BY AYOADE BAMGBOYE
“The applicants lost their lives through their impatience.” Those were the words of Interior minister Abba Moro in response to inquiries on how recruitment drives transformed into life threatening stampedes around the country. When trying to understand reasons why recruitment would take a deadly turn, it is important to look at both sides of the coin. We need to look at actions of government and private parties as well as those of candidates. Who is to blame? How did this happen, and how can we prevent it from happening again?
Let’s begin by unpacking Abba Moro’s statement. Following his line of thought, instead of waiting patiently to receive question papers and adhering to instructions, applicants were quick to surge forward, scale fences and use force to take what was already coming to them. It then logically follows that a heavy dose of compliance on the part of the applicants would have gone a long way in ensuring the smooth running of events on the test day.
Here is why that statement has little explanatory power. In typical Nigerian politician fashion, Abba Moro attempted to completely shirk responsibility for what happened. In doing so, perhaps he thought he was saving face for the Nigerian government, but he only served to intensify culpability. In saying that the applicants were impatient, he hasn’t sufficiently explained the real causes of the stampedes. He has only highlighted that emotions were running high and rightly so. Of course applicants were impatient, they were waiting for hours in unfavourable conditions probably aware that they were waiting for nothing. Their impatience is a given, therefore that observation is irrelevant. What we really need to understand is the root cause of their impatience, and that is where the gross negligence of the organising parties comes to the fore.
Firstly, applicants were impatient because they had paid to partake in the recruitment processes. Once you enter into a transaction with another party, you are contractually obligated to provide a service. In charging each applicant N1000 to take the test, they implied that ability to take the test would be a guaranteed service. The fact that the recruitment process was transformed into a cash transaction is crucial in understanding why things turned sour; applicants felt entitled to test papers because they had paid their fees. Thus the prospect of being denied the ability to take the test was met with hostility and even violence because there had been an exchange of money in expectance of a service. Also, by charging applicants this implied a profitable scheme. When one stands to make profit, they typically try to make as much of it as possible. To maximize profit, it is logical to ‘sell’ as many applications, even if this meant that you would have to test 500,000 people in order to shortlist them for less than 5000 jobs. The demand outstripped the supply.
Secondly, applicants were probably impatient due to the very apparent absence of appropriate crowd control measures. Given the sheer magnitude of applicants, police or security agencies would have had to be present to ensure that the process was going smoothly. In effect the applicants would have had to organise themselves; the likelihood that thousands of people would have effectively managed the bottleneck of applicants is extremely low, in fact non-existent. The applicants were impatient because the surrounding environment was inimical to patience in general. In typical Nigerian fashion, the ‘patient’ would have been the most likely to be trampled upon. In response to the complete lack of organisation, applicants decided to take matters into their own hands.
Again it is hard to understand why the inherent impatience that comes with chronic unemployment would be fuelled by such an elaborate charade that was bound to fail. Unemployed youths are impatient; it comes with the instability of not having a job, but such overreaching on the part of the Nigerian government is and will continue to be a fatal flaw for our society. The unemployment problem is not something that can be solved overnight, and the heavy reliance on oil exports means that other important sources of job creation like service sectors are dwarfed. Hence the announcement of thousands of job vacancies was probably met with jubilation, because it presented rare opportunities to finally end the struggles of joblessness. This brings me to another facet of the culpability of the Nigerian government. In a ploy to give off a false air of transparency, they made nationwide announcements about the vacancies.
By making it a free-for-all they were implying that there would be a fair, meritocratic method of consideration, when what they were really trying to do was maximize profit. It is highly probable, that the jobs would have ended up being shared by means of nepotism.
So how could this shambolic recruitment process have been improved? For starters it should have been free for applicants. Nobody should have to pay to take a test to show his or her eligibility for a job. Instead of outsourcing the recruitment process to a bogus agency, perhaps it would be more sensible to contract with various agencies that can assess smaller volumes of people. Or it could have been conducted on a state-to-state basis. Crucially, in anticipation of the magnitude of applicants, there should have been a shortlisting process to downsize eligible applicants. And if the testing had the function of shortlisting, then it should have been digitised. The tests should have been administered incrementally at various smaller locations so that something as harmless as taking a test did not become life threatening.
There is more to this than just suggestions on how to make the recruitment process better, it’s the fact that unemployment has become yet another means of extraction. A group of privileged few were pressed to find their next stream of ill-gotten rents and saw the plight of hundreds of thousands of young unemployed Nigerians as fodder. The image of young men and women crushing each other to take a test which might get them an interview, which might get them, a job, speaks volumes about how repulsive Nigerian institutions are. Chronic unemployment is what led some applicants to be wilfully ignorant of just how minuscule their chances of obtaining a job would be from this drive. It was either wilful ignorance or blind hope that caused some applicants to honestly believe that if they pushed hard enough, moved quicker or waited long enough, they could sit their test and be considered fairly. This tragic situation represents the domino effect of weak institutions and government structures begetting more problems that the next week institution or structure cannot contain or solve. We need to start treating the illness and not the symptoms.