My degree is better than yours, By Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani

Many Nigerian students want to school abroad, but their return can cause tensions in the workplace ...Photo: Nigeria's Broadstreet...Lagos
Many Nigerian students want to school abroad, but their return can cause tensions in the workplace ...Photo: Nigeria's Broadstreet...Lagos

My friend’s niece has been sulking and shedding tears.  She does not want to attend university in Nigeria.  Government officials here send their children abroad to school.  Families that can afford it also do the same.  It is rare to find anyone with an alternative choosing to stay behind.

“All my friends are going to school abroad,” the girl said.  “I want to go abroad, even if it’s Ghana.”

Beyond the quality of education, the looming possibility of disruptive lecturer strikes and student unrest are further deterrents to schooling here.  I spent six years at the University of Ibadan, studying a four-year course.  In addition, it is easier to pass through the eye of a needle than to gain admission into a Nigerian university without having connections or paying bribes.  The schools abroad usually welcome you with wide open arms once you meet their basic requirements and pay their hefty foreign student fees.  Admission without tears.

There is another reason why Nigerian students are heading overseas in droves.  They have learnt by association, by observing action and reaction.  The most highly acclaimed Nigerians, in almost every field of endeavour, have been trained abroad.  Those who return home automatically have elevated status thrust upon them.  They get the juiciest positions, the highest salaries, and the greatest respect.

As the recent global financial meltdown flushes more and more people from the diaspora back here, the rumbles of discontent among the “homeschooled” – those who studied here – are gradually increasing.  Anyone who cares to listen will hear their bitter complaints.  And the resentment goes beyond watching the repatriates pluck choice jobs from right under the locals’ noses.  Other charges abound as well.

“They think they are better than the rest of us,” someone said to me.   “They treat us with contempt, as if we don’t know anything.” “All they do is find fault and criticise.  They don’t realise that the way we do things here is different from over there.”

In many cases, these sour feelings morph into outright office warfare.  An Abuja worker told me that he was determined to watch one UK-trained consultant at his workplace “fail”.

“I just make sure that I do the little bit I’m meant to do, and nothing more,” he said.  “Since she thinks the rest of us don’t know anything, she can go ahead and do everything herself.”

His other “homeschooled” colleagues took the same stance.  Together, the department was determined to make that consultant’s life hell.

My friend, Ngozika, experienced this kind of hostility a few years ago.  After returning with a master’s degree from the UK, she was given a top position at a Nigerian bank.

“The staff were so cold and hostile,” she said.

Later, she found out that they had jointly decided to give the “chick from the UK” a hard time.

Some argue that the repatriates’ condescending attitude could simply be a reaction to the half-baked skills of many graduates from Nigerian universities. Employers complain that you often have to put them through a series of training sessions before they can be of the most basic use to you.  Others say that the repatriates, as skilled and knowledgeable as they may be, usually lack the native sense required to excel—and survive—in the extremely peculiar Nigerian working environment.  It usually takes at least one grave failure before their eyes finally open to the fact that Nigeria is not designed to work the same way as the USA or Australia.

Ugochi Bede worked for the Nigerian offices of an international recruitment company. For years, she found both locals and repatriates for some top Nigerian companies.  She’s noted that returnees can lack the sensitivity to appease the resentment from their local colleagues – and so ignite a great deal of hostility that obstructs their work.

“But they usually have better work ethics,” she said.

You rarely find the repatriates doing things like selling dried stock fish or designer shoes in the office, or taking three weeks’ leave because their great-grandmother died.

Actually, none of this is new.  The same conflict played out vehemently between Nigerian employees and their expatriate colleagues both before and after independence in 1960. But this current crisis is different.  The two warring camps both have a right to be here. They are all Nigerian by birth.

At this rate, a foreign degree may soon become essential for anyone wanting to gain top employment in Nigeria.  More and more revenue will flow from here to the foreign schools while this country’s own educational system continues to suffer.

(This piece first appeared on the BBC World Service Radio programme, From Our Own Correspondent http://www.bbc.co.uk/i/p00yk1nm/)

Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani is the author of the novel, I Do Not Come to You by Chance, winner of the 2010 Commonwealth Writers Prize for Best First Book (Africa).