Nigeria and Nigerians in the diaspora
SOMETIME in the 1960s, a report appeared in an influential magazine about Nigerians who had failed to return home after a considerable number of years in overseas countries. It was a rather derogatory account, not least because such Nigerians were perceived to have stayed behind for the shame of not having accomplished the objectives that propelled their exit from Nigeria. Overstayed male Nigerian was sarcastically called “big brother” by the newly-arrived ones.
In those days, a decision to travel overseas would have been for no purpose other than educational. To remain in an overseas country for more than four years would have been considered unimaginable, except if the educational programme one was pursuing called for a longer duration of time. A heroic welcome often awaited the returnee who was held in great awe by the locals. In some remote parts of the Nigerian federation, guns blazed and masquerades danced in the streets to herald the arrival of the one who had just come back from the white peoples’s land. The returnee, especially the women, could be seen wearing white hand gloves even in the scorching Nigerian sun. Or, how else could this newly-arrived have been distinguished from the locals? Someone I knew returned from Great Britain in the early 1960s after a mere four years sojourn and some elders in the community were wondering if he could still eat the Nigerian food or speak the local language!
The overseas returnee, armed with a diploma of some sorts, had no problem other than what choice to make between competing job opportunities. He or she was assured of decent accommodation and transportation allowances came with the job. Even until about 1982, officials of the then Nigerian Public Service Commission visited overseas countries on a mission to recruit university graduates for various jobs at home. It was one “age-long” tradition which was discontinued once the jobs dried out and the Nigerian nation itself was on the brink of bankruptcy.
Most Nigerians were more than anxious to return home on the completion of their studies. The Nigerian Civil War of 1967-70 played some part in the new culture of Nigerians cultivating foreign countries as their homes. There were those who chose to stay out of Nigeria because the Civil War had implanted some bitterness in them. However, worsening economic conditions which began in the 1980s accounted for an unprecedented exodus of Nigerians into Europe and America. The assumption that overseas is the best place to make it was further fuelled by the free-fall of the Nigerian currency. The general poverty at home and dependency on relations abroad were such that a 90-year-old father once advised a son he had not seen for 10 years not to rush into coming home.
Unlike in the past when those who stayed behind were considered as failures, “diasporean” Nigerians of today are skilful professionals contributing substantially to the sustenance of their host of new nations’ economy and social infrastructures. There is hardly any decent university in America and Europe that does not have a Nigerian in its faculties. Even those who do not possess special skills perform an equally important and complimentary role in society. Nigerians in diaspora can be classified into two. The first are Nigerians who were born in Nigeria and still see Nigeria as their home, while the second group of Nigerians in diaspora are the children born in the various host nations. The latter constitutes the “diaspora proper” and the prospect of their future “repatriation” to Nigeria can only be imagined or speculated about.
Relationships between Nigeria and Nigerians in diaspora can be of mutual benefit. Acquired skills from developed overseas countries can help transform Nigeria into a developed African nation. The opportunity to be able to compare one’s nation with another is an opportunity that could hardly be gained if one had not been exposed to somewhere else. Were the Nigerian leadership to be a bit more purposeful and its members less contemptuous of the intelligentsia, there have been ideas suggested in the past which should have warranted someone seeking further explanation. One is aware of the workings of government in America and Europe where those in positions of authority do not let go any idea that is considered beneficial to society. The author of an idea would not have to be the son or daughter of “former this” or “former that” before the idea is considered or implemented. We only pay lip service to the acquired skills of our nationals in Nigeria and outside. The one comment of monotonous regularity one often gets from frustrated Nigerians is that “those in government know what you are saying is right but they won’t just do it”. How can society make progress when the general assumption is that the leadership is only interested in what can confer immediate economic benefits on its members and their families?
The Guardian editorial of August 2, 2006 highlighted the basic needs that entice every human being to an environment. Such needs include security of life and property, electricity and water, quality education, employment opportunities, good health facilities and safe transportation system. The editorial was spot on in concluding that the more one is exposed to societies where these opportunities or facilities are provided in good quality and even taken for granted, the more one resents the crudity of another environment. The current Nigerian government and future ones must reflect on that competent editorial because Nigeria is one nation that needs rebuilding from its very foundation. To successfully do this, there must be an end to the culture of corruption and privileged greed.
Societal poverty makes Nigerians at home assume that their kinsmen who reside abroad are privileged. There can be no greater privilege than doing things which directly or indirectly affect one’s own society and its people. The toilet attendant who is rewarded for doing an honest job is not less privileged than the doctor or lawyer. Nigerians at home and abroad must act in concert, ensuring that Nigeria occupies its rightful place in the comity of civilised and accomplished nations. The Nigerian in diaspora owes it a moral duty to wish the best for the Nigerian nation, both in its development and the peaceful co-existence of its diverse people.
•Dr. Akinola wrote from Oxford, United Kingdom.