“May Nigeria not happen to you,” is a common prayer in Africa’s largest economy and most populous nation.
It is a heartfelt wish born out of the frustration of living in a country so dysfunctional that even wealth cannot insulate you from the wahala (troubles) of Nigeria and its systemic failures. So those who can leave, leave.
Ayeni Adu, 36, had just given away his fridge when he spoke to CNN on Tuesday, four days before the general election. Suitcases, a cooler box, an empty television stand and a white leather couch were all that were left in his living room. A friend was on the way to pick up the sofa that afternoon. His wife was on her last day at work. The couple had six days left in Nigeria before they moved to the United Kingdom.
They are part of the “japa” wave, the Yoruba word for run or flee that has become the shorthand for the exodus out of Nigeria for better pastures overseas. “I am japa-ing, leaving the country because of the opportunities that are available to me abroad. I am going there to have a better life and a better economy for my family,” Adu told CNN.
A staggering 69% of Nigerians would relocate out of the country with their families if given the chance, a 2022 survey by the Africa Polling Institute found. Only 39% were willing to emigrate in 2019 according to the same poll.
Persistent insecurity, a crumbling economy and rampant corruption are the leading issues for the next government, according to a pre-election survey of voters by Lagos-based SBM Intelligence. Coupled with the high cost of living and unemployment, these concerns have made the country unstable and unpredictable for many, even hostile.
As conditions have worsened in the country, more Nigerians are getting out. Europe and North America are the top destinations for resettlement. The number of “Worker” visas in the UK issued to Nigerians shot up by 399% comparing 2019 to the year ending September 2022, according to data from the UK Home Office. Nigeria was the 5th largest source of immigrants to Canada in 2021, moving up eight places in just five years, Statistics Canada reported.
“This particular wave is hollowing out the upwardly mobile middle class, especially in the mid-20s to late-40s age range,” Cheta Nwanze, lead partner at SBM Intelligence, told CNN. “The very people who are either on the fast track to management or already in the lower cadres of senior management. The very people that the country needs to rebuild.
Adu worked as a radio presenter in Lagos but took a few professional courses and used his health sciences degree to get a job in the UK. Nigeria’s health sector is among the worst hit by the japa phenomenon as doctors, nurses, pharmacists and other professionals emigrate for better working conditions, higher pay and a predictable life. The Nigerian Medical Association says 50 health professionals leave the country every week.
The country appears to be largely training medics for the United States, Canada and the UK. “If nothing is done to reduce the rate at which doctors, medical professionals and other healthcare workers are leaving the shores of this country, it’s just a matter of years,” Dr. Kemi Abiloye, the president of the Lagos Association of Resident Doctors, told CNN before starting her hospital rounds. “I’m not sure whether any doctor will be left in this country.”
An entire cottage industry has sprung up to support those who want to emigrate from Nigeria. Immigration consultants and agencies charge thousands of dollars to offer relocation advice, visa processing services and immigration routes.
On her Instagram page, travel relocation provider Chinwe Iwuanyanwu promises end-to-end application support to destinations like Australia, Finland and Ireland.
“A lot of people don’t trust that things will get better in Nigeria so they’re looking for Plan B,” the Nigerian-born project manager told CNN from her base in Chicago, Illinois. “People want a better life for themselves and their families. We have a lot of talents in Nigeria but they are not getting fully realized, that’s why so many want to relocate.”
Iwuanyanwu says she has aided more than 50 Nigerians in getting hired in Europe and elsewhere. She helps them “optimize” their professional profiles online, revamps their resumés and offers interview prep sessions.
All 18 candidates standing for president in Saturday’s vote are running on a platform of radical change, an acknowledgment that Nigeria is so deeply broken that nothing short of a complete overhaul will work. Japa is now part of everyday language because almost everyone knows someone who is leaving, or has left.
The Afrobeats stars P-Square just finished a comeback tour where they say they encountered Nigerians who have resettled all over the western world. “And when they japa, they see the good life, good roads, good everything,” Peter Okoye, one half of the singing duo, said.
“My family schools in America because of security,” added his twin brother Paul. They support Labour party presidential candidate Peter Obi, who’s inspired the youth in Nigeria but is considered a long shot. He’s in what many believe is a three-horse race with the ruling party All Progressive Congress candidate Bola Ahmed Tinubu and six-time contestant Atiku Abubakar of the People’s Democratic Party.
The next leader of Nigeria can’t do much in the immediate future to reverse the steady stream of talent leaving the country, Nwanze believes. “He needs to focus on restoring confidence, and making sure that people believe that their earnings are not being eroded. Stemming that is one of the very first things the new president would have to focus on. As well as security of course, but all of that would take time,” he told CNN.
There are thousands of TikTok videos, Instagram posts, tweets and Facebook updates of Nigerians celebrating their new lives abroad. They are powerful magnets for those still left at home, considering whether it’s time for the parachute out of “the giant of Africa.”
So, is it “goodbye Nigeria” forever for Adu? “No, it’s goodbye Nigeria until I come back – but it may be a very long time away,” he responds with a laugh.