A Future in Traffic Jams By Eddie Iroh

If you have been in a traffic jam in any Nigerian city, or Go Slow as Lagosians call it, you will have seen them. And if you have seen one of them gridlocks you have seen them all. I don’t mean the traffic snarls; I mean the army of young men and women for whom the gridlock provides a market place, a shopping mall, kiosks and goods sheds.

We call them hawkers, but they probably would object to that because it sounds a bit like hookers, which would be infra dignitate, beneath their dignity as hard working people who ply their trade in broad day light and do not derive that much great pleasure in running after motorists and dodging intrepid Okadas and daredevil Kekes.

I have taken time to study their profiles and demography. They are generally in the age bracket of 21-30, the very energy reservoir and potential workforce of many developed economies. Most of them have completed primary education and a significant number have secondary school certificates.

There are of course stark illiterates among them who formed part of the 60 per cent of Nigerians of school age who are not in school and may never be. But even within this demography there is no verifiable proof that given opportunities they are not capable of acquiring some skill or other that can provide them an escape from the humdrum and earn a more decent livelihood. But it is not the motorists and their vehicles alone that are in this gridlock. It is this untapped, un-audited human resource of Nigeria that is locked in a seemingly unending life of monotony and tedium, of movement without motion, with no sign of escape, except perhaps into some eventual unwholesome enterprise, a life of crime like armed robbery, when little else seems viable and profitable.

This untapped, untrained workforce is a veritable recruiting ground for armed robbers, kidnappers, rapists and even Boko Haram, because there is a limit to what you can achieve in life by selling pure water, rat poison, mosquito coils, and peanuts for peanuts as an able-bodied young man or woman. But do we need to watch the future of this youthful and untrained population wasting in traffic jams? Indeed is it just their future or the future of the nation as well? Is this large segment of the nation’s youth population not an integral part of the human capital that Nigeria boasts about as a factor in her claim to greatness?
Of course an untrained worked force is a blunt instrument for achieving national development. But have we stopped to ask why this life in traffic jams exists largely in Nigeria unlike many African countries I have visited?
I believe this situation exists for a number of reasons. But I will examine just two. Nigerian society has the misplaced belief that a university certificate is the ultimate and indispensable requirement for getting on in life. Skills acquisition through vocational training is something we talk about but do not really encourage or truly respect. You may think this is a contradiction in relation to the able-bodied men and women trapped in the gridlock of life and traffic. Are they better off trudging the traffic line? Of course not; but at least they do not have to prove anything to anyone.

More like he that is down needs fear no fall. But if we have a culture that encouraged, recognised and respected the tradesman, the craftsman, the handyman as a service provider and a significant contributor to the economy, then life in the gridlock would not be an easy resort. I remember that there was once a Technical and Trade Centre in Enugu in the early days which produced tradesmen and craftsmen including some really notable visual artists. We replaced it with the Institute of Management and Technology (IMT), and not satisfied we established the Enugu State University of Technology, thus putting skills and vocational training beyond the reach of those who are not suited either academically or psychologically for university education.

The story is repeated all over the land in nearly all spheres of national life. Even our Defence Academy was turned into a degree-awarding institution, unlike the prestigious British Sandhurst Academy which produced some of the most outstanding military officers who served Nigeria before politics corrupted them.  Currently Nigeria has at least three Universities of Agriculture in Abia, Ekiti and Benue. They have produced graduates with degrees in Agriculture. I cannot truly say what universities of agriculture teach, or what kind of graduates they produce, so I don’t know if they produce farmers, or people in shirt and tie who sit in offices pushing files. So perhaps someone can tell me what contributions they make to food production.
Seriously, how many Agriculture graduates do you know who are successful farmers? Which universities trained the great farmers who produce the massive stock of food exported by Zimbabwe, Kenya, New Zealand, United Kingdom and the United States? Maybe you know, or you will tell me that Agriculture is not about farming? Really? Okay then, so why not try apprenticeship which is the training ground for skills acquisition in nearly all areas of the economies of most developed nations that I know? Indeed how come that food production on commercial scale was the mainstay of Nigerian economy when we had neither crude oil nor universities of agriculture?
Let me illustrate my view point.

When I was in government in the time of OBJ, and knowing his avowed passion for farming and food production in which he had considerable success without a single diploma in agriculture, I personally handed him a memo in which I made what I considered a radical proposition. I advocated a fundamental re-think of the National Youth Service Corps (NYSC). First I pointed out that the NYSC had not really been rejuvenated let alone reformed since its founding in 1972. Secondly one of the philosophies that underpinned the scheme, namely integration and unity, had been considerably undermined by both the “Nigerian factor” and the recalcitrant nature of Nigeria’s troubles.

If you are a “big man” and you want your child to serve in one of the “juicy” areas of Lagos, Abuja, Warri or Port Harcourt, instead of the farther or more “arid” states of Nigeria, your wish will be granted. I have practical experience of the effort NYSC candidates make to get the postings of their choice, and if they had the right connection, they almost unfailingly got their choice. Furthermore, our abiding ethnic distrust and tensions have made some parts of the country no-go areas for posting as contemporary events have demonstrated.

Thus NYSC posting had become a bit like the monthly environmental sanitation exercise in Nigeria cities when residents merely took the opportunity for an extra two hours in bed on environmental Saturdays while the environment remained an eyesore. I therefore proposed that the NYSC should be taken out of the graduate cadre and made compulsory for secondary school leavers. Such school leavers should be made to spend one year exclusively on a farm as apprentices working with established farmers. If need be the postings could be limited to the states of origin of these “apprentices” to minimise the perennial logistical and financial problems that have dogged the present system.
Among the benefits, in my view, is that at such an early enough stage, these youngsters would be introduced to the practical skills of farming. And even with their limited skills but as their one year tenure progressed, they could begin to make measurable contribution to the nation’s food basket. They would learn early enough that there could be dignity in a practical endeavour that contributes to food production and national self-sufficiency if not for export.
More importantly I can wager that a significant number of them may well discover that farming is indeed their passion, and that the University of Agriculture was an unnecessary diversion from achieving their real calling. They would not end up with a degree in agriculture and a job as airline stewards. Airlines have their own training school for apprenticeship for secondary school leavers or those without the complete grades for entry into universities.

