Ileka finished high school as the youngest member of her graduating group and one of the brightest. He attended an international school in Lagos where fees were out of reach for all but the most comfortable children in Nigeria. He wanted to pursue a career in the rarefied field of engineering that could only be pursued abroad.
So, a month after finishing high school in 2019, Ileka left for England where, at the end of a few weeks of vacation, she ended up at a public (private) school not far from Heathrow airport for her advanced levels. In 2021, she started a three-year course in Engineering in England.
Two months into Ileka’s university stay, doctors in Lagos diagnosed her 86-year-old grandfather with a terminal condition. Ileka’s grandfather earned his undergraduate degrees from Oxford University before graduating with a PhD from the University of London just as Nigeria gained independence. Putting his love of country ahead of a promising career as an international public servant, Ileka’s grandfather returned to Nigeria, where he helped craft official policy at the highest level, while also working as an academic, consultant and trusted adviser to investors and multinationals. -nationals.
When he received his diagnosis in 2021, Ileka’s grandfather had long been disillusioned with the country’s trajectory. A proud leader of the community, his country house had recently been attacked by political thugs who claimed that he had mentored a much-disliked politician in his home state. Painfully, Ileka’s grandfather decided that he would live out his last days in England. With the help of his children, he moved to London to be hospitalized.
The consultant leading the team to care for Ileka’s grandfather in England turned out to be not only from Nigeria but also from a neighboring local government area in her home state. The son of a primary school teacher, the consultant left Nigeria in 1997 as a junior doctor 15 months behind on his salary. He worked for three years as a driver and security guard to finance his medical equivalency certifications in England. Even more than the medical team, the nursing team caring for Ileka’s grandfather was also made up mostly of Nigerians and some Ghanaians. Even hospital cleaning was outsourced to a Nigerian-run company.
This story of Ileka, her grandfather, the doctor, the nurses and the cleaners has only been adapted for names. All the other elements of this story are very real. It embodies only in part the complexity of a phenomenon known to Nigerians as “Japa”.
Derived from the Yoruba word for escape or flight, Japa has become both a verb and an institutional noun with different meanings to different people. It’s the stuff of street wisdom and anteroom jokes. Singer Naira Marley has celebrated japa in a popular single in which she describes it as “the act of escaping or avoiding something, especially through trickery (or demonic Yoruba wit)”.
A Nigerian Twitter user pursues this theme of ingenuity when framing Japa as “a word that describes the entrepreneurial spirit of Nigerians who want to export their talents, skills, products etc. including themselves to the world”. The presidency trivializes the issue, falsely claiming that Nigerians have always desired Japa.
Japa is not only the verb to leave (the country) under certain conditions, it is also a collective noun for a concatenation of the consequences of misrule that forces aspirational and productive people, mostly professionals, to leave the country. Thus, one cannot normally speak of Ileka in Japa terms, unlike the Nigerian doctors, nurses or cleaners who cared for her grandfather.
However, while not all of them may be involved in Japa as a verb, they are all victims of the phenomenon that turns Japa into a noun. Chris Ayokwu says these include “youth unemployment, stagflation, insecurity, institutionalized corruption and leadership deficits (which) have all conspired to create a kind of dystopian whirlpool, a rapacious vortex in which the dreams of the young are absorbed and the meaning disappears from existence. … there is absolutely nothing to inspire hope wherever one looks.”
Japa, then, is what happens when governance becomes a relay race between a succession of dream killers. Europeans tend to see it as economic migration or applicable to people who leave the country under economic pressure. But not everyone who leaves the country necessarily does Japa. From the United States, the former president of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, Professor Tom Farer, uses the expression “migrants” for “all people from the Global South who seek to enter the rich liberal capitalist states or, having already entered, who remain without a valid visa”.
In many ways, the default Euro-American notion of “economic migration” to describe the push factors involved in Japa is an injustice to the issue and its inherently complex character. For every push factor in places like Nigeria, there are pull factors from countries in the Global North.
The likes of David Livingstone, Henry Morton Stanley and Mungo Park pretended and rampaged across Africa in the age of Queen Victoria, claiming to have “discovered” communities and landmarks long inhabited by settled populations. Today, despite tougher borders everywhere, people in the Global South are paying under equally difficult conditions. The comparisons are impressive.
When Livingstone and his generation of prejudiced predators were doing their thing, they claimed a civilizing vocation. Today, youth in the Global South doing the same are equally claiming existential missions that are no less compelling. From providing extensive reproductive indulgences to correct negative population growth in places like Italy; to reversing skills deficits in places like the UK; or a mixture of both as in Canada; many of the exponents of Japa today can marry their search for a future with the desire to fulfill a greater purpose.
Take the UK, for example: as the fallout from Brexit has become severe, the UK last year began looking to the Commonwealth, including Nigeria, for basic skills like truck drivers and teachers. Despite or because of COVID-19, in three years between 2019 and 2022, Nigeria exported almost 4,500 nurses to the UK. Over a six-month period in 2022 alone, this export of Nigerian nurses to the UK increased by more than 25%. This does not include Nigerian professionals originally trained in other disciplines who retrained in the UK to become nurses. Despite negative reputations for the crime, Nigeria is even busy exporting priests and pastors to countries that claim to have brought Christianity to their people for the first time.
For host countries in the Global North, they get the benefit of an educated workforce at a low price. For those who choose to participate in Japa, it is an opportunity to explore a world devoid of the man-made stratifications and glass ceilings that define being Nigerian. The opportunity cost for many is the initial crafting by highly skilled professionals. It may have additional costs in terms of dignity, mental health, general well-being, or in some cases even life. It is a chance they are willing to take; the price paid by successive generations for the congenital failures of national leadership.
As Nigeria prepares for a pivotal vote in 2023, one surprise is that Japa is not getting more attention as a political issue. A country that is emptying itself of its best talent has to worry about its long-term sustainability. Politicians can work to lessen the appeal of Japa as a verb by addressing those things that give the noun resonance. For young people in particular, one question may be important: what would you think of a politician who promises to make the country too attractive for Japan?
Odinkalu, a lawyer and teacher, can be contacted at [email protected]