Kano, Nigeria - As they line up in the afternoon sun for an intense series of push-ups, stretches and squats, it is hard to believe these young men were abusing drugs just three weeks ago.
"You should have seen their state, angry, frustrated and helpless," said retired army Colonel Ibrahim Adamu.
On the outskirts of the northern Nigerian city of Kano, a training institute has been set up to take young people off the streets - one of 23 programmes that aim to help school drop-outs and the unemployed.
Nigeria, Africa's most populous country with 170 million inhabitants, is one of the world's top ten exporters of oil. But its youth have grown increasingly disenchanted. While they make up the majority of the population, more than one-third of young people are unemployed.
Certainly there is this correlation between poverty ... [and] the issue of recruitment into criminal activities, and that is why we're working so hard to make sure that opportunities are being provided right from the primary age.
The issue took centre stage last Saturday, as at least 19 job-seekers lost their lives in stampedes across the country during government-held placement tests. By some estimates, two million people rushed to apply for some 4,000 jobs at the Immigration Department.
Opposition politicians have gone as far as saying the explosive unemployment problem shows that the current government of President Goodluck Jonathan is losing control over the country. Some have warned of a potential revolt by angry young men.
The situation in northern Nigeria is particularly dire. More than half of young people in the north are unemployed and the poverty rate is at 72 percent - double the estimate in other parts of the country. Northern youth have become ideal recruits, exploited in conflicts waged by politicians, gangs, and self-described Islamist Boko Haram fighters.
It's something the governor of Kano, Rabiu Musa Kwankwasoa, knows all too well. A former defense minister, he has made it state policy to allocate funds for these programmes.
"Certainly there is this correlation between poverty ... [and] the issue of recruitment into criminal activities, and that is why we're working so hard to make sure that opportunities are being provided right from a primary age," he told Al Jazeera.
Recovering drug addict Dauda Ismail, a training programme participant, said that he saw no value in his life before.
"I have nothing to say but thank [God] for finding myself here," said the 28-year-old, who is among 160 former addicts taking a temporary course at the Kano Corporate Security Training Institute. "Otherwise, I would have been in a dangerous situation."
The institute is run by retired officers who have trained some 1,000 graduates aged 15-35 over the past two years. The training includes unarmed combat, first-aid, fire-fighting, security planning and cultivating informant networks to stave off potential attacks.
Nigerian stampede kills 19 job-seekers
Graduates are then hired by the state to guard local government buildings - top students have been placed outside the governor's compound, said Adamu, the institute director.
In an unusual step in the traditionally conservative, Muslim-dominated north, 400 female students also attended classes at the security institute and have been put to work aas guards at hospitals and schools.
Outside the Kano civil service headquarters, Abdul Samad Abu Bakr has been keeping a watchful eye for six months. The 21-year-old is quite happy with the US$100 or so he makes a month. He said he's able to help support his five siblings, and at times even save a little.
"I was surrounded by unemployed friends who are into drugs and robbery, but now this job gives me the chance to change my life for the better," he said. "I pray those without jobs get them so that they would be safe and not fall into bad company."
I was surrounded by unemployed friends who are into drugs and robbery, but now this job gives me the chance to change my life for the better.
Other programmes in Kano offer a variety of training opportunities, from nursing to agricultural and farm-management skills. At one of the agricultural schools, trainees are taught how to raise cattle in an environment-friendly, cost-efficient way. At the end of the course, they're each given one animal to start their own projects.
"Any government that ignores the women and youth, certainly that government is bound to fail - and that was why we decided to concentrate on training and retraining them. Of course that has gone a long way in reducing the security challenges," Kwankwaso said.
Other states in northern Nigeria have sought to emulate these programmes to help transform the lives of young people, who are often lured by Boko Haram rebels in their efforts to impose Islamic law in northern Nigeria.
New York-based Human Rights Watch said last week that Boko Haram had carried out more than 40 attacks in 2014, with more than 700 people killed. More than 2,000 people have been killed in violence over the last six months.
Boko Haram is said to have allegedly threatened some of the training institutes near Kano. Perhaps the group realizes what it stands to lose if Nigerian youth are kept busy.
Source: Al Jazeera