The needs of Nigerian adolescents and youth

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This year has brought in its wake another election cycle in Nigeria, amidst a landscape of economic, political and environmental crises that are threatening, and sometimes outrightly reversing the gains in human development of the past two decades. The situation is particularly dire for Nigeria’s large young demographic who are disproportionately bearing the brunt of these crises, some of which draw their origins from the policy failures of previous governments. The surprising emergence of the youth as a powerful voting bloc embodies a mounting demand for accountability and for politicians to fulfil their commitments.

Alongside addressing immediate crises, the incoming government must adopt an evidence-based cost-effective approach to identify and implement social policies that mitigate the impact of these crises and support youth well-being and resilience. Addressing poverty, food insecurity, safety and improving productive life skills among young people must be prioritized and will require coordinated cross-sectoral actions with a long-term outlook.  

Surviving Versus Thriving: Growing Up in Acute-On-Chronic Crises

Policy documents and articles on  Nigerian youth often begin with highlighting the untapped human capital dormant in this group; 60% of the country’s population of over 200 million citizens are younger than 25 years and over 70% are under 30 years. Sadly, more than half of Nigerian youths experience multiple, compounding deprivations.

A major contributor to the high rates of poverty and food insecurity is widespread livelihood insecurity and violent conflicts which disrupts safe transitions to adulthood. Ethno-religious and political divides have spawned chronic terrorism in the northern part of the country and violent secessionist groups in the south. Loss of historic nomadic grazing routes from climate change and a rapidly growing population have led to violent farmers-herdsmen clashes, reducing food production and causing surges in food insecurity. Kidnapping and banditry have proliferated alongside poverty and weak state security outfits.

Across all regions, millions of young people in affected communities are directly impacted by the resulting loss of lives, displacement of families and communities, limited access to basic needs and provisions, and rupture of societal networks. The consequences of insecurity extend beyond the immediate vicinity of crises; easy access to social media and absent online security means that young people are exposed to gory images and violent content,  known to impact mental health and increase the tendency towards aggressive behaviour.

The rising rates of poverty and food insecurity in turn fuel one of the highest global rates of child labour and early marriage as young people leave their homes to ease the burden of financial hardship. Nigeria has the highest number of out-of-school children in the world with almost one-third of its youth not linked to education, employment or vocational training (NEET).  

School safety in school in Nigeria is often discussed within the context of violent conflicts. However, other factors too are essential for effective learning.  Within the education system, contact time and quality of teaching have been chronically eroded by inadequate facilities and frequent strikes. Corporal punishment is pervasive, including in higher educational institutions. Cases of physical and sexual harassment are underreported with the occasional media coverage of extreme cases, sometimes involving the death of the victim. Growing up with a mindset shaped by a societal normalization of violence has consequences on the collective psyche and gender norms among young people, given the established body of research linking violence against children to social physical, emotional, mental and social outcomes.

For young persons who have transited the education pipeline, a struggling economy compounded by corruption, nepotism and inadequate public infrastructure contributes to high unemployment and underemployment rates.

Altogether, the prevailing gloomy social realities present a negative model of society to the youths. The societal glorification of a survival mentality, combined with economic stressors, contributes to the intergenerational transmission of harmful behaviours and coping habits at home, schools and across facets of society,  in competing tension against a collective longing for positive change.

No magic bullet for development

There is no shortage of policy ideas to address each of the challenges facing Nigeria and disproportionately affecting the youth.  The recent National Youth Policy (2019 – 2023) lays out an ambitious plan that covers social, economic health and civil aspects of adolescent and youth development and involves contributions of over 20 government ministries and agencies, not counting non-state actors.  Also in existence is a Youth Employment Action Plan (2021 – 2024) and a national policy on the health and development of adolescents (2020 – 2024) amongst others. All three mentioned policy cycles end within the next year and yet there is little progress on key development fronts.

To effect progress, a willing and accountable government is needed to lead a development agenda that acknowledges the compounding impact of multiple disadvantages that young people face and leverage cross-sectoral action to identify and tackle the core risk factors. Nigeria’s economic challenges mean that there is no resource to waste on white elephant projects; No single intervention is the magic bullet for improving youth welfare. The key challenge lies in finding the right combination of interventions or policies that delivers the most impact for good under serviceable costs for the government.

From reactive policies to long-term solutions

The cumulative impact of multiple crises threatens Nigeria’s youthful population and its future.  With rising political consciousness among the youth, it is pertinent that the incoming government deliberately and transparently commit to interventions that have the potential to narrow the huge gap between Nigeria and the developed world.

A new political dispensation provides an opportunity to reflect on the agenda and mechanisms informing prior policies on youth, learn from the mistakes and successes of the past, adapt lessons from other countries and be realistic about the timeframe for lasting change.

The new government will be navigating dwindled fiscal reserves, a volatile economy and an emotive populace. Policies must be efficiently targeted, equitably implemented and developed using evidence-driven and cost-effective frameworks. Young people must be consulted to ensure that much-needed trust is built and policies respond to their needs across different sectors.  Given the interlinkages between the sustainable development goals, an efficient coordination mechanism needs to be in place to leverage synergies across development sectors and monitor progress.

Addressing pressing challenges would require economic strengthening and psychosocial support to mitigate negative and intergenerational consequences. But beyond this, a holistic approach to address social and structural constraints to youth development must incorporate actions aimed at building resilience and equipping them with positive life skills.  

Dr Sopuruchukwu Obiesie (@soso_obiesie) is an MD, public health practitioner, and a DPhil student at the Department for Social Policy and Intervention, University of Oxford.

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