Dying to get a job

It is not what one looks forward to with fondness. I mean, whoever derives pleasure from writing about a national tragedy should have his/her head examined. But write about the latest in the series of tragedies we must. At the risk of having our heads examined, we must ask why innocent men and women should die in the process of looking for gainful employment. Dying to get a job? What a contradiction in terms! One would have expected that the whole purpose of looking for a job is to stay alive and, thereafter lead a purposeful, rewarding and fulfilling life.

However, job hunting has become a hazardous occupation in Nigeria. Young men and women left their homes one morning, hoping to return with job offers later in the day. This was not to be. Close to 12 of them lost their life in the stampede for Nigerian Immigration Service jobs in Abuja. Minna and Port Harcourt also reported cases of job seekers trampled to death. The majority that survived the job hunting disaster not only remained jobless but were left with traumas which aren’t likely to heal anytime soon. A few were promised “automatic” employment. That raises a different set of questions, among which are who had to be sacrificed to propitiate our economy’s evil spirit and why. It is also alarming that the government tried to milk the disaster for political gain. According to news reports, a few slots of the “automatic” jobs were reserved for women. When we should be ruminating on the immediate and long-term solutions to our country’s employment crisis, the government, with an eye on 2015, is setting aside jobs for a few members of an electoral bloc. That is of course by the way.

I knew we were sitting on a ticking time-bomb, but I did not realize that the employment crisis is that grave until I saw the gripping images. Just take a peek at the snapshots of candidates competing for limited vacancies at the Nigerian Immigration Service. You get the impression of spectators worked into a frenzy at a premier league football match (or a major sporting event). It would take time for the idea to sink in that those you are looking at are candidates jostling for positions in a government agency. In sheer numbers, the young men and women waiting for the Immigration Service’s “aptitude test” literally filled the Abuja stadium! The story is the same across the country–and particularly, in Minna and Port Harcourt.

The attention of commentators has so far focused on the immediate cause of the needless deaths, to the exclusion of the remote cause(s). The immediate explanation for the stampede (which led to innocent persons being trampled to death) is the classic Nigerian story–the usual contempt for order. The question is whose responsibility it is to lay the groundwork for and enforce order. Does the obligation to banish chaos lie with the organizers of the “aptitude tests”–i.e., the Ministry of Internal Affairs and the Nigerian Immigration Service–or with the candidates taken individually and collectively? This is a tricky question. The official answer is that the candidates’ rowdy behaviour brought on the calamity. In other words, nobody would have died if everyone had conducted him/herself in an orderly manner. Both the Ministry and its parastatal thus basically passed the responsibility for the observance of discipline to the candidates.

While a rowdy individual has lost a moral claim to orderliness, there is a lot to be said for the view that order starts with the organization which hosts competing individuals and assembles them on the same spot. One of the cardinal principles of administration, public or private, is organization. This is one principle that training institutions like ASCON, the Nigerian Public Service Institute, and the Centre for Management Development constantly drill into the heads of their programme participants. Of course, the trainees would always argue that there is an unbridgeable gulf between “theory” and “practice”. I have heard said on many occasions (after rounding off my lectures) that the theories which I try to impart are “sound in theory” but that the realities of the workplace would not allow them (thee theories, that is) to be applied. If it is not a conservative boss vetoing new ideas, it is the prevailing organizational culture that allegedly blocks the application of new theories.

Now, here is the Nigerian Immigration Service–“a world of practice”–that would have benefitted immensely from the application of the “theory” of organization and would have, in the process, saved us the agony of mourning the loss of fellow Nigerians. Where organization is absent as a theory and in practice, the Darwinian law of survival-of-the-fittest will be the first to show up to fill the vacuum. It is a matter of time before anarchy sets in. When no single organization looks out for all, everyone looks out for himself. It is as simple as that. This is why it is ridiculous for the Internal Affairs Minister to hold anyone but himself responsible for the fiasco. As the organizer of the aptitude test, his Ministry ought to have taken its organizational responsibility seriously. The Ministry ought to have ensured that the Immigration Service has in place an organizational arrangement capable of managing such a large crowd (if a crowd is what the Service must start with). The organizational arrangement should include who is responsible for each component of the aptitude test, the map/sketch of where the test would be conducted, the entry and exit routes, crowd control logistics, and the job specifications of crowd controllers and ushers. The arrangement should start with dry runs so the organizers would be able to detect at an early stage what might go wrong and decide, in advance, how to fix it.

While reflecting on what recently went wrong at Abuja, Port Harcourt, Minna and other places, we must interrogate the psychology of public officials–from the highest to the most lowly. Where government is keen on service, the question that an average official would consistently ask is why make it hard if it could be easy. In our own case, the converse tends to be the case. For some reasons that I am yet to understand, public officials carry themselves as if the harder they could make their clients’ life, the more self-important they feel. The officials see the service which they render as a favour. They do not feel appreciated unless and until they see the citizen sweat and suffer.

If I may now return to the issue on the table, the Nigerian job seekers’ travails. While addressing the immediate organizational challenges occasioning the needless loss of life, it is important to have a full appreciation of Nigeria’s employment crisis and get a grip on it. Going by facts in the public domain, the crisis is of epic proportions. According to the National Population Commission, Nigeria’s rate of employment rose from 21.1 percent in 2010 to 23.9 percent in 2011. In absolute figures, the total labour force in 2011 stood at 67,256,090. Of this number, 51,224,115 were gainfully employed, leaving 16,074,205 without jobs. As each year rolls by, the gap between the number looking for jobs and that actually employed widens.

Unfortunately, the government carries on as if all is well. All is certainly not well–at least, not on the employment front. If I may be blunt, the neo-liberal fiscal and macro-economic policy is simply not working. The policy might claim credit for the “impressive” GDP growth in recent years. However, what is the point in engineering growth that neither creates jobs nor alleviates poverty? Instead of selling off public assets to political cronies, the government needs to give serious consideration to creating an enabling environment for private sector growth, revitalizing the moribund state-owned enterprises and transforming them into high-performing entities, spearheading a national productivity and performance management culture, eliminating wasteful allocation of resources and, above all, boldly confronting the corruption bogey.

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