When I first started thinking about writing this article, my conclusion was that with the way young Nigerians are fleeing from the country – with the implication that almost 100 per cent of the time – the children they have will never return to Nigeria, the very crop of human beings that should trigger continuity especially in Nigeria’s south, are gone forever. I mean, who is going to bring new development to our land? Who are the ones who will build the houses of the mid-21st century? Who will develop modern plans that will transform the face of our societies and seek to compete with what happens abroad? I was overawed with the feeling of despair. I know for a fact that perhaps only half of those who have left will come back to Nigeria actively. And perhaps less than 20 per cent will come back home eventually, develop roots here, build or buy houses to come and live in, and by every means, less than 1% of them will be able to convince the families they make abroad to come back here with them.
This is because:
- The systems created abroad are designed to make it incredibly hard for you to detach, no matter how much you desire to. When I opened a company in the UK and decided to leave after 8 years, it took more than two years of valiant efforts to be able to clear all sorts of obligations – some of which I never knew existed.
- Let me be more specific. The credit culture and system is designed to suck you in. your life is run by government even as they pretend to be invisible. Unlike in Nigeria, you cannot easily wake up one day to depend on friends in high places to create something new. You must join the queue because 99.9% of the time, nobody that matters knows you, especially if you migrated – like most people – midway into your life and didn’t grow up there. The tax system is also brutal and even the more you earn, the more they take from you and the more you dig yourself into that system. There are expectations. The more you earn, they bigger your house and all other obligations. There’s nothing like leaving voluntarily. You must continue servicing the ‘system’… oftentimes until you die.
- The value of the currency is another very strong factor. Whereas as at our independence, the colonial leaders left our currencies at par with theirs (and so were able to buy our raw exports cheap – imagine taking all our cocoa, palm oil, and groundnut at sums that were not enough to expand our economy – today, our currency is a shadow of what it was). Nobody leaves a country with a strong currency for one with a weak currency or with future prospects of depreciation, except you have set up cashflows to continue working for you in the country with strong currency.
- The illusion of strong currency usually blinds us to the phenomenon called Purchasing Power Parity (PPP). This PPP means that $1 in America is basically nothing (a beggar may reject same from you), but in Nigeria, in the hands of a poor person, it goes very far. One white blogger recently demonstrated this in Lagos, when with $1 he bought a meal of rice, beans and spaghetti with boiled egg, bought meat pie, a huge ‘puff-puff’, corn on the cob and a bottle of coke (all for about N950). Of course, you will not get such a deal in organized restaurants in Nigeria but we are talking about the really poor here. On the average what you need $10 to buy in the USA, you probably need less than $2 equivalent to buy here.
- For as long as people don’t consider the PPP factor, even if Nigeria continues to improve, perhaps our naira must be revalued and made stronger (for the psychological advantages) before our people abroad begin to consider moving back in significant percentages. Also, job opportunities that can help them maintain their standards of living must be available here. Only a very few of them will be able and willing to start up their own companies and make a success of it.
- The fact is that the first age of ‘japa’ (the Andrew era), around 1984, was the beginning of the mass media and internet era. Images are powerful. And our young people started seeing images from abroad. Before then, all we could see were ‘post cards’ and pictures sent from abroad. The more Africans – especially Nigerians – started seeing what ‘abroad’ looks like, the more emigration accelerated. The more we disdained our country. We totally ignored the historicity of economic and social development in itself. We wanted development and wanted it now! This new ‘japa’ age coincides with the AI – Artificial Intelligence – era, where communication has gone haywire, and we now have an overload of those enticing images that captivate the young and not-so-young. This coincides with even more frustration with our relatively slow pace of development, and indeed the fact that our development trajectory and journey is not within our control or imagination.
First, let’s look at the upsides. For one, nobody can hold anybody down. Everybody wants personal improvement first. Only a few lucky people have sacrificed their lives for country and not lived and died to regret it. I’ve seen a few transformational pictures of people who left Nigeria looking very haggard only to turn out very fresh and apparently prosperous abroad. Perhaps if it was only for the nutrition they get – or perhaps some steady cashflow that guarantees food on the table – nobody can convince such people to stay back here for any reason. There are millions who struggle for survival daily in Nigeria and Africa whose lives get totally transformed abroad. Some are able to also run away from family problems and help from abroad after sorting themselves out. Japa is good because abroad, nobody cares who you are, what tribe you’re from or anything of that sort. All you need is an opportunity to prove yourself, if you’re a focused hardworker. And boom! You can take off. Certainly, it should not be made to sound easy. In many of the ‘abroad’ lands, you have to send out 2,000 job applications before you get lucky. You also may have to start with menial jobs that you would never touch at home. Many times, they want to pass you through the crucible – perhaps to remind you how difficult it was for their ancestors to build their lands.
