Since Nigeria declared its aspiration to be one of the world’s top 20 economies by 2020, I have been doing research on the damaging impact of urban restructuring and economic growth on marginalized urban women in Ibadan, Nigeria.
However, in the past four years, my interest has widened to include the impact of the same issues on Nigerian youth. I have noticed that some youths have become “beneficiaries” of urban restructuring via job creation. Despite this, the city remains a paradoxical space.
While I now see sharply dressed youths rushing off to work, I also see youths engaged in various hustles to meet their daily needs. The latter observation is unsurprising, given that 63 per cent of young people (aged 15-34) are underemployed or unemployed.
Economic growth in Nigeria
There’s been a major focus on strengthening economic growth in Nigeria through neoliberal urban renewal projects like the transformation of urban spaces through real estate development and “cleaning up the city” to attract regional/global investors, which are expected to lead to job creation.
These projects have transformed the cityscape, including an increase in the number of elite consumer spaces and service sector businesses. Nigeria’s efforts to improve its business environment is shown by its increased ranking to 131st in 2019 in the world, from 169th in 2017, on the Doing Business Index.
In June 2021, Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari told youth to “behave” for the country to attract investors. Given that youth unemployment is considered a “ticking timebomb” in Nigeria, it makes sense that Buhari is concerned about job creation.
However, to what extent is Buhari concerned about the livelihoods of youths who are eventually employed as a result of these investor opportunities? It is imperative to focus on the nature and consequences of emerging employment opportunities.
Is entrepreneurialism the answer?
Research on African youth unemployment has increasingly focused on precarity and uncertainties about the future. There has been emphasis on encouraging innovation and transforming youth from job seekers to job creators and employers, thus shifting responsibility for creating employment to the youth themselves.
However, entrepreneurialism has been questioned as a cure-all, as it does not adequately address structural issues and youth aspiration. There is what some scholars have called an “imagination gap” between the employment futures that policy-makers imagine for young people, and those that young people imagine for themselves.
In light of these concerns, increased scholarly attention has been paid to researching the United Nations policy commitment to full and productive employment and decent work for all from a youth-centred perspective. So far there is limited research on young people’s perspectives and experiences of work and visions for change.
Given deliberate efforts to increase stable wage employment, little is known about the extent to which these forms of employment are considered and experienced as “decent” by youth, and the effect of work on their psychosocial well-being.
Nigerian labour laws
On paper, Nigeria has a relatively strong labour act that some have argued favours the employee. But the labour law is murky on the duration of the work day, and the minimum wage is far from being a living wage. Nigerian labour law is also largely silent on issues of workplace harassment.
It is no secret that many employers are often in gross violation of Nigeria labour laws. Employers are rarely sued for violations of the labour act because most people simply can’t afford to take legal action. There are also many government officials who own private businesses, meaning they rarely face penalties.
More so, some youth have told me that there’s very little that they can do because they fear backlash and being blacklisted as an insubordinate worker, thereby risking any future job prospects.
And so, they endure, placated by imaginations about future upward social mobility, no matter how rare they might be. These imaginations help youths develop coping strategies to survive their toxic work environments.
On March 21, 2022, journalist Damilare Dosunmu wrote an exposé about workers’ experiences with alleged tyranny at Bento Africa, a startup company. The article details allegations against the workplace, including employees being forced to work non-stop, verbal abuse, threats of job termination and abrupt termination.
This form of toxic work culture was further corroborated the next day on Twitter using the hashtags #HorribleBosses and #ToxicWorkplaces. Thousands of tweets highlighted stories of emotional and physical abuse and inveighed against appalling working conditions.
On March 23, a well-known Nigerian comedian, Mr. Macaroni, brilliantly captured this trending issue in “Oga and His New Driver.” In this skit, the employer tells his new employee that he doesn’t like lazy people who are paid and yet “run online and … say their employer is toxic.”
The employer also provides a long, ridiculous (and arguably impossible) list of tasks that should be accomplished in one day.
After the employer is finished listing the job expectation and the work hours (3 a.m. to 11 p.m.), the employee hands him a knife and says, “Kuku kill me sir.”
Clearly, youth are not actually asking their employers to kill them in real life, but they are increasingly resisting and expressing that employers are killing them. Will President Buhari have the audacity to tell businesses and employers to “behave” for the sake of youth well-being? Or will he continue to let them be exploited?