Despite this controversial tweet to the contrary, the unemployment rate is Nigeria is not actually that high on average. According to the International Labour Organization (ILO), the unemployment rate is 5.5 percent (the official unemployment rate for the last quarter is 19 percent). For comparison, Ethiopia’s was 5.4 percent, South Africa’s was 27.3 percent, and the U.S. unemployment rate stands at 4.9 percent. In his book Poor Numbers (2013), Morten Jerven has taught us to be skeptical about African statistics, with the exception of those from South Africa. Nevertheless, the World Bank figures are probably the best to be had, and they try to take into account the informal economy. The reality appears to be that Nigeria has an unemployment rate similar to that of other African states, while South Africa is the outlier.
However, despite a relatively low unemployment rate, most Nigerians are very poor—more than half of the population lives on two U.S. dollars per day or less. Unemployment is certainly an important driver of poverty in South Africa, but poor and unemployed South Africans benefit from a government safety net, and still have a higher standard of living than many employed Nigerians.
Within countries, there can be big regional differences in unemployment. As anybody who has been to Lagos knows, the city is a hive of activity, with literally everybody working at something. The shear energy released in Lagos is striking to outsiders. George Packer’s brilliant 2006 New Yorker profile of Lagos comments on the huge range of services offered. Lagosians are never idle. Their civil culture appears to be unsympathetic to beggars, with the important exception of those with visible physical infirmities for whom spontaneous charity of biblical proportions is common. In general, however, the only able-bodied beggars to be found in Lagos, with an estimated population of up to 22 million, are from other parts of Nigeria or West Africa.
Begging and unemployment are more common in the sharia states of the north. The giving of alms is seen as an important religious duty. Beggars are ubiquitous and have long been a part of the social and religious fabric of communities. Children enrolled in Islamic schools, known as madrassas, often split their day between begging and religious studies. The region is poor and generally getting poorer, the result of exploding population growth, climate change, and under-investment in almost everything. Those economic and social realities, coupled with local custom that is sympathetic to it (unlike in southern Nigeria), drive begging. Even before the Boko Haram insurrection, Bornu’s state capital, Maiduguri, was notorious all over West Africa as “the beggar maker.” The treatment of begging distinguishes sharia states from the rest of Nigeria. With respect to unemployment and begging, as with much else, regional differences in Nigeria are important.