In light of recent national and global realities, it is unmissable that the development of every nation depends significantly on its youth population, as young people are significant drivers of innovation and economic growth. When a Nation fails to invest in its youth population, it is not preparing for its future. The lack of investment in young people and their aspirations contributes significantly to the migration of young professionals from many developing nations today, particularly Nigeria.
The brain drain caused by this massive emigration leaves devastating implications for the country’s economy, including the collapse of essential services, especially in the health and tech sectors. While technological transfer, human capital development, and an upshot of international remittances are potential benefits to this trend, the implication on overall development outweighs these perceived benefits.
Young people have a history of unlocking economic prosperity through creativity and innovation. In the face of overwhelming challenges, they see opportunities and constantly demonstrate resilience. This resilience and drive have birthed disruptive innovations across crucial economic sectors. In Nigeria, startups like Ecotutu provide cold storage facilities for significant markets to reduce post-harvest losses of fruits and vegetables. LifeBank increases access to blood transfusion saving countless lives. Kippa provides simple bookkeeping and financial management services to MSMEs, and Trade lenda, a digital Bank for the underserved, bridges the financing gaps of MSMEs across emerging markets. These innovations, among many others, are significant contributions of young people to Nigeria’s development.
However, to thrive, young people require basic social structures that support their socioeconomic well-being, such as access to quality education, healthcare, and security. Historically, the emigration of young people stems from the search for better opportunities, but recent trends suggest that the depletion of social structures and resulting distrust in political systems increasingly shape migration decisions. For instance, young people feel betrayed by the lack of credibility of the electoral process in the just concluded general elections which has further deepened this distrust. If young people cannot trust their leaders to perform their duties, how can they trust them with their lives and future? This is the heart of the “Japa” migration trend, which speaks to finding a quick route out of a dangerous situation to escape harm or preserve one’s life.
The Japa phenomenon is not new. Nigerians, particularly the youth, have always migrated to countries with better opportunities. As seen in figure 1, there is a direct correlation between socioeconomic outlook and migration. The peak emigration periods since independence occurred when social and institutional structures could not support citizens’ basic needs.
As shown above, in the mid-1960s, political upheaval and civil unrest caused by the mid-west election crisis and the Nigeria civil war led to a mass migration of Nigerians to the U.S. and Canada, where the rapid growth of the service sectors and the Canadian post-war prosperity attracted the migrating population. In the mid-1980s, Nigeria experienced its highest emigration wave, with many Nigerians migrating to the United Kingdom, the United States, South Africa, Gambia, Canada, Brazil, and other countries with relatively more stable economies, political climates, and rewarding opportunities. The same was true for the period between 1999 and 2008 and the most recent wave, which began in 2019 and has lingered to date.
In previous emigration waves, people migrated essentially to study or work. Most returned to the country after completing their education or becoming reasonably established. Those who stayed back sent remittances, which became an essential source of income for their families and communities. In contrast, professionals and skilled talents are relocating with their families with little or no intention of returning. Fueling this is the heightened levels of insecurity, audacious lawlessness, gross economic decline, and the loss of faith in the future of Nigeria as a nation. Hence the affiliation of the name Japa to the current migration trend. For many, relocation is first for survival, before anything aspirational. Tragically, the sectors worst hit by this trend are the most strategic for our economic and national development; the finance, healthcare, education, and Tech sectors.
A significant number of Nigerians now call foreign nations home. According to the United State Census Bureau, over 400,000 Nigerians live in the U.S., making Nigerians the most migrant population of all African countries in the U.S. In Canada and the U.K, the population
is 70,000 and 178,000 respectively. Year after year, these numbers continue to experience rapid increases. Worsening the situation now is the fact that most developed countries are receptive to immigrants due to labour shortages, and Nigerian talent is well-positioned to fill these gaps.
To curb the alarming loss of talent, the government must improve the living conditions of citizens, create more opportunities for young people, and strengthen structures and policies that amplify youth voices and agency. The safety of every Nigerian must be prioritised, regardless of age, gender disposition, or social status. Investment in infrastructure, quality education, and healthcare services should also be prioritised as it would guarantee improved living standards and significantly reduce the urge to emigrate.
Another critical step is to create an enabling environment for businesses and entrepreneurs to succeed, through favourable economic policies such as tax breaks, and entrepreneurship training, among other incentives for business owners, making it easier for startups to operate and scale. Beyond these, the government must uphold justice and the rule of law essentially because a nation that is lawless and does not respect the rights of its citizens do not deserve them. Without swift actions to implement these measures, there is an excellent likelihood that the nation will soon experience a more devastating migration wave.
The Nigerian youth population is her most valuable resource. But for the country to reap this demographic dividend, she must live up to her duties and responsibilities to the citizens. Patriotism is a social contract and requires more than the labels of Nationality to secure the loyalty of citizens. Conscious efforts must therefore be made to restore citizens’ faith, especially young people, in the nation’s socioeconomic and political systems.
This is important because more troublesome than the number of people relocating is the mindsets they are leaving with. They no longer see Nigeria as home, but as a hopeless situation they must escape from. It becomes pertinent for all stakeholders to take action and uphold the social contract founded on mutual trust, integrity, and the common good. While this may not necessarily shut down emigration, it is a promising first step in restoring confidence and nationalism in the hearts of every Nigerian.
There hasn’t been a more auspicious time in our history as a nation. Therefore, the next set of leaders must make conscious efforts to inspire hope and demonstrate visionary leadership that can harness Nigeria’s demographic potential, attracting the nation’s diaspora talents to return and afford the young population still in the country the environments and opportunities to prosper and thrive.