Waiting in line at the store, I spot an Italian globetrotter who works for an oil company in the southeastern region of Nigeria. I ask him what he thinks about the extreme poverty in the oil-rich towns he works in.
“Oh, it’s bad. It’s bad,” he says, shaking his head. He says something about poor infrastructure, pollution, and lack of education.
“Who do you think is responsible?” I ask him.
“The people,” he responds, without missing a beat. “Nothing will ever change, the money will never reach you unless you people get up and elect a good government.”
'What do you think we've been trying to do,' I want to scream. 'Do you not see we’ve been straining against restraints for years? Do you not see us fighting, struggling?'
I don’t scream. Instead I tell him that we need to stop waiting for the government to give us what we think we deserve, for the “oil money” to find its way to our waiting purses. I see us making economic progress already in Nigeria, and it’s not because of oil money. It’s enterprise.
My new Italian friend peers curiously at me, as if I have grown two heads. Then he gives me a patronizing nod, “Sure.”
The juxtaposition of wealth and poverty is a common motif in Nigeria’s landscape. Modern high-rise buildings are nestled in overpopulated, pollution-infested communities. A group of children fetch buckets of water from a stream as, on the bridge over their heads, other children in pressed school uniforms are chauffeured in Lexus jeeps to private schools. Three or four well-lit homes stand out starkly against the blanket of darkness that envelops an entire community at nightfall.
The unfair distribution of wealth in Nigeria has long been a hot topic of discourse in our marketplaces, campuses, and local beer parlors. The nation’s laments are chronicled in the literary works of authors and activists like Wole Soyinka and the late Ken Saro-Wiwa, and iterated less peaceably by insurgent groups across Nigeria who have taken recourse to violence.
Nigeria is one of Africa’s wealthiest nations, ranked 32 in the world according to its GDP (adjusted for purchasing power). Yet, an estimated 70% of the country’s population live below the poverty line. The bulk of Nigeria’s revenue comes from the country’s oil sector, but there are high prospects for its agricultural and technology sectors if they were to receive adequate funding and research.
Since Nigeria’s independence from Great Britain in 1960 and its subsequent emergence into the oil market, political instability has rocked our country. A succession of power-hungry regimes fought over the reins of government. Candidates in Nigeria’s recent elections claimed political and economic reforms in eloquent monologues, but there continues to be a sense of distrust and anger against an institution that has historically misappropriated the country’s resources. Cries of outrage were set off across the country after a disclosure by the governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) that financing for the country’s National Assembly constituted 25% of the federal budget.
I have taken to calling my parents’ generation the “oil-boomer generation.” Complete with degrees or certificates facilitated by missionaries or the imperial government, they stepped out into post-colonial, oil-rich Nigeria with a great outlook for the future. They heard President Gowon announce, “Money is not our problem, but how to spend it,” and they dreamed they would never lack for anything. Their choices—their decisions to stay and work in Nigeria rather than take up lucrative offers abroad, to have four children instead of two, and to abandon the farms left them by their fathers in the villages—are tell-tale indicators of their dreams. Nigeria was positioned to benefit greatly from the oil boom that peaked in the 1970s and no one could have foretold anything but greatness for the nation.
As a series of corrupt government leaders swooped in to control the national treasure, a new reality began to emerge. Suddenly coups, civil war, and uncertainty became the order of the day. And what became of the oil-boomers? Some of them hunkered down and set aside their dreams for the pursuit of survival; some, at their own risk, spoke out or wrote against the many ills perpetuated by the nation’s leaders; many threw themselves into the pursuit of the dreams they once held, determined to partake of the country’s oil money—at whatever cost, by whatever means.
Over the years, a “get-your-own-share-of-the-national-pie” mentality has been inbred into succeeding generations. There is a disconcerting sense of entitlement in the attitudes and actions of young people in Nigeria today. Whether they saw their parents wilt and give up, or they saw them acquire wealth through illegal means, or they never saw their parents at all, many young Nigerians feel they have been cheated out of what is rightfully theirs.
“You just have to hustle,” says one young man. “It’s every man for himself,” echoes another.
With youth (between the ages of 15 and 24) constituting nearly half of Nigeria’s 150 billion people, Nigeria is among the world’s most youthful countries. In a recent report, the British Council points out that Nigeria stands at an important fork in the road: One path spelling untold disaster, and the other offering the potential for improved standards of living for millions of Nigerians. The British Council further predicts, “If Nigeria fails to plan for its next generation, it faces ethnic and religious conflict and radicalization, as a result of growing numbers of young people frustrated by a lack of jobs and opportunities. Nigeria needs to create 25 million jobs over the next ten years—and move its focus away from oil, which contributes 40% to national GDP, but only employs 0.15% of the population.”
The bottom line: We need more jobs, and we need alternatives to oil—or things could get really ugly, really soon.
In the summer of 2010, I grappled with the disparity in the distribution of wealth in Nigeria. It made me angry to think how Nigeria might have advanced and how standards of living would have improved through the years if we had only had leaders responsibly allocating the country’s income. But it was especially upsetting that Nigeria’s youth have bought into the idea that our salvation lies solely in oil money and what the government does with it.
I began to ask myself these questions: What if Nigeria’s youth began to facilitate economic reform from the bottom up by engaging in enterprise? And what if we approached enterprise with a different mentality: not with a view to “get what’s ours,” but with a renewed understanding that we are stewards of our nation’s future?
The idea of social entrepreneurship in Nigeria is steadily gaining interest. Philanthropic organizations and private sector stakeholders are testing the viability of market‐based approaches to poverty alleviation. Mrs. Taiwo, founder of Nigeria's Center for Enterprise Development and Action Research, believes that increasing numbers of young Nigerians are successfully changing their local communities through enterprise. She tells of one young woman who is creating jobs in her community through a new cleaning business she founded. I know of another young lady who runs a boutique online, featuring homemade and imported designs. She invests some of the proceeds from her sales in local non-profits.
The expansion of technology within Nigeria over the past decade is now making the impossible possible. E-commerce is helping buyers and sellers connect across borders, opening wide a spectrum of opportunities.
In 2010, The Hope Youth Foundation, which my sisters and I founded, collaborated with another youth-led organization to host a youth entrepreneurship seminar. We challenged 40 young people to view entrepreneurship as a vehicle for social change, and gave them opportunity to air their views, ask questions, and exchange ideas.
I was excited to hear the hopefulness in the voices of these aspiring young entrepreneurs. Bursting with creative ideas, they were convinced they could change the world with their products and services. “But how do we get funding to start?” Nkem echoed the thoughts of many present at the seminar. “I’ve had this business idea for a few years now, but there is no capital to start.”
According to findings from a 2007 Gallup poll, lack of access to capital poses a major impediment to Nigeria's up and coming entrepreneurs. Once more, I cannot help but contrast this data with the stories reported daily of people in power who wield their clout to fraudulently obtain “loans.” Even where there are private and philanthropic sector options for funding, the people who most need these resources are closed out of the loop due to lack of information.
Lack of funding and training for young entrepreneurs are major obstacles in the way of progress. We need education to reprogram our minds away from the rat-race for oil money, and get us thinking about socially responsible ways to contribute to our economy. Economic empowerment cannot simply be a watchword for youth in Nigeria. Enterprise must become a weapon with which we fight, a tool with which we rebuild our nation, and a bridge with which we connect with the world.
By investing in youth entrepreneurship, we could combat youth unemployment, curb our dependency on oil wealth by creating new revenue streams, and improve our communities by reinvesting in them. And in this environment, we will foster a new generation of leaders with a sense of duty for our country.