to the so called SMEs free of charge without a due follow up on the need to scale up their activities. What is necessary in the need for the policy makers to realy understand what development activities are, and the need to execute them systematically, which will have an effect on the countries. ONNO, i am sure you have travelled to Lagos in Nigeria so many times and must have been to other states of the country too, which is working base on evaluation by the people but compare to other developed cities like cairo and dubai, it is far fetched from the aerial view of the whole city. We can organise and collaborate with your institution on the idea we have developed with the assistance of the members of our organization from the academia, to organise National Development Forum slated for October this year, an avenue where all development practitioners and policy makers alike are trained on the need to embark on developing projects especially the executives (Governors) through the Governors forum.

Submitted by Agbin on
Great Job Onno - startling revelation. It can either get better from now or get even worse. I believe there is hope. Someone needs to stand up for all these youth, and its the voice of all of us, right now. Nigeria needs a human revolution - when all Nigerians change their hearts and minds towards caring for each other, government policies geared towards the greater good of all - more schools, social services,etc. Nigeria's oil wealth can stretch more and better than what it is now if people in the helm of things care more about the YOUTH, the future, and stop being selfish, greedy and narrow-minded

Submitted by Nentawe Gomiyar on
I just got across this piece yesterday while doing some search online. It is very interesting, revealing and shocking, but you have succeeded in giving the right recipe for growth and development in Nigeria. But with a system that is faulty, I doubt if it can work. The system that runs governance in Nigeria - Civil service is in a comatose State. How can government policies be translated into results with the kind of civil service we have. One other issue is building the capacity of young people to be active citizens through participation, so they can put government at all levels into account. If the youths have a strong voice government will respond adequately. My friend, Zainab Sandah once commented - “The problem with our politicians is not their age, but the age of their ideas” governance should have strong elements of innovation to deal with the very big problem that confront the country. Capacity building for young people to make government accountable is key.

Submitted by Emeka on
Perhaps, the youths of Imo State 'digested very well' the contents of Onno Ruhl's Lecture at FUTO in March 2011 and displayed examplary courage against their incumbent Gov. whose popularity had sank beneath the south pole! The Youths worked against all odds as booth armies, vigilantes, community mobilizers etc to drive home their point. Even the appointment of one of theirs (Prof Viola Onwuliri) as Deputy Gov. candidate to the incumbent Gov. did little to convince them. The unprecedented celebration that followed the announcement of the results and the stripping of the Govs. campaign bill boards within the state was a testimony to the expression of bottled up feelings of disappointment in Governance and failure of leadership in the state for so long. I hope the incoming Government would fulfill the aspirations of these patriotic youths, who rose to the occassion declining the huge monetary inducements meant to buy their concience. Onno, more grease to your elbows, and consider honouring another invitation for another lecture to guide the new regime.

Submitted by kenneth on
All we need as Nigerian Youths is active participation in government and her policy. The youths should be allowed to make decisions and opinions with little advisory role of the old.Some times,our government paint an image and tell the public that it is introduced by the youths. We should be allowed to make and take decisions and get involved from the beginning to the end of implementing such decision. Not looking down on the old but should come in on our own request in an advisory role..

Submitted by Ify ebosie on
Thanks Mr Onno for that fantastic piece. I totally agree with you. I think that the major issue here is that of serious value conflicts and disagreement among the national decision makers, the inability to have specific development goals, low degree of popular participation in development decisions and activities. Nigeria is blessed with resources as a nation but those resources need to be translated into the lives of the people by proper utilization of the resources and good leadership. Our leaders must understand their duty to Nigerians especially our youth to whom the future belongs.

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