But in Nigeria nearly every airline steward or stewardess has a degree in anything from political science to veterinary science, doing a job that requires nothing more than cognate vocational training. These are people who had usurped the places suitable for those with academic talent. As a result with some120 universities in the country there is never enough space for entrants. Some youngsters have stubbornly searched for university admission until well into their late twenties, rather than opt for vocational training.

In Igbo land it is a matter of dignity to be called Papa Lawyer or Mama Doctor, even if the lawyer may turn out to be one that cannot win an adjournment in a court, or a doctor who is no better than a quack. Many Nigerian doctors have misdiagnosed potentially terminal illnesses which their foreign peers discovered and cured. Indeed a Nigerian trained doctor has to undergo a further year of re-training to get a job in the UK or USA while those trained in those countries need no reorientation to work in Nigeria.

That says a lot. On the other hand, one of the most talented nurse-midwives I know is a young lady who came to me years ago for a letter of reference to enter the School of Nursing and Midwifery, Abuja. After sounding her out and impressed by her very outstanding mind, I asked her why she would not go the whole hog and study medicine; she had all the makings. She struck me with a response which prompted me to write her a reference without hesitation. She said: “Sir, all my life all I ever wanted to be is a nurse.” I was not surprised later that after nursing and midwifery training, not only did she come out with flying colours, jobs were searching for her.
You can extrapolate this scenario on the rest of the nation’s many challenges where lack of emphasis on suitability and vocation and skills has produced a skewed Nigeria where everyone wants to be a mechanical engineer but not mechanic; electrical engineer but not electrician, and so on. Indeed boys who could be very successful plumbers have chosen available courses for which they are intellectually and emotionally unsuited; they come out with a certificate but no education or skill.
Whereas all they needed was the expertise of a careers adviser to guide them to any skill appropriate to their talent from the many lacking in Nigeria, if only their families and society would not look down on them in their belief that a university certificate, however worthless, is the only route to meaningful engagement. That explains the astonishing number of educated illiterates in the country, and the length people go to acquire certificates from fraudulent and unrecognised institutions in neighbouring countries,  plus the ones shut down a couple of years ago by the National Universities Commission (NUC). And for those of us who may denigrate the handyman, in many countries I know, the handyman is king.

He could earn as much as if not more than a university professor. He merely trained as an apprentice in one or more of the trades he practices. He is generally called an engineer: gas, heating, water, refrigerator, and plumbing, you name it – all these and more come within his portfolio of skills. And if you think he is at your beck and call, forget it. He is fully booked for days, and you have to join the waiting list. Quite interestingly, if you had fixed the problem by doing it yourself [DIY] after you had booked him, you would still have to pay him a call-out charge.

You might say that this only obtains in climes where there is dignity in and respect and reward for manual labour. But that is precisely the kernel of this intervention. You need to consider in this context why Nigerian graduates are quite content to work as taxi drivers, shop assistants, car park attendants and security guards in many Western countries but would not deign to engage in such “demeaning” jobs for “a whole graduate” in their own country. The simple truth is that the comparatively better pay is not the only reason for people to, in effect, lower their dignity to do menial jobs. It is basically because no one habitually looks down on them as mere “labourers” unless they demean themselves by their conduct.
Nigeria suffers considerable loss of human and economic resources by our ambivalent attitude towards skills and vocational training. We talk the talk but do not walk the walk; we do not put our money where our mouth is, while challenge and opportunities await the nation and her idle youths. Consider if there was an apprenticeship scheme for these youngsters to acquire various kinds of skills. Factories, farms and other enterprises can be mandated to provide cognate skills to the ready, willing and able-bodied. If certificates are needed we could do what the Austrians do: even to work as a bicycle repairer, you have to undergo training and be awarded a certificate as proof that you have acquired the necessary skill.

That is a licence to set up on your own or seek employment. In the absence of enough and suitable vocational institutions in Nigeria, apprenticeship is a viable alternative and firms providing this would be given some tax or other concessions by the government as incentive. But even more relevant to the nation’s economy, is the vast number of self-employed youths struggling as carpenters, printers, repairers of a wide range of home and office appliances, on the roadsides of cities, without suitable accommodation, water and electricity supply.

Cottage industrial estates for this workforce, many of who trained themselves and already proved their flair in their chosen fields, would be a good start. Thus suitably equipped, they could themselves provide apprenticeships as well as job opportunities for others with the relevant skills acquired through apprenticeship, thus absorbing the manpower locked in the gridlock of life. Such suitably located and identifiable enterprises would in time become net contributors to national tax revenue which most of them do not do at the moment because no one reckons with them except those who use their vital and valuable services; no Inland Revenue man dares to chase after them for tax even if he could locate them because they are the Unknown Soldiers of the Nigerian economy.
Finally consider the Nigerian movie industry which is touted to be the second largest after India and contributes nearly N90 billion to the GDP. Even assuming all these claims are exaggerated, there is no question that this is an industry growing at a fast rate. It should at this stage warrant vocational training outlets for the many personnel the industry needs in lighting, sound, wardrobe, make up and many other ancillary services. That way quality will improve and jobs will be created. Now that would be walking the talk. Not just talking.