Nigerians Abroad: The Bitter – Sweet Experiences

Olumide Idowu, a strategic planning graduate of the Federal University of Technology, Akure is one of the many Nigerians abroad. Idowu and his family migrated to Canada few years ago through the ‘Highly Skilled’ programme, which he applied for while working in Nigeria and they currently live in the Brampton area of Toronto. There’s also Joshua Makori, a Kenyan born lawyer, who relocated to Canada in 2008 and today works in a law firm in the country.

Idowu and Makori are examples of Africans in the Diaspora who left their countries of birth to other countries in search of better conditions of living. Available statistics reveal that over 14 million Nigerians have migrated between 2009 and 2014. They are in the United States, 3,711,600; United Kingdom, 3,406,477; South Africa, 1,214,205; Canada, 1,008,480; Malaysia, 811,000; and Germany, 808, 514.

Other countries where Nigerians also migrate to in high numbers are Australia, 788,144; Ghana, 677,000; Italy, 619,000; Saudi Arabia, 561,450 and Kenya, 547,000. According to the African Union, Africa’s Diaspora population is “between 150-350 million.” They are scattered all over the world.

Idowu, Makori and some other African born residents of Canada told the magazine in Canada that they were attracted to the country by its prospect. In terms of quality of life, Canada ranks high in the Human Development Index, the barometer used in judging progress in key areas as welfare, education and life expectancy. It occupies eighth position on the 25-nation list of very high human development for 2014. The year before that, it placed eleventh.

It is such impressive rating that makes the country a choice destination for many immigrants from Africa and other parts of the world. Apart from the highly skilled programme, other processes through which people migrate to Canada include the provisional nominee programme where they come as farm workers and thereafter qualify to apply for permanent residency and the under skilled workers programme. According to Immigration Watch Canada, an average 250,000 immigrants arrive Canada each year from different countries around the world.

Apart from Canada, other countries on the list of very high human development which Africans including Nigerians target include United States, Germany, Sweden and Britain. These countries have their own immigrant programmes, which also lure people from far and wide.
A study by Pew Research dated April 2015 states that “much of the recent growth in the size of the black immigrant population” in the US “has been fueled by African immigration. Between 2000 and 2013, the number of black African immigrants living in the U.S. rose 137%, from 574,000 to 1.4 million. Africans now make up 36% of the total foreign-born black population, up from 24% in 2000 and just 7% in 1980.”

In the case of the US, the Diversity Visa Lottery, has, in the past two decades for many Africans, been a popular means of migration to the country. Some other countries like Britain and other developed nations have, for many decades dating back to the 40s, attracted their fair share of immigrants through educational or work programmes. The trend continues, as, many decades after, rather than decrease, the figure keeps increasing with each passing day as more and more Africans travel abroad to study at the end of which some choose to settle there.

Unlike in the 60s, 70s and 80s when many Africans who travelled to study abroad returned to their home countries to work, more and more Africans these days are staying put in foreign countries upon completion of their studies. But not everyone travels to study abroad. There are those who simply desire to live abroad and travel to their choice destinations under different guises.

Immigrants who, before embarking or, on arriving their destinations, fail to secure the required residence permit but insist on staying put are considered as illegal immigrants and many Africans including Nigerians fall into this category. Daily, Africans, seeking better life abroad, embark on journeys to Europe and the Americas, some of them hazardous, leading to loss of lives.

According to the International Organisation for Migration, nearly 3,000 refugees, including Africans, have died this year alone while trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea to greener pasture. But such frightening figure has done little to discourage desperate immigrants particularly from Africa and parts of Asia like Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan devastated by civil war or internal strife from such peregrination. With regards to Africa, countries such as Eritrea, Somalia, Ethiopia, Ghana and Nigeria have been identified over the years as places where a significant percentage of illegal immigrants come from.

