…Pondering on the gradual exodus of some Nigerians to greener pastures
Sometime in the 1980s, most likely during the Babangida regime, a national orientation TV advert aired featuring the late actor Enebeli Elebuwa as Andrew, the main character. In the advert, Andrew can be seen holding his bag and walking to the airport, visibly complaining about the lack of jobs, power, water, and other basic amenities. Someone tries to dissuade him as he walks ahead and then he utters the words “I’m tired of this country …I’m checking out”. If I remember correctly, the advert was intended to highlight the importance of staying in Nigeria and contributing to national development. I am almost certain, however, that people would remember it as being more about “checking out” of the country.
Andrew typified the average young Nigerian; graduate, eager and eligible to work but with limited opportunities available to improve their personal economy. He desired a much better country that would provide for his basic needs so he could focus on contributing his quota to economic development and not just think of surviving. As this wasn’t happening for him, he had made up his mind to “japa”.
A good friend of mine invited me to lunch (or was it brunch?) a few days ago, to “catch up” as we hadn’t seen each other since sometime in 2019, no thanks to COVIK One Nine. As we chatted, he casually mentioned that he was moving to Canada with his family. I was not surprised considering that I’d had similar conversations with so many other people in the last few years. Within the same week, another friend also informed me that he would also be moving to Canada. The numbers keep growing and I can only imagine how many other people have given similar testimonies in recent times.
We have now come full circle to the same brain drain issue that was prevalent in the 1980s. I have lost count of the number of people I know who have gone abroad in the last six years since I have been back from the UK after completing a master’s degree. The top destinations from my informal survey? Canada, the United States, England, and Australia. Many of these people have also asked why I bothered returning as I could have either stayed back in the UK or used it as a launchpad to another destination. I have also asked myself the same question.
I had never really considered the emigration trend as much of a big deal until sometime in 2016 when I went to Murtala Muhammed International Airport to see a friend off. I had noticed how busy the airport was; this was in the last week of August, and there were so many adults and children. Considering the amount of luggage I saw and knowing that schools were due to open by early September, I knew this could not be the holiday crowd. Nowadays, it’s not such a big deal as so many people have either left or are preparing to leave, are currently processing emigration documents, or have taken or are preparing to take any of the numerous exams involved in the process such as the IELTS or PLAB for doctors. It would seem as though those who have no plans of leaving the country are in the minority.
Healthcare professionals (doctors and nurses especially) have fast become endangered species, the UK being a favourite destination as demand exists for their services. Sometime in 2019, the Minister of Labour, Dr Chris Ngige, ironically a medical doctor, declared that “Nigeria has too many doctors and is not suffering from a ‘brain drain’”. A curious statement considering that at the time, the Nigerian Medical Association (NMA) stated that there were only 40,000 doctors for an estimated 196 million Nigerians. The World Health Organisation (WHO) at the time also revealed that Nigeria’s physician-to-patient ratio was four doctors per 10,000 patients (the ratio in the US was 26 doctors per 10,000 people and 28 doctors per 10,000 in the UK). I also recall a former Minister of Health, Prof. Isaac Adewole declaring that the country cannot accommodate all doctors it produces and some should go into farming or tailoring! Pretty hilarious when you consider the shortfall in our doctor-patient ratio.
One begins to wonder if things are so bad that many want to leave the country. The puzzling thing is that some of the people who have left ostensibly had no reason to if one were to consider their economic status at the time. These people had what many would term as good jobs by Nigerian standards. Some were already at senior positions in well-structured indigenous firms or even in multinationals, some were on track for management positions, some were even preparing for retirement. One would expect that this category of people would be able to provide some of the resources Andrew complained about for themselves (light, water, for example). The question then is, why are they leaving? Why would people who many consider “comfortable” decide to leave the country? What exactly are the problems that these people are running away from or what exactly are they running to?
In conversation with some friends who have either left or are planning to leave, one of the top reasons adduced has been the need for a higher quality of life; globally competitive income, dependable healthcare, supportive social systems, economic security, assurance of basic rights, etc., not just for themselves but also for their children. Some other reasons cited include the increasing level of insecurity within the country and the unpredictability of many things in Nigeria such as the rising inflation levels (9.55% in December 2015 and 15.75% by December 2020), unemployment, and inconsistencies in government policies which affect many things, directly and indirectly.
Of those who haven’t decided to leave or probably don’t plan to leave, some are preparing their children for life as global citizens by sending them to school abroad as a springboard for their economic security. Many others with the means have also sorted themselves out by acquiring citizenship of other countries through any of the numerous citizenship packages on offer. I consider these people as “sleeper agents”: they will be here for as long as possible but if anything happens to disrupt their plans, they will have another country to “escape” to.
Speaking about exit routes, not everyone leaves through official routes such as applying through the various emigration programmes or acquiring citizenship by investment. Some people are desperate enough to travel abroad, purportedly on holiday and overstay their visa or even request asylum on any number of conjured issues! I once heard about the story of a guy who went on holiday to the US with his wife and kids, and then crossed into Canada on foot through the US border to seek asylum.
I often wonder whether Nigeria’s loss is gain for those countries? Without a doubt but with a caveat. Granted, the residency and citizenship programmes are often designed to attract highly skilled immigrants but considering a large number of people from other countries also emigrate to some of these popular destinations, how many Nigerians would be able to find work commensurate to their skills and experience? Would those countries get full value from these emigrants? Would these emigrants feel fulfilled if they have to accept work below their skills and qualifications?
Another thing I think about is that while many Nigerians can’t wait to go abroad and never return, it would appear that more foreigners and repatriates are rushing to take their place. If things are so bad and Nigerians are leaving, why are foreigners coming in? What do they see that we don’t? Now, I won’t claim to have all the answers especially as I haven’t spoken with anyone in detail about this but I’d wager that they can see the many opportunities in our national disorganisation that we are too blind/unbothered/stressed to see. Their objective is largely exploitative/opportunistic and if the worst comes to the worst, they have the advantage of their alternate passports and can go back when they want. There are many Nigerians also taking advantage of similar opportunities but they know what they have to go through to make magic happen. A bit generalised I know but I hope you get the point?
One wonders about the future of Nigeria as a good number of “the best of the best” have either left or are planning to leave. Is the government aware of the situation of things and if it is, does it have any plans to stem the tide? Maybe like Andrew, we can find people to convince us otherwise but what would those people tell us to make us change our minds and find a reason to stay?
How will Nigeria survive the brain drain in the long run? I wonder but then I remember Sound Sultan’s song “ajo dabile ee, no matter where you go, make you try come back area o”. East or west, home is best. Nigerians will always remain connected to home and I pray the time comes when we see a reversal of the brain drain. Do I plan on leaving Naija as well? You should know not to ask me that question. Based on the precedence set by those who have gone ahead, one does not announce a departure until you arrive at your destination “in the abroad” or else, village people will hold your plane and prevent you from leaving!
My final thought: go if you must but stay if you can and by all means, do what you have to do to achieve the goals you have set for yourself. What else do you expect me to say? That is the way I see things today.