Should I stay or should I go? The dilemma for young Nigerians

Nigerian graduate Olotu Olanrewaju is facing a choice between remaining in the country he loves and the possibility of a better life elsewhere.

He adores the culture, food, music and family mentality at home, especially how people look out for each other and share common goals.

But the 24-year-old electrical engineer feels he is being held back professionally.

“I’m looking for greener pastures and better opportunities, rather than getting stuck here in Nigeria,” he tells the BBC’s What in the World podcast, adding that he thinks his degree would be “more appreciated” abroad.

There is also the feeling that the lack of reliable basic infrastructure – causing things like power cuts – as well as security concerns, corruption and poor governance, all create unnecessary barriers to getting on with life.

Mr Olanrewaju is one of tens of thousands of young, disenchanted Nigerians contemplating the move to join many others overseas. It’s a trend known by the Yoruba word “japa” meaning “to escape”.

The BBC contacted several government officials for a response to what he and other young Nigerians told us but has not received a reply.

The idea of emigrating from Nigeria is not new.

Since the 1980s, many middle-class Nigerians have sought economic opportunities abroad, but the scale and urgency now feels different and japa is becoming increasingly popular with Gen Z and millennials.

An African Polling Institute survey from 2022 found that 69% of Nigerians aged 18-35 would relocate given the opportunity – despite a slight fall from 2021. In 2019 the figure was just 39%.

On social media, young Nigerians have taken to posting about their japa experiences.

While some describe how they miss home, others show off the appeal of relocating, and encourage their peers to do the same.

But leaving is a pricey venture.

The rising cost of living, and the depreciation of the currency, the naira, has made an expensive process even harder – but also pushed more people to try to leave.

It is far easier for professionals and university graduates who have the skills and qualifications needed to secure well-paying jobs and visas in the West, as well as the finances to start a new life in a country where the cost of living is far higher than at home.

As well as those seeking legal routes, many Nigerians try to move abroad without visas, by crossing the Sahara Desert or the Mediterranean Sea. Thousands of people die each year on the journey and those who make it often struggle to find work or somewhere decent to live.

For years, Mr Olanrewaju and his parents have been saving up. He hopes to move to Germany or Spain and has signed up to German classes to improve his chances.

He is not the first in his family to tread this path.

Two years ago, his brother Daniel, now 27, managed to swap Nigeria’s sticky heat for the cooler shores of the Scottish city of Aberdeen.

He works there as a photographer and social worker, and although he finds it a bit expensive, he tells his brother about the benefits of Scotland’s infrastructure – including the fact that people can rely on the electricity, water and transport systems working.

A young woman with maroon braids and a red top A young woman with maroon braids and a red top

Elizabeth Ademuyi Anuoluwapo says leaving is the only way to get financial stability [BBC]

Social worker Oluwatobi Abodunrin, 29, moved to London last year and also feels positive about her move. She says Nigeria is filled with “passionate, active youths” who want something more from their careers.

“I decided to leave Nigeria because I wasn’t getting what I want,” she says.

“We are highly talented, we want to be recognised, we want our voice to be heard and we want to be respected.”

She also acknowledges the difficulty of leaving friends and family behind.

“It was a tough decision to leave home. To leave people who are sweet, kind, generous and passionate. But I’m happy I made the decision and it’s going well.”

There are more than 270,000 Nigerians like Ms Abodunrin living in the UK, according to government statistics.

It is one of the most popular destinations for japa, with the number of Nigerians granted UK work visas quadrupling since 2019 as a result of post-Brexit immigration rule changes.

However, the UK has responded to this increase by tightening the rules for those seeking work visas.

The US and Canada are also highly desirable.

Canada has seen a surge in migration, with the number of Nigerians seeking residency there tripling since 2015, a phenomenon known as the “Canada Rush”.

Back in Nigeria, zoology student Elizabeth Ademuyi Anuoluwapo recognises the difficulties in leaving, but feels it is the only way to get the financial stability she needs.

“I’d miss my people, my food, my friends, my family. The vibe here is very cosy,” she says. “Maybe I’d go for a few years and then come back.”

Japa has hit the medical profession especially hard.

The Nigerian Medical Association said, in 2022, at least 50 doctors were leaving the country every single week.

This has left an already overloaded healthcare system struggling.

The government has said it will train more people to fill these gaps and backed a new bill that would require medical graduates to work in Nigeria for a minimum of five years after completing their training. It was fiercely opposed by doctors’ unions.

A similar directive has also been issued for nurses, to get them to work in the country for at least two years before trying to leave.

Some like Dr Vongdip Nankpah, from the University of Abuja teaching hospital, think it is important to stay.

He believes that career goals are about more than an individual’s interest – they should involve the community and the value that a person can contribute to society.

“If I’m going to maximise my medical practice, I’d rather remain in Nigeria to see if we can better the country and the region,” he says.

“These are the things that are still driving my reasons for remaining in the country.”

But despite the emotional attachment, Mr Olanrewaju does not feel he owes anything to Nigeria and would not feel guilty for leaving.

“Most of my personal growth and gains, I worked for them myself,” he says.

Instead, he would see himself as a representative of Nigerians abroad, standing for those who might not have the same opportunities to move overseas.

For those who can afford it, japa is the ultimate choice.

It promises a future of adventure, ambition and wealth, but also risks breaking ties with the past.

Like many Nigerian students, Mr Olanrewaju is now measuring those benefits against the cost of what he is leaving behind.

Additional reporting by Makuochi Okafor, Faith Oshoko, Emily Horler and Alex Rhodes.

More BBC stories about Nigeria:

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What in the World is a daily podcast from the BBC World Service that helps you make sense of what’s happening in the world, presented by Hannah Gelbart.

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[Getty Images/BBC]

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