In a recent interactive session in Ottawa, Canada, with leaders of groups of Nigerians in the diaspora, Vice President Yemi Osibanjo (SAN) expressed concern at the brain drain phenomenon plaguing Nigeria.
The migration of skilled workers from their countries to more developed countries in search of a better standard of living in terms of better remunerations, better work conditions and political stability is known as brain drain. Currently, Nigeria is the highest workforce exporting country in Africa, reportedly followed by Zimbabwe, Egypt and South Africa. Historically, the Italians and Irish were known for leaving their countries in droves in search of a better life. In more recent times, Eastern Europeans have joined the trend as well.
At the moment Nigeria is at its historical peak of the brain drain phenomenon. The main difference between Nigeria and the aforementioned European countries is that we are losing graduates and skilled workers, as opposed to unskilled laborers. The COVID-19 pandemic is known to have worsened the work conditions in many sectors in Nigeria, in particular but not limited to the health sector. The preferred destinations for our graduates and professionals are the UK, the US, Canada, Australia and South Arabia. I cannot count the number of friends and acquaintances I tried to contact in these few months who informed me with excited tones that they were currently abroad, most of them with their families, and had no intention of returning anytime soon. Many leave unannounced for fear of their plans being jinxed, especially those traveling out of the country for the first time.
Some of the other causes of this mass migration are low wages and allowances, lack of career growth opportunities based on merit (as opposed to nepotism), poor infrastructure, poor leadership, corruption, mass poverty, religious crises, lack of quality education, poor healthcare standards and general insecurity and lack of trust in the Nigerian system.
There has been a lot of talk of losing thousands of our health care professionals every month to the brain drain. Nigeria needs 363,000 doctors but only has 44,000 at the moment with about 40 leaving weekly. Many professionals are trading their highly skilled Nigerian jobs for unskilled jobs, and others are willing to attempt entire new career paths. The migration trend was initially restricted to certain professions in the 1980s and 1990s, but with the recent introduction of various visa programmes in several developed countries to fill the workforce in developed countries, it has become a free for all.
Some people see a window of opportunity and decide to take a gamble and change their life completely. Such was the case of Charles, a working pilot for an international airline in Nigeria who found himself in the UK during the COVID-19 lockdown and decided to take advantage of the fact that the UK government offered waivers to foreign nationals to extend their stay due to COVID. He spent a few months learning some new skills online during the lockdown and went for a total change in his career path: he became an inventor.
I asked how he was able to undertake training at such a short notice and if he had to dip into his savings. He explained that the courses he took were online and the costs were minimal. He further explained that he had initially started taking these courses in robotics and embedded systems (electronics) online in Nigeria.
“It was a journey of self-discovery that started in Nigeria. The first equipment I manufactured was with materials I purchased from Elabuchi market in Port Harcourt, here in Nigeria, and this boosted my confidence that I could build anything I put my mind to.”
I must admit I was blown away to hear this. I always thought that building complex electronic equipment and robotics required traveling far and wide in search of very specific parts. To hear that one was able to do so by visiting a local market made me realise that, more often than not, what we are really missing in Nigeria is just an enabling and encouraging system, not the equipment parts, and definitely not the brains!
Charles explained that upon experimenting some more with assembling various types of robotics and equipment, he proceeded to register a company in the UK and was also able to gain access to information and grants made available by the UK government for his projects. Again, the lack of an enabling environment and a government willing to invest in its citizens beyond the basic of education is another major reason why a creative or innovative minded Nigerian would want to try their luck elsewhere.
Upon being asked if he had any intention of returning to Nigeria, he was quick to explain that his whole intention and idea was to bring his business to Nigeria in the near future. He called this ‘reverse brain-drain’ whereby he perfects his brand and then establishes his business in Nigeria. He still has high hopes for business in Nigeria.
However, Charles is in the minority as most people who leave have no intention of returning or encouraging their own to return as they believe they cannot change or improve the Nigerian system.
Bearing in mind that our educational institutions are funded by government funds, what it means is that the gains of our government’s investment in education is being harvested by other countries. According to the MO Ibrahim Foundation, it costs an African country between 21,000-51,000 dollars to train a single medical student. Nigeria has lost roughly 2 billion dollars since 2010 to train doctors who later migrate. As a result, Nigerian policy makers are starting to consider making some prohibitory measures against migration of some groups of professionals.
Some other countries such as China and India have established bilateral agreements with host countries to collect taxes from migrated workers to re-invest in their education and infrastructure. One such example is the Bhagwati tax system proposed by Dr Bhagwati to alleviate the problem of brain drain.
Many Nigerians are doing exceedingly well in business and careers overseas and there are many ways to give back that are not strictly pecuniary. Hence, it may also be beneficial if the Nigerian government proactively encourages such individuals to do a sort of ‘reverse brain drain’ by either establishing their businesses back home or participating in training our youths on their acquired and developed skills as a way of giving back. Making them feel sought after and valued back home may be the first step to regaining some of our lost brains.
Dabi Lolomari is an interior designer, teaching consultant and journalist/writer. She can be reached at [email protected]
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