But life abroad is not easy, as many immigrants soon find out. The first shock for many of them is the climatic, social and cultural differences they encounter in their new environment. Some things they used to take for granted in their native countries are hard to come by in their new territories. Simple things as greeting, courtesy, camaraderie, which Africans display in their day-to-day life, are uncommon abroad. Uchenna Oyali, a Phd student at the Bayreuth International Graduate School of African Studies, Bayreuth, Germany gives an insight to the social life as observed by him in his two-year stint in the country. “The German society, like many Western European countries, is so structured that the social aspects of life we take for granted in Nigeria become some luxury. For instance, it is difficult to start up a conversation with a fellow traveller in a bus or train. Everybody seems engrossed in his individual world.

“Again, it is difficult to get help from a stranger, unless you ask for the help. It is also a bit odd to offer to help anyone except the person asked for the help,” he explained, but added that once you ask for help, “you would discover Germans are very warm and nice.” Dora Opoku, a Ghanaian, who has lived in Canada for 20 years, also gives an idea of what awaits newcomers to the country. In an interview with the magazine in Ontario, Opoku said: “When you come, the first culture shock is, nobody talks to you. You meet people and everybody is minding their own business. Not like in Africa where, it’s (more of) ‘hi hi,’ just because you see the person, whether you know him or not, you just say ‘hi’. Here, it’s not like that. Nobody is talking to you. Whether you are frustrated or not, (or) you have a problem…nobody is looking at you because sometimes, they think you are pretending.”

Similarly, a United Kingdom-based Nigerian, who prefers anonymity, told the magazine her shock the day she found out that her neighbour lost a family member without her knowing. She expected that, as a neighbour, she ought to know about such things as is common in Nigeria and other parts of Africa where death of family members or friends attracts sympathy and condolence visits from relations and friends.

While many Africans may be surprised at such disclosure, the experience of Ellis Gbenga Solomon, a Nigerian who migrated to the US in 1998, sheds more light on the attitude of the typical American. Having lived in America for 15 years, Solomon wrote a book published in 2014 titled “The Diaries of an Immigrant—How I See America from Within after a 15 Year Sojourn.”

With regards to greeting typical of Africa, Solomon wrote that, “living in Philadelphia and Delaware showed me a big cultural difference. People don’t greet each other much. People find it difficult to respond to ‘good morning’. And if you say good morning to a colleague upon arriving at work, when you meet him a couple of hours later in the hallway, he doesn’t expect you to greet him again. Our first neighbour in Philadelphia wouldn’t even acknowledge greetings.”

On the issue of discipline and raising children in America, the author writes: “When African children are disciplined, they are expected to listen attentively, looking down as they are scolded. You dare not stare back at your parents when they are correcting you. You are expected to respectfully look down or anywhere else but never at them. This was how my wife and I were raised in Africa, and this was how we started raising our own children.” But “after we got to America, unknown to us, one of the first things our children learned in school was to look straight at the person speaking to them, even when disciplined. When they looked down or away, we later learned, it gave the person addressing them the impression they were lying or had something to hide.”

Apart from social or cultural shocks, there’s also the challenge, for some immigrants, of securing good jobs or enjoying the benefits open to citizens of their respective countries. Atieno Yvonne Awuor, who has lived 13 years of her life in Germany told the magazine that Africans face challenges in the country. “For the Africans in Germany, I think that the picture is still grim. We still remain the least integrated in the labour markets thereby condemning most of us to welfare support. Our children are struggling to gain foothold” and are subjected to “doing apprenticeships” which “just exacerbates the situation.”

Olusegun Ajose, a Nigerian boxer based in the UK, while recently speaking about life in the foreign country in an interview with the magazine, said it is “tough” and “very difficult.” Ajose says he never tires of passing the message across to Africans, particularly young boxers who desire to take their skills abroad, that life abroad, is not easy. “I spoke with a lot of younger ones (upcoming boxers). I have always advised them about travelling. I always told them, listen, life is not rosy out there, it is very difficult because I know almost everybody wants to travel abroad thinking once they get there they are going to make it. It doesn’t work like that, it is very, very difficult,” he stressed, adding that it is even more challenging for African sportsmen as they are discriminated against by boxing organisers for reasons not unconnected with race.

