Will Africa’s ‘Runaway Talents’ ever Return Home?
About a decade ago when Dr Uche Anyanwagu left Nigeria to take advantage of the British Government’s Commonwealth Shared Scholarship, his plan was to return home at the end of his studies. This was why he ensured to obtain a one-year study leave before relocating. However, upon getting to the United Kingdom, everything changed. First, he found himself faced with immense opportunities, including a PhD scholarship which he got just five months into his Master’s programme. The question then became –can this young and vibrant medical doctor abandon all these opportunities and return to Nigeria where doctors are constantly striking over unpaid salaries? Let’s get back to this story, soon.
Africa’s Brain Drain Problem: An Overview
About 70, 000 skilled African professionals emigrate from the continent every year, according to the African Union. Now, this is bad news for a continent that is struggling to develop. The catch phrase for the problem is “brain drain”, and it has been happening long before many of us were born. Unfortunately, not much is being done to address the root cause. Every year, hundreds of thousands of young Africans make plans to leave, often with no plans of coming back. They take this drastic step for the sake of survival. Nobody wants to spend nearly twenty years in school only to get into a labour market that has no space for them. Let’s not talk about the fact that sometimes, even the ones that do manage to find jobs are often subjected to poverty pay, poor working conditions and delayed salaries.
Why Does Everyone Want to Leave?
The truth is that even Africans with relatively good prospects back home still want to pursue other opportunities elsewhere. Take for instance the case of Dr Uche Anyanwagu; he was excellent on his residency programme in one of Nigeria’s main national hospitals. But once the scholarship opportunity presented itself, he embraced it without thinking twice. Apparently, he was aware of the many opportunities that could come with that sort of scholarship. These same opportunities have continued to attract thousands of African professionals to Europe and America over the years.
It’s important to note that trained professionals in the medical field have always stood greater chances of getting work visas to the UK and other OECD countries. Little wonder the number of International Medical Graduates (IMGs) from Africa keeps increasing annually; standing at 13,584 as of 2015 according to a report by the Mo Ibrahim Foundation. However, as the same report pointed out, this level of brain drain causes “an enormous strain on public health delivery on the continent, especially considering that there are not enough physicians to attend to citizens in most African countries.”
Those who truly Would Like to Come Home and Help are Discouraged by Africa’s Realities
When Dr Anyanwagu spoke to this author, he emphasised that he really did look forward to returning to home at the end of his studies. However, many factors combined to influence his decision to stay back in the UK. First were the many opportunities he was presented with. And there was the fact that back home, everything was literally going downhill. His colleagues in Abuja and across the country were constantly striking, demanding for better remuneration and working conditions. And just when it seemed as though things couldn’t get any worse, the #EndSARS protests happened in October 2020. He said that was what informed his decision to get a UK citizenship.
“I was five months into my Master’s programme when I got a PhD scholarship. That meant that I was going to stay here for four years or more. So, automatically, it became hard to go back to Nigeria immediately. And because I knew it was going to be hard, I ensured to write all the medical exams here, get their professional certifications in order to get the license to practice. That way, I could get to practice as a medical doctor here while I’m doing my PhD so as not to lose sight of the practice. Interestingly, before I finished the PhD, many other windows of opportunities opened up.
“Like I said earlier, before I left Nigeria I had taken a one year study leave with the intention of coming home at the end of the programme. But when I got the PhD scholarship, I wrote again requesting for an extension of the study leave by three years which they graciously granted me. But when I was finally done with the programme and wrote them that I was coming back, funny enough doctors were on strike. It was even my own HoD that was like ‘what are you coming back here for? They are owing your colleagues more than seven months and they are on strike at the moment. So, what are you coming back to?’. As a result of that, I suspended my return plans. It became very hard for me to go back, bearing in mind the prevailing conditions in the country. Really, what was I going back to do in Nigeria? I had two amazing offers here in the UK –a lectureship and post-doctoral fellowship in the university and a clinical fellowship in the hospital. So, I had two good things staring at me and it became very hard to return…
“Will I ever return? Honestly, the sort of Government we have back home makes it very difficult to say yes. I’ve been here for the past eight years getting to nine years. It was only last year October after the #EndSARS protests that I made up my mind to pick up the citizenship of this country. All along, I had refused to do that… So many of us have the desire to return. But the factors at home with the type of people we have at the helms of affairs, the insecurity, the lack of vision and clarity and the uncertainty hovering around the Nigerian youth make it very hard to return. If you think about coming home, people will be like ‘are you mad? Are you really okay? What are you coming back into? Into chaos?”