Japa is great because it organises many of our young folks. They learn as soon as they arrive abroad that the system is no respecter of persons. There are really no big men. Western nations have learnt over time that all these things that waste our times upon back home. Western economies – and of late those in the East like China – are robust enough to absorb most people and guarantee a certain level of comfort. Japa-ees (allow me to call them that) are also exposed to the joys of modern living. They see the best infrastructure that man has made so far, and the imaginative amongst them can only marvel at the achievements of these developed countries, sometimes getting very angry at why the same achievements have not been possible in their own countries. The wiser ones will be able to document these achievements with a view to replicating same at home someday.
But in the end, japa as we call it (the propensity of young southern Nigerians to leave en masse for other societies and economies that have arrived), could lead to extinction of our land and culture and whatever we call ‘civilizations’ here if mishandled. The only way it has worked for other societies like the Chinese is that they learnt so much in the foreign nations, documented so much, and returned home to replicate. They were often accused of stealing intellectual property but they pressed on anyway. Today, their story has changed. Even Britain was once a japa nation. In the era of Pax Britannica when that small, rainy archipelago dominate the world, many Brits loved to travel and live in other lands and never returned. Some were attracted simply to the better weather elsewhere. Many were posted as colonial officers. Others were drifters, smugglers, farmers, businessmen, or clergy, some of whom settled in places like Zimbabwe, Zambia, Kenya or South Africa, to name a few.
What We Should Do
- There’s no point convincing the average young Nigerian not to leave.
- We should see the emigration as an advantage and seize on it as appropriate.
- We should plan to reap this in many ways.
- We should cultivate those who are emigrating, first to ensure they feel positive about their country of origin.
- We should educate them about the economics of their action and the implication of ‘japa’.
- Things like PPP and the tax/credit systems abroad should be thoroughly analyzed for them. Also the economic struggles Nigeria is going through having to source many billions of dollars to fund the needs of emigrants.
- Our diaspora commission should go into overdrive to create a strong database of positive Nigerian people out there who are ready to contribute back home – as they did in Ireland and elsewhere.
- Governance in Nigeria must greatly improve and very soon too. We must be purposeful and determined to make visible change.
- Plan big positive ideas to engage the sweeping numbers of new emigrants – bonds and investments that can provide a long-term anchors for the emotions of our diasporans.
- Come to terms with the reality of the geographical fluidity of the new generation and how physical location.
Recently, Imo State governor announced that he was trying to secure 4,000 foreign jobs for Imo youths. This statement met with acerbic comments from a section of Nigerians who believe it is wrong-headed. But I believe we should look at the realities again. Whether the Imo governor tries or not, Imo youths are everywhere looking to ‘japa’ from Nigeria if they have an opportunity. Perhaps the phenomenon is such that even governments now have to engage with it and let Nigerian youths know that we understand. A government-guided process will most likely yield more for Nigeria in the longer term, than leaving the process to individual struggles. Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, Ireland, are countries that got wise and started to actively harness their diaspora power, sometimes even deliberately training youths for ‘export’. Indeed, if our youths secure fairly good jobs in the right countries, under six months, the investment will pay off. Or how do we balance the fact that Nigeria trains doctors, nurses, and engineers for next to nothing (where most universities charge a fee of less than $500 yearly per medical students), while we allow them to be cheaply harvested, in brains, mind, and spirit by these smarter countries. The tragedy is that these youths end up hating Nigeria which groomed them, in spite of her inefficiencies.
If Governor Uzodinma could actually secure jobs for 4,000 youths in the medical field, and they could started earning and sending money home to their folks, even at $1,000 monthly (I know it’s hard to save any money out there), that is $4,000,000 monthly, or an equivalent of N4,000,000,000 at going rates. That’s just for starters. These guys could transform Nigeria.