According to Ajose: “You are not their preference because you are a foreigner and not just a foreigner you are a black man, not just a black man you are an African black man. It is different; a British black man or an American black man is different from an African black man. Obviously, they won’t warm up to you as they would to a white person. It is another disadvantage if you are good at what you do.” Although the general belief in sport is that one’s talent will stand him out, Ajose said it doesn’t work that way. “We believed if you are very good and standout you would do well, so we stayed true to our craft and continued improving. Anytime we stepped into the ring, we beat the hell out of our opponents. (But) all of a sudden we stopped getting fights because nobody would fight us as they felt we were too good for our own good. As a professional boxer if you are not fighting you are not getting paid. How are you going to pay your bills,” he asked rhetorically. Such challenge is not restricted to the UK.

A Nigerian student in Melbourne, Australia, told the magazine that many Africans come face to face with racism in their daily lives in the country, as they are not really liked. For a student who works to support his education in the country, the young Nigerian narrated how his employers suddenly subjected him to scrutiny all in an attempt to find evidence to nail him. The experience, he said, was an eye opener that has helped to keep him on his toes in the country. Many other residents of Canada, UK and Germany complained about similar issue.

Challenges abroad vary from country to country and, in some cases, leave many immigrants unable to achieve their Eldorado dreams such as accessing opportunities in the area of housing and welfare. This leaves many Africans disappointed as their initial fabulous dreams and expectations begin to give way to reality.

According to Matori, “People come here (Canada) with different expectations and when they come and realise that things are not exactly what they thought, they do not (try to) re-invent to be able to (access opportunities) and be useful; most people come to Canada and never want to go back to school.” Such people, sources say, end up working in factories or as low skilled professions. Like is typical in Africa, acquiring more education or professional certificates abroad adds to one’s CV and ultimately leads to better employment opportunities.

For instance, Idowu, in order to better position himself for employment opportunities, earned more educational qualifications. The Ogun State indigene who has lived in Canada for three years now, told the magazine in Brampton that it was borne out of a desire to repackage himself. “There was a lot of retooling that I had to go through, first and foremost, making sure that my skills and professional experience were transferable to Canada. The retooling meant my going through some professional training. These were things I did in order to prove or establish relevance for myself here,” he explained.

For someone who already had an MBA in Nigeria and was an accomplished professional in the field of consultancy, the decision to return to school wasn’t easy but Idowu, who now works as a banker in Canada, said it was a necessary thing to do. “It was a challenging process but if you have the right attitude, that’s a barrier that everybody can overcome.”

However, not a few Africans show an inclination to improve themselves.

The quest and attainment of higher education, for some Africans abroad, is testimony of their resolve to access the best quality of life in their new localities, which, for many, is lacking in their home countries and led to their relocation. Some of them who spoke to the magazine say their decision to settle abroad was informed by the lack of opportunities and frustrations at home owing to poor leadership. Their education and skills abroad, while earning for them better pay cheques and by implication, a higher quality of life, on the other hand, benefit their host nations.

According to Professor Said Adejumobi, a Lusaka based academic, in an article, Migrant Crisis and the Failure of Globalisation, migration comes with cheap labour and countries such as US, Australia and other European countries have, over the centuries, dating back to the slave trade era, benefited from it. “Australia’s development and transformation has no doubt benefited from cheap migrant labour, just like Europe and the US. The slave trade (forced or involuntary migration) was central to the US and western capitalist development in the 19th century. Cheap labour oiled large-scale plantation farms, built railways, roads, modern industrial complexes, and other economic infrastructure that transformed the economic life of many Western capitals,” he said, adding that, “in the 20th and 21st centuries, voluntary migration of skilled labour–dubbed the brain-drain –especially from Asia and Africa, has proved very decisive in oiling western capitalist development and preventing it from decline.”

