Can ‘japa’ land Nigeria in Japan?

If you spend too much time on social media, you would swear that emigration, also known as “japa”, is new and peculiar to Nigeria. No, it isn’t. “Japa”, a Yoruba slang that roughly means “to cut loose”. For four decades, Nigerians have been “cutting loose” for economic reasons. The current wave is reminiscent of the exodus of medical personnel to Saudi Arabia in the mid-1980s. That, I should think, was the first mass movement of Nigerians abroad that gained media attention. The naira had fallen from N1/$ to N4/$, making forex earnings juicy and attractive — and, good enough, Saudi badly needed doctors and nurses. As I recall, we used “brain drain” to describe the phenomenon.

Before the economic crisis, “japa” was not a big thing. Nigerians could travel to several countries without needing a visa and most always returned home. Nigerian footballers were comfortable with plying their trade at home. Greats like Segun Odegbami, Christian Chukwu and Adokiye Amiesimaka did not have any compelling economic reasons to play abroad. The fall in the value of the naira in the mid-1980s also changed the fortune of our football for good. Belgium became the magnet for Nigerian players — thanks largely to the legendary Stephen Keshi who pioneered a wave of emigration that rewrote the history and redrew the geography of our football. A new era was born.

With foreign-based Nigerian doctors, nurses, lecturers and footballers sending life-changing remittances and setting up businesses back home, the “japa” phenomenon began to explode. But along with regular immigration came the irregular one: people started overstaying their visas — after going for studies or attending international events — and most were content with taking up odd jobs. Nigerians became notorious for criminal activities. Through drug trafficking and credit card fraud, some would buy cars and computers and ship them home to launder the proceeds of crime. Our ladies started flooding Italy for sex work. The “success stories” pulled more Nigerians in.

On a positive side, regular immigration became easier. The US Visa Lottery was very popular among Nigerians in the 1990s and 2000s before we were no longer eligible. Dublin, in the Republic of Ireland, was a popular destination before the rules were tightened — apparently to curb abuse. Because it was an English-speaking EU country with the UK just next door, Ireland offered a comfortable new home for Nigerians. Any child born there automatically became a citizen, along with other benefits. Having seen enough of us, the Irish authorities changed the rules in the mid-2000s and made it difficult for both the child and the parents to become citizens or claim benefits.

Western countries started introducing schemes for professionals and investors, basically to attract quality migrants to fill their own manpower needs. Nigerians took advantage. The UK had the highly skilled migrant worker scheme. Canada has been a good spot for long, the only complaint being about the weather. Nigerians have been braving the cold all the same. With the new study and work opportunities, Canada has become a No 1 pick for young Nigerians. It is easier to relocate to Canada than the US, although the Americans are also coming up with immigration-friendly programmes (programs, lol). The UK has also opened a new big gate, particularly for students, doctors and nurses.

In sum, there is nothing new about “japa”. There is no official data to capture the number of Nigerians living abroad as well as the historical trend from the 1980s, but it is safe to say that there will be more as people keep searching for better opportunities. In a country of 200 million people with lean economic opportunities, inadequate infrastructure, high unemployment and serious security challenges, it is only logical for the citizens to seek better life elsewhere — even in Togo, which is not as big as Lagos, or Equatorial Guinea, where they speak Spanish. In the end, survival is a basic human instinct and the Nigerian dire situation is enough for people to seek solace abroad.

Citizens of countries with large populations often seek opportunities abroad. Nigerians are not alone. According to a UN report, the ten countries with the highest number of emigrants in 2021 were India (17.9 million), Mexico (11.1 million), Russia (10.8 million), China (10.5 million), Syria (8.5 million), Bangladesh (7.4 million), Pakistan (6.3 million), Ukraine (6.1 million), Philippines (6.1 million) and Afghanistan (5.9 million). Nigeria is ranked No 45 with 1.7 million. Given the number of Nigerians who have migrated legally and illegally in the last few years, we will move up the chart very soon. We should also bear in mind that many more are waiting to leave at the next opportunity.

By the way, I am not against emigration. I have several reasons to back my position, as I have said at different forums recently. One, leaving your job allows others to move up. It is also going to take many people off the job market. More talents will be uncovered and discovered. The downside is that in our case, it is the skilled ones that are leaving in droves and most have no plans to return. Losing those whose skills and knowledge are difficult to replace, especially medical doctors. Government at all levels must do everything possible to reverse this trend in the medical position through the provision of incentives, including the necessary equipment, facilities and remuneration.

Two, when Nigerians study or work in advanced societies, they are in a good stead to learn new things about the world, about work ethic, about critical thinking, about global best practices. Our medical personnel cannot attend to patients in Europe with the same contempt they mete out to Nigerians back home. They cannot get away with negligence as they easily do here. Also, lecturers cannot dictate to their employers what payment software to use. They cannot go on total strike for eight months over a matter that will take years to address. They will also get to understand what “autonomy” means and how universities are funded in the US, the UK, Canada and similar countries.

Three, when Nigerians study or live abroad, they will unlearn many things. It is very easy to evade or underpay tax in Nigeria but if you try that in the US, you will face the music. They will also understand the dignity of labour: a Nigerian student would be more willing to serve as a waiter at a restaurant in the UK or as a security guard in the US to pay his bills. Back home in Nigeria, he would probably look up to his uncle for bailout. There is no uncle or aunty in Canada. It is everyman for himself and God for us all. You are forced to understand prudential use of resources, to practise orderliness and respect for the rules, regulations and laws. For me, this is worth the adventure.