Creating Medics Faster
This brings me to the second issue. The Nigerian government has got wiser. Universities have been asked to ramp up the pace at which they produce medics – doctors and nurses (and indeed everyone in between – laboratory attendants, physiotherapists etc). The world cannot seem to have enough of them. Perhaps we ought to have started 10 years ago. I can imagine the thousands of students that have been frustrated out of their minds and refused to study medicine or other top courses especially in our public universities where lecturers still take delight in asserting their supremacy at every turn. But now, I understand that many universities are fixing to double their intakes. In 6 years, we shall hit an inflection point. And I believe the trick is to encourage Nigeria doctors who have matured abroad to start to give back home. It’s the cycle of life. If Philippines can supply customer service people worldwide, we too could hold the medical niche and we will be the better for it. Better still, medics earn a lot more and have fairly assured job security. Parents should also seize this opportunity. We cannot just be complaining about how Nigeria is bas. There are opportunities everywhere for those who can hold their breaths and logically pursue such.
To add to this potential for Nigeria to make a global mark by supplying the matured economies with medical personnel, Nigeria is currently working on tooling our technologically-inclined youths as well. The savvy minister for Digital Technology, Dr Bosun Tijani has launched what he calls the 3MTT (3 Million Technical Talents) whereby he intends to train three million young Nigerians in the tech space and make them employment-ready for the world. The Vice President’s office also features another program titled iDICE (Investment in Digital and Creative Enterprises). This programme also targets as many as six million youths with jobs, training, and entrepreneurship opportunities, and makes millions ready for the world. Imagine that we could multiply the example of the Imo Governor by a factor of 100? That is a potential inflow of $400 million monthly, or N400 billion from a fresh set of investments. That is $4.8 billion yearly, and I am only being conservative really.
Housing and Property – Dancing Chairs
Nigerians have noticed that just as many of us are selling off houses and other properties in Nigeria to pay for visas and employment opportunities abroad, many Nigerians abroad are also keenly looking for houses to buy in Nigeria. A newspaper report last week narrated how the houses being abandoned or sold to feed the ‘japa’ phenomenon by fresh Nigerians, are being snapped up by fresher Nigerians abroad who are perhaps already sick and tired of the ‘abroad’ life. I guess it is a matter of conditioning, but most people will tell you that there is nowhere like home. Nigerians everywhere count themselves lucky to be from Nigeria – her failures apart. Is it the weather, the food, the people, the culture, the nature, the fact that it is only here in Nigeria that most Nigerians feel totally in control and at home? Is it even the economy? Yes, it could be much better run and the opportunities could be better unleashed and made available to all, given a broad mindset, but this is one place where people don’t feel oppressed by the credit system, the insurance system, the policing system, the racial system, and all sorts of rigidities that sort of stifles and strangulates many foreigners after they may have achieved the basic needs. The opportunities not to remain basic for life, to achieve one’s actualization, and transcendence – when one wants to start giving back to society and enjoying a dignified retirement – is here.
Cycle of Life
So, this cycle of life is something we cannot stop. Indeed, I know that Britain is losing people to the USA. They too call it brain drain. Many athletes and academicians, not to talk of techies and engineers trained in the UK end up in the USA. Several articles exist online that clearly show how living in the USA is far better for working age people, than the UK. USA itself has recorded many incidents of losing their top brainiacs to China. The Chinese on the other hands – despite creating more engineers yearly than most nations on earth put together – are pushing their working population to everywhere in the world (Africa, Asia, South America, Europe etc).
The unstoppable cycle continues. Rather than curse and fight it, it is wiser to strategically position for it. Nigeria should get past the negativities and levitate above her failures. Our diaspora commission should create a large database of Nigerians everywhere and continue to bring them together for investment purposes. We should change the narrative of Nigerians being fraudsters and negative disruptors and this will take serious work. We should also create massive programs of reorientation and mass mobilization here in Nigeria to bring our youth energy together.
The way I see it, we don’t have to panic. The way things are going and if we do things right, Nigeria will also have to attract highly-skilled professionals from countries like Ghana, Gambia, Sierra Leone, Liberia and even the Francophone countries (where a good number speak good English), to fill the vacancies created by our japa-ees, even as we rapidly step up the training of our own. President Tinubu is determined to get it right. A lot is coming to Nigeria. And the President is one person I will not advise anyone to bet against.
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