Many skilled Nigerians are torn between their determination to remain in the country and the lure of endless possibilities around the globe. Despite the best intentions of the government, the emigration figures presented earlier will only get worse.
Arturo Sandoval is one of my favourite jazz trumpeters, but I might never have heard of him if he never took the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to meet Dizzy Gillespie on that boat in 1977. Gillespie had gone to Cuba to perform and listen to the musical influences of the black Cuban communities when Sandoval approached him to act as a tour guide. Later in the day when Sandoval revealed his musical side, Gillespie knew he had found a protégé. Sandoval became a worldwide hit in 1980’s at the time he grew disillusioned with the government of Fidel Castro. He constantly battled the urge to leave Cuba, but was held back by his love for his wife and children. Eventually, he could not stand a life in Cuba, and defected to the United States in 1990.
In the last six weeks, three of my friends have swapped their Nigerian passports for British and American ones. The more interesting trend is the outflow of pregnant Nigerian women to deliver in societies that ensure their children have the opportunity to choose where to call home when they are adults. According to the 2011 edition of the World Bank’s Migration and Remittance Fact Book, an estimated 1,000,000 (0.6% of the population) emigrated from Nigeria for various reasons. While this percentage is not strange, what I found worrying was how skewed the numbers looked when the focus shifts to skilled emigration. The emigration rates of the tertiary educated population and physicians were 10.7% and 13.6% respectively. This means the percentage of the skilled population emigrating is 20 times the national average.
The data confirmed my initial suspicion that Nigeria is still losing some of its best brains, without a deliberate plan to bring them back home. We continue to impose a mandatory youth service program on all graduates, showing our stubbornness to either make this optional or ditch a program that long outlived its usefulness. When the NYSC was created, it was mainly intended to forge national unity and help heal the scars created by a nasty civil war. The comments and reviews that accompanied Chinua Achebe’s There Was a Country only support the argument that the NYSC failed to achieve its main goal. Nigerian embassies do not have a database of its citizens abroad, and make it clear such people are not welcome back home. The process of getting a Nigerian passport via most of the foreign missions suggests we are comfortable to let our kith and kin hold their foreign passports and no more. When you remember that Nigerians are not allowed to vote because they choose to live outside the country, then I is clear that this is a nation at war with its people.
Today, Nigeria receives the 10th largest remittance flows in the world, estimated at $10 billion annually, despite not being on the top emigration countries. It is a sign of the skill and potential of the non-resident population, constantly ignored by the country. India and China continue to top foreigner enrolment rates for tertiary education in the United Kingdom and United States, but most of those graduates return home when their shifts are done. Here, I know a few people who studied abroad on government scholarships, and chose to ignore their country when it was time to return home. As we speak, they have built careers abroad and now contribute to the tax kitty of the United Kingdom.
Many skilled Nigerians are torn between their determination to remain in the country and the lure of endless possibilities around the globe. Despite the best intentions of the government, the emigration figures presented earlier will only get worse. It is perhaps a good time to remember that the competition for skilled labour will only get more intense, and patriotism is an over played card to attract the best brains and minds.
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