Four, and quite importantly, I am of the strong conviction that the diaspora can play a major role in the transformation of Nigeria. With the right leadership in place, some of our best brains in the diaspora who still love this country can return home to be part of the process of rebuilding our land. They can transfer or deploy the knowledge and experience they have acquired to help the rebuilding project. We saw glimpses of this possibility when President Olusegun Obasanjo was in office. He tapped talents from the diaspora. I have also noticed that many hospitals, schools and businesses established or run by those who came from the diaspora are always a notch more professional.

As we know, modern economies are powered by the knowledge industry. In the 20th century, Japan sent the world alight when it developed without natural resources. It was the quality of human resources that took the country to the top of the ladder. They are now global leaders in the automotive, robotics and electronics industries, but they started by copying America. The knowledge transfer did wonders. This fuels my optimism that Nigerians who are accumulating skills and knowledge abroad can return someday to team up the home-based talents and help re-engineer our development. Through brain drain gain, “japa” may galvanise Nigeria into becoming a type of Japan.

Finally, let us not forget the little matter of remittances. Thousands of Nigerian families rely on Western Union. Remittances have been mitigating the impact of poverty on our society and have helped improve the standard of living for a good number of people. Many building projects are financed by people in the diaspora, creating jobs for masons, plumbers, electricians, labourers and other artisans. Remittances in 2021 were estimated by experts at between $17 billion and $20 billion. This figure, apparently, covers only funds that passed through the official channels. Some are sent in form of goods or through human couriers. Some remittances are invested as well.

Nigerians are still far behind many nationals when it comes to remittances. According to Migration and Development Brief (May 2022), the top five recipient countries for remittances in 2021 were India ($89 billion), Mexico ($54 billion), China ($53 billion), the Philippines ($37 billion), and Egypt ($32 billion). Since 2008, India has been topping the list. At the rate Nigerians are currently leaving the country, and assuming most get good jobs and are generous enough to remember their friends and families back home, our own remittances will be up there in the next 10 years. We may find it embarrassing that Nigerians want to “japa”, but I think the benefits far outweigh the negatives.

Lest I forget, I am not suggesting that Nigerians should continue to “japa”. It is not all that glitters that is gold. Many of those who “japa” now want to “japada” (return) having seen that the streets of Western countries are not paved with gold. Some are not finding life easy. Truly, the ideal situation is for our country to be at peace and make progress so that people can stay back. I have met many Nigerians abroad who would rather be home if we could get our act together. All that some are asking for is regular power supply and security. My summary, therefore, is that while we need to slow down the exodus with good governance, migration, nevertheless, has plenty great benefits.

AND FOUR OTHER THINGS…

US ALARM

The United States has unusually sent a well-publicised security alert to its embassy staff and citizens in Abuja over possible terror attacks. This was followed up with an order to leave Abuja. Many other Western countries soon followed suit. I am still trying to understand what happened because the series of events appeared to be fast. Could it be that they shared intelligence with Nigeria in the past and nothing was done, meaning they no longer trust our government to act reassuringly? Could it be that there is some political undertone that may be linked to global alliances in the wake of the Russia-Ukraine war? Whatever it is, the government has to take our security more seriously. Must.

NAIRA BY DESIGN

The Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) has given Nigerians a surprise early Christmas hamper by announcing a redesign of the national currency and withdrawal of the old notes. This, according to the bank, is to check counterfeiting and the activities of kidnappers who have stockpiled ransoms in naira. It should also push more Nigerians into internet banking and use of e-naira to reduce cash transactions. Politicians who have warehoused enormous cash for the 2023 elections may also be affected. We will have to wait to see how the policy will impact the economy as a whole. But I worry about the timing. December is high-transaction period and businesses may be disrupted. Watching…

SUNAK’S CV

The unstable UK political climate has produced the third prime minister in 2022, making the whole thing look like a farce. Rishi Sunak, the new PM, has become the first Hindu and non-white to lead the country. The aspect that should interest Nigerian youths, in my opinion, is his age: he is just 42. But beyond looking at his age, they should also examine his CV. He did not become the prime minister overnight. A graduate of Oxford and Stanford University, Sunak was elected into parliament at age 34 in 2015. He was chancellor of the exchequer (finance minister) from 2020 to 2022, after serving as chief secretary to the treasury from 2019 to 2020. Is the message clear? Preparation.

QUANTUM INIFINITUM

The good people of Cross River must be mollified by the fact that Prof Ben Ayade, the governor, has presented his last budget. For eight years, he bombastically mesmerised his citizens with esoteric nomenclatures when perspicuity was needed. Apart from the “Budget of Deep Vision” of 2016, his first, the rest could only be decrypted by seasoned lexicographers — 2017: “Infinite Transposition”; 2018: “Kinetic Crystallization”; 2019: “Qabalistic Densification”; 2020: “Olympotic Merristamasis”; 2021: “Blush and Bliss”; 2022: “Conjugated Agglutination”; and, finally, 2023: “Quantum infinitum”. The tintinnabulation aside, did the budgets transmogrify Cross River into a paradise? Highfalutin.

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