But despite the contributions of immigrants to their new societies, many European, American and other developed countries, appear these days to be reluctant to accommodate more foreigners. At the moment, there are fears that Britain plans to deport 29,000 illegal Nigerian immigrants in the region in a move that would not likely spare other Africans. According to Charles Ukandu, who lives in the UK, the “UK is increasingly more hostile towards immigrants now than back when I arrived here obviously due to contemporary trends that have shone the spotlight on the issue, and politicians eager to derive political capital from the subject.” In America, Donald Trump, a politician seeking the Republican presidential ticket, is leading the campaign to expel illegal immigrants from the country. Millions of undocumented immigrants in America, estimated at over eleven million, many of who include Africans, are on edge at the moment praying that Trump doesn’t get to win the Republican presidential ticket that could pave way for him to contest the presidency as victory for him could lead to their deportation. This campaign promise by Trump is one of the reasons for his current popularity in America as it resonates well with many white Americans who, apart from resenting the competition immigrants pose probably do not see any sense in their country being called multi racial.

Such attitude transcends the US, as natives of other western countries display their disaffection as well. The Immigration Watch Canada, comprising Canadian citizens, for instance, is opposed to what it considers the huge number of immigrants that the country’s leadership allows each year and would rather the government halt the process. As far as the group is concerned, Canada’s 250,000 yearly intake immigration policy, which has been in place since 1990, is “destructive and senseless.”

The lukewarm attitude displayed by some citizens towards immigrants in some cases, is traceable to the belief that migrant workers compete with the natives for job opportunities and that their desperation to eke out a living make them settle for low wages at the expense of the citizens who would not accept less than the minimum wage. Generally, immigrants, particularly from Africa, are viewed by some Europeans or Americans as people fleeing poverty and unemployment and as such are willing to settle for anything.
There are also concerns in some foreign countries that migration has a link with rising crime wave and terrorism. Indeed, not a few Africans are languishing in different jails in Europe and America for crimes ranging from drug peddling, Internet scam, theft, human trafficking or assault. The recent refugee crisis that has seen hundreds of thousands of immigrants from crisis prone areas like Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and others to Europe and other developed nations like USA and Canada have met with resistance or reluctance by some countries like Hungary and Slovakia.

However, it’s not just European or American nations that are disinclined to accommodate new immigrants. South Africa, considered by many to be Africa’s most advanced country has, in recent times, been tightening its immigration rules too in a bid to discourage foreigners from settling in the nation. Chinedu Okafor, a Nigerian who studied for his master’s degree in Durban, told the magazine that securing legal permits in South Africa now, unlike before, takes longer time. “Now, there is a new rule concerning legal permits and other regulations on change of status of one’s permit even when one is married to a South African,” he explained, adding that “most immigrants find it so hard going through the department of the Home Affairs to secure appropriate documents that allow them to stay in the country either to establish business or to work.” In the bid to secure the permits, Okafor said, many immigrants contract agents to assist them but are made to “pay through their noses to sort out these paper works.”

In spite of the challenges many immigrants face in trying to live outside their countries, more and more people persist in their determination to travel abroad. As far as many of them are concerned, the quality of life abroad far outweighs the conditions in their home countries. Opoku told the magazine that the Canadian society places premium on human life than her native Ghana. “Here (Canada) they care more about human life, and they are more nurturing. They care about the human person. I remember growing up in Africa, everybody will be yelling and screaming, you go to school, teachers are beating you up but here, it’s not like that.”

While admitting that living and working in a foreign country comes with challenges, Opoku says it makes one stronger. “You just don’t enter into somebody else’s country and expect them to put everything on the plate for you. Well, I think I like that kind of life because it makes people more responsible to themselves rather than always looking at someone else to solve their problems. Because there are times when little problems can be solved but sometimes in Africa they wait for some other people to do it for them and when you are not able to do it for them, they will find a way to blame you and all that.”

