Since the National Bureau of Statistics published figures that put the unemployment rate at 4.1 per cent, they have faced sweltering criticisms. Earlier in April, they announced they were changing the metrics used in calculating the unemployment rate in the country to align with the International Labour Organisation guidelines. Since last Thursday when they released a jobs report that revised the unemployment rate (previously calculated at 33.3 per cent as at Q4 2020) to 4.1 per cent for (Q4 2022 and Q1 2023), they have been criticised for asserting that the Nigerian unemployment figures are at par with some of the most developed countries/diverse economies. Without any evidence to substantiate such assertion, the NBS go explain the wizardry of their numbers taya!
That no one exactly celebrated the progress the NBS reports is understandable. A healthy amount of scepticism must greet a 4.1 per cent unemployment rate announcement. Anywhere in the world, figures are considered political. Contrary to received wisdom that numbers objectively assess reality, they can, in fact, mythify. In the hands of unscrupulous politicians, they bestow a patina of legitimacy upon lies.
For Nigeria where politicians solicit empiricists to use their scientific tools to produce a truth that will find no feet to stand on the grounds of reality, the former Statistician-General of the Federation, Yemi Kale, must have faced a lot of pressure when he headed the NBS and published figures that directly refuted the propaganda of the previous administration. And that is why any statistics emanating from the agency that can be deviously seized on by a non-performing government, will be scrutinised for traces of chicanery.
Now, despite the fuzziness of their statistics, I will give it to the NBS that they at least explained that what has changed is not the reality of Nigerian unemployment but simply the measuring rule. They stated that the lower unemployment figures are not based on government performance but mere standardisation of the definition of unemployment to conform to international standards. According to them, under the old mensuration system, they categorised ‘unemployed’ as anyone of working age who worked below 20 hours, or did not work, but searched and was available for work during the week of the survey. Under the new calculus, what counts as being “employed” is to work for pay/profit for just an hour within the week of the survey. They said the new marker aligns with “international best practices.”
Well, this is one of those instances where “international” and “best practices” are mutually exclusive because the NBS re-categorisation is problematic on several levels. As Kale said when interviewed on Arise’s Global Business Report on Monday, while he was at the NBS, the committee in charge of reviewing the minimum number of work hours thought such a counting measure does not make sense in Nigeria because the income generated within that time frame was not necessarily livable. On that score, I hundred per cent agree. Nigeria should not have adopted that rule because it merely distorts the truth of our local situation. In some other countries, doing the bare minimum at least qualifies you for social/welfare benefits, but what does it mean in Nigeria?
Conforming to international standards must not come at the expense of accurately discerning the truth of your situation. Figures should clarify reality, not occlude it. Facts are important, but they are also manipulable. Numbers can be twisted by the neck until they tell a story you need them to tell. One can arrive at a 100 per cent employment rate in Nigeria if we expand the definition of what constitutes “work” until it includes the time we spend volunteering in religious houses (in expectation of spiritual blessings), or even soliciting “urgent 2k” on social media. Virtually everyone will be classified as “occupied” even though that will not make what they do an occupation in the real sense of it.
That said, the other important point made by the NBS boss, Semiu Adeniran, but which was overshadowed by the controversial figures, is that Nigeria’s problem is not so much unemployment but of underemployment. He explained that the underemployment rate stood at 13.7 per cent in Q4 2022 and 12.2 per cent in Q1 2023 making it a much bigger issue. While we can take issues with the metrics used to calculate “unemployed,” his point is instructive and should not be lost in the melee of arguing whether the unemployment rate is 4 or 40 per cent.
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In Nigeria, the opposite of “unemployment” might not be “employment” but underemployment. Our trouble is that people are working and doing so ungainfully. Where I vehemently depart from Adeniran is his definition of underemployment as a situation “whereby persons engaged in one activity or the other yet indicate interest and availability to take on more work, due to inadequacy of the jobs they are engaged in at the time.” Classifying underemployment in Nigeria that way is rather unhelpful. People already labouring under the yoke of a non-regenerative economy cannot transmute their under-employment to employment even if they worked 24/7. The reprieve they need will come from doing quality work, not simply more of the same.
Unemployment is underutilisation of skills, not an issue of mere work hours. In Nigeria, the problem of underemployment presents itself as an internal brain drain. We talk a lot about people’s leaving the country as depriving us of the best brains but there is an ongoing internal crisis as well. People trained in professional skills have had—to stave off the biting reality of unemployment—to take on jobs mismatched with their skill set. In many cases, they get trapped in those lowly jobs and ultimately fritter away the skills they acquired in the university or polytechnic.
There are millions of young Nigerians who also formally passed through an apprenticeship in one vocational training or the other but have been retarded because they cannot come up with the capital necessary to set up shop. Lots of them like that have had to abjure their training and take on Okada/Marwa riding, street hawking, or even running a gambling store. Some veered, hoping to save enough money to buy—in many cases—the imported machines they need to set themselves up, but the increasing foreign exchange recedes their plans right before their eyes. So many of them like that, frittering away the prime of their lives doing work that neither improves their skill set nor guarantees a future. Yet, under the new rule of the NBS, all those people will be classified as “employed.” In the real sense of the word, they are not.
Finally, one of the most interesting aspects of the NBS report is their response to criticism, especially the one that came from Kale. Their retort was far more telling of the intellectual disposition of the agency than all the figures Adeniran reeled out.
The PR boss, Wakili Ibrahim, undercut the integrity of the agency by making snide comments at Kale, an attitude that suggests that their whole revision of standards is a personal affront to the ex-boss they despise, not because Nigeria needs such clarity. Also, Ibrahim’s understanding of how “work” works was so limited that it put a question mark around their job report. In clarifying that the new calibration system factored in the changing nature of work, Ibrahim said, “Look at lecturers; a lecturer can go lecture for one or two hours, and they will pay him about N200,000 or N300, 000 in one or two hours. So, what is the basis of ignoring those ones?”
Well, as a lecturer, I can tell him—for free—that when we lecture for two hours, we spend up to 10 hours on preparation. That makes at least 12 hours of work. If the NBS does not have that basic clarity, why should we trust the figures they generate?
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