Can Nigeria’s brain-drain ever be reversed?

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Talk to any young, educated, relatively middle-class Nigerian and they’re likely to be preoccupied with one issue more than any other: their plans to emigrate and seek greener pastures elsewhere. Discussing your “japa” plans — japa is Yoruba slang meaning “emigration” — is now a national pastime, particularly in Lagos and other big cities.

I have friends who say a person’s readiness to leave Nigeria is now a consideration in choosing a partner, alongside someone’s age, religion, occupation or ethnic group.

A 2019 Pew study showed that 45 per cent of adults in Nigeria say they plan to emigrate within five years, the highest of any country surveyed. With its significant demand for skilled labour, Canada is the destination of choice. Permanent residence is offered straightaway and citizenship is attainable within four years. The number of Nigerian immigrants in Canada more than tripled in the five years to the start of the pandemic.

Britain, despite its post-Brexit struggles, is another El Dorado for young Nigerians. According to Home Office data, almost 16,000 “skilled worker” visas were granted to Nigerians in the past year. Many are doctors, nurses, software engineers and management consultants.

Other European cities are attracting young Nigerians, too. Tech workers joke that if you throw a stone in Berlin, it’s likely to hit a Nigerian software developer.

Those scrambling for the exit cite a range of reasons. Some mention the worsening security situation in Nigeria, where terror groups remain active in the north-east. Armed gangs kidnap for ransom in the north-west. And even the normally sedate south-west is facing heightened insecurity, with armed robberies and kidnappings rife. In June, a church service in the southwestern town of Owo was interrupted by gunmen. At least 40 people were killed.

The economy is another reason to leave. Inflation has been running in double digits since 2016 in Nigeria. Food is expensive and work is hard to find. Unemployment is 33 per cent. Many have concluded that with their education and sought-after skills, they’re better off trying their luck abroad.

So why did I move back to Nigeria last month despite everything? When I told my friends and family in June that I had decided to move back home, they all asked why. “I thought you were trying to escape Nigeria,” my favourite professor wrote in an email when I informed her of my move.

I wish I could wax lyrical about how much I missed home and was drawn back by the warm embrace of great food. It certainly wasn’t the prospect of seeing more of my friends. Thanks to everyone hopping on the japa train, I now have more friends in London and Toronto than I do in Lagos.

On the days when it rains and Lagos, with its lack of proper drainage, resembles an Olympic swimming pool, I miss the ease of the London Underground. Traffic here is unbearable on the best days and worse when the heavens open.

And good luck house-hunting in Lagos. I had professional help finding a flat and a reasonable budget to work with. Even so, I saw places that made me question the wisdom of my choice. There was one flat with very few windows. With a straight face, the estate agent asked me how much fresh air I would really need anyway if I installed air conditioning.

Yet for all these faults. Lagos and Nigeria as a whole, have their charms. The city is home to a burgeoning tech sector. A community of modern contemporary artists and writers also thrives. The globally recognised sounds of Afrobeats superstars Wizkid, Burna Boy and their peers were forged here before making it big worldwide. And even the chaos has a perverse benefit, sometimes giving you the charge you need to feel truly alive. Many who leave would return if the basic needs of security, electricity and a functional healthcare system were met.

As for me, I’m happy to be back. There is so much to be covered in Nigeria and the wider region, including an election in 2023. All our lives take the occasional detour — mine right now involves navigating the traffic in Lagos and making new friends in a familiar city.