The challenge of everyday life in Canada, indeed, for many of them, like Susan from Nigeria said, could be engrossing. “The system sucks you in. You have your bills to pay and you want to settle down. You take a mortgage, you have to work and pay,” she said. A lawyer by profession, Susan told the magazine that “there are so many doctors, lawyers, pharmacists, nurses and others from Nigeria,” just as Makori admits is the case with Kenyans in the country. Along with their counterparts from other countries, they constitute the brain drain from Africa. While some of them who spoke to the magazine are unhappy that their talent and skills are being put to use outside their country, they say they are left with little choice as the poor leadership and limited opportunities at home forced them to relocate. Which makes them to insist that African governments must change for the better so that people like Omar Mbengue, who enjoyed free education and scholarship from his native country, could look forward to returning after completing their studies.

While admitting that the best way to pay back for someone like him is to return to Senegal and offer his skills to the country, the situation back then, he said, dictated otherwise. “I do regret that (teaching outside Senegal) but we have to start doing well as a people so as to get things right,” he said.
While there are quite a number of them who do well in foreign lands, there are also many others that fail. In spite of their failure, many of them are reluctant to return home. For many of them, the disappointment is two fold as they are not only bitter about their inability to hit it big abroad but thoughts of how the failure could be viewed back home by their family members and friends. The pain may be even deep when they see or get to hear of their friends or schoolmates back home excelling in their careers, despite the odds they ran away from.

Generally, however, the impact of the Africa Diaspora population is well acknowledged. It is a measure of the African spirit in them that many of them, particularly the successful ones, do not forget their roots. Despite living thousands of kilometres away, many of them contribute to the development of their home communities through remittances back home. The International Fund for Agriculture Development, IFAD, says Africans abroad contribute up to $40 billion a year in financial remittances home.

Such is their clout that the Nigerian government, for instance, declared August 24 and 25 this year as Diaspora days as a way to honour and recognise them as critical stakeholders in national development. Over the years, respective Nigerian governments, like other African governments have gone out of their way to woo the Diaspora community, particularly those with skills that could be tapped, which explains why some of them, over the years, have served in different capacities in governments across the continent. There are those who also form organizations and visit home to give a helping hand to governments at home, particularly in the area of health. There’s a belief among Africans that Africa’s skilled Diaspora population should and could contribute more to their continent in view of their talents and experience. That’s the best way the brain drain could translate to gain. Africans that have, over the years, migrated abroad, have robbed the continent of some of her best talents particularly in critical areas like the health sector. At a time the healthcare system is lacking in adequate manpower, equipment or infrastructure, African doctors and nurses form the core of medical personnel in many parts of Europe and America including Canada and US.

Abike Dabiri, a former member of the house of representatives and head of the House Committee on Diaspora Affairs, during her days as a lawmaker, variously met with members of the Nigerian Diaspora community. Having interacted with many of them, Dabiri was of the view that Nigeria could benefit from their wealth of experience and skills in the effort to create a better nation. As regards terrorism, which Nigeria is currently battling with, the former broadcast journalist, advised the Nigerian government to engage the services of Diaspora professionals to help it tackle the insurgency: “There are Nigerian experts on security in the Diaspora that could be contacted or consulted by government to assist,” she advised.

Additional reports by Tony Manuaka and Omoyajowo Ogunyemi


About Anthony Akaeze

Anthony Akaeze, an award winning journalist and author, was born in Jos, Nigeria. He holds a BA degree in English from the University of Abuja and an MA in Literature from the University of Lagos. His journalism career began in 2005 when he joined Newswatch Magazine as staff writer. He later moved to TELL Magazine where he worked until September 2018. Akaeze currently serves as a freelance journalist and researcher.