Will other Runaway African Talents Return Home?
Daniel, a Data Scientist who initially left the country for a Master’s degree but went on to get a PhD, said the general answer to the above question would be no; at least not in the immediate future. But then he went on to posit that for some other African professionals, the answer might be yes.
“I will comment based on my experience with other Africans, not just Nigerians. The trend is that people from other African nations that are forthcoming, for example, Rwanda, Kenya, South Africa and even Ghana, tend to return (or plan to return), after their studies. On the other hand, only a handful of Nigerians (mainly Northerners), plan to return. And even this has declined,” Daniel explained.
And the reason for the first scenario is obvious, he said. Countries like South Africa and Rwanda are doing quite well and their citizens are hopeful that the skills they have acquired from UK and American Universities would stand them out and advance their careers back home despite the challenges peculiar to their countries. However, most Nigerians do not feel this way. At least, Daniel does not. He shared his frustration:
“I did my Master’s in a top engineering field. I then came back to Nigeria and tried to do my best; even registered with all the relevant pro organisations and got all the certifications and contacts. Yet, the issues of tribalism and connection made it very difficult for me to make headway. I was lecturing and I did my best. I avoided all the issues like sorting, even though I saw my colleagues doing it. The students even thought I was the enemy because I tried to make them do the right thing- to study in order to pass, rather than sort to pass. To cut the story short, I sought out another route and left the country because I didn’t want to get to a point where I feel so frustrated and have to be part of the evils that are taking place. Lest I forget, my salary was about 120k as a lecturer II with a masters degree in engineering from a Russel group university.
“I spoke earlier about Northerners. During my Master’s programme, most of my Northern colleagues didn’t spend more than a week after they submitted their dissertations. They were eager to go back to Nigeria. I can’t say for sure why. But I can guess that there is less competition; At least back then. For example, one of my friends back then had attended school for free from primary till university. He even got a scholarship for MSc and later got another one for PhD. Apparently he was the only one from his local community with such level of education. So, they had to keep pushing him. And in that spirit, when he returned back to Nigeria, he was immediately offered a job at one of the major agencies in Abuja. But fast forward to three years later, my Northern colleagues don’t want to return to Nigeria anymore. They want to stay. They do hustle jobs like people from other tribes (things they didn’t use to do before). And that says to me that even they now realise that our country has a lot of issues. And they don’ t want to go back and be confronted by these issues.
“So yes, you may brand us runaway talents. But I believe you cannot give what you don’t have. The likes of Soware can make noise today because he is a US citizen. he has settled himself and his family. Now he is fighting for Nigeria. As a matter of fact, he is alive because he is a US citizen. Nnamdi Kano is a UK citizen. Same applies to him. You can hardly fight a system you depend on and succeed. And for most ‘runaway talent’ like you termed them, returning to Nigeria means you are coming to rub shoulders with the powers that be in Nigeria. If you are from a wealthy family, then you might be okay. You will have the right contacts to obtain a decent job. And you would most likely not fight the powers that be or do too much to change the status quo. If you run a business, you will try as much as possible to ‘play ball’ with the elites so your business can thrive without hiccups. On the other hand, if you don’t have such contacts or affluence, you might just be struggling for the rest of your days. You would even be more resented because the elders will see you as a threat and may try to sit on you at every opportunity. And if you try to raise your head, they have all the tools and resources to cut it off.
“In the end, the way I see it is this: you have two options. One is to stay abroad, work, earn money, make yourself a person of status then if you please, you can go to Nigeria and try to improve the system. Now, you have some leverage. You are not totally dependent on the system. There is little the system or powers that be can do to hurt you. On the other hand, you can return to Nigeria and prepare your mind to continue in the struggle as everyone else. And later start getting pissed with yourself.
More Perspective on the Matter
Oluwatobi Adeyemi has been living and working in Germany over the past seven years. He told this author that he would never return to Nigeria again; at least not after experiencing a working system. According to him, there are no incentives to return home. After all, Africans abroad “left for a reason and if they can give their children and generations to come the same life that they aspire to have, why ruin that chance by returning to a miserable country where nothing works?”
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