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October 28, 2023

Japa will sapa Nigeria, By Ugoji Egbujo

Japa will sapa Nigeria, By Ugoji Egbujo

By 1984 Nigeria had seen  the oil boom and was staring at austerity—the Igbo called it otanisi. Though the naira was at parity with the dollar, one for one, the young people thought the country was no longer lush for pasture. Worried about losing the young and future, the military government started a national orientation program to stem the bleeding. They enlisted Eneli Elebuwa. He became Andrew.

In what turned out a popular advertorial, the government pleaded with Andrew not to check out, promising that the country would harness its resources and provide Andrew with a playing field to maximize his potential. A Nigerian singer joined the campaign with a hit song. Her name, Veno Mbanefo. Her song, ‘Nigeria go survive, Andrew no check out o’ was sung in homes, streets, and schools. In that song, she suggested that if the government did its job, then Andrew might stay to help it. 

The military government in 1984 understood that a country couldn’t thrive if it lost the brightest and youngest talents to foreign lands. In 1984, the military school used to send students home from Jos to Portharcourt by rail. Bandits didn’t attack trains. The Nigerian Airways shuttled Port Harcourt to Kaduna and Jos. Yet, Veno Mbanefo was worried about Nigeria’s survival. In 1984, our teaching hospitals had expatriate doctors and welcomed doctors returning from foreign training and welcomed medical tourists. Yet the government was pleading with Andrew not to check out.

The government didn’t say that losing Andrew and his ilk would fetch it diaspora dollars. It didn’t argue that such emigration would help raise the national human capital quality. It didn’t mock the Andrews and describe them as unpatriotic. It didn’t try to lock them up in the country, perhaps, by forcing ‘andrewish’ doctors, nurses, and physiotherapists to work for five years in the country before leaving. The government understood that the nation was potentially in trouble and it tried moral suasion to staunch the hemorrhage.

Forty years later, we are now in an established democracy. The country is wobbling and fumbling. Teaching hospitals have truly become mere consulting clinics. The youth are fleeing in droves. They are doing it without looking back. Checking-out perhaps was done slowly and in trickles. Japa means to flee or escape. The government on its part no longer feels threatened by the predicament. Having lost all moral authority and settled into shiftlessness, it has resigned to watching the youth flee. Decades of bad political leadership have left the government thoroughly apathetic. No country can progress when it bleeds its best doctors, engineers, accountants, etc. Perhaps indolent and crooked politicians would rather have the irreverent and smart youth in exile. So they can misrule in peace. 

 In 1984, those who stayed back earned about what those who checked out earned in the diaspora. The problem for those who stayed wasn’t the pauperization of white-collar workers. It was foreseeable political and economic instability with the return of a military dictatorship. In 2023, people are fleeing hunger, joblessness, stagnation, and hopelessness. The naira has slumped. At an exchange rate of N1200 to a dollar, white-collar workers have become paupers overnight. Their savings, assets, and pensions have become confetti.

Recently, Chief Afe Babalola, SAN, encapsulated it by saying that the only thriving business in the country was politics. Perhaps, he forgot bank owners. They are smiling too. Banks are the conduits politicians use to run their flourishing putrid businesses. Diesel costs over N1000 per litre. The country can’t fix its refineries. Twelve years after the privatization of power, the country can’t generate and distribute power to industries. The country can’t conduct elections where the police can’t be used as thugs to hijack ballot boxes. 

The youth are fleeing with righteous indignation. Youth unemployment complicates the fever. In 2022, the Nigerian Bureau of Statistics put the youth unemployment level at 53.40%. The average young person stands no chance. The indices are numbing. Despite being the 12th largest producer of crude oil, down from 8th, the country’s youth now dominate the body count when any migrant vessel capsizes off the coast of Libya . The blinding anomie is driving youths into criminal careers like yahoo-yahoo and mind-bending habits in drug addiction. Some leaders of tomorrow have abdicated to pursue menials as ‘legal and illegal aliens’. Given an opportunity, all 2023 Nigerians would japa into the Nigeria of 1984. That’s a tragedy. 

In 1984, the country had pleaded with Andrew. In 2023, the country isn’t bothered. In any case, the country cannot in good conscience plead or coax. The ship seems to be floundering. Japa now means escape. The country doesn’t mind the brightest jumping out to safety. Perhaps its future lies in a future rescue by the diaspora legion. 

Fathers sell ancestral lands and use the proceeds to ship their sons to uncertainty in Malaysia. Doctors and nurses are disappearing to the United States and United Kingdom in unity. The banks can’t bank on staff longevity. When bright lawyers leave, the residue become magistrates and usurp the judiciary. In rural areas, patent medicine dealers have become the primary healthcare providers. Teachers, accountants, and artisans are being mopped up by serious countries. The Western world has an aging population. Carers are needed. Nigerians who choose care jobs will live better lives than professors who choose Nigeria. Soon all that will be left will be debris. 

Effectively, goats are now chewing their fronds on the nation’s head. That’s the state of sapa. The depth of financial and psychological destitution. But Nigeria is very religious. So rather than acknowledge the humiliation and looming doom, the government and its agents  sneer. The idea that the nation was ordained by God and can’t become desolate like Somalia has been disseminated by politicians and religious leaders. Some will say there is no place like home. But the truth is that there is no hell like a troubled home. Home connotes peace, safety, and tranquillity. Home is hope. Home grounds are where small teams punch above their weight. Home should be a nest and fortress and not a graveyard for talent.  

Besides the superstitious immortality argument, there is the cash argument. They cite the huge diaspora remittances of 21.9 Billion dollars. These brothers are willing to sell their Jospehs to Egypt, so they can feed them through any famine. This is a petty trader mentality. The healthcare system has broken down. The educational system is limping. Unemployment has left a crime surge. Money is worshipped at all temples. Redemption can’t come from loaning out the best brains to develop the developed countries to receive crumbs. The Augean stable can’t be left to political opportunists and the culture of mediocrity they are creating. 

Rome was not built by chronically bad leadership and bricklayers. Dubai was conceived by local imagination and built with internal resources. Seoul is a reflection of domestic brilliance.  None of these great cities were built with diaspora remittances. No football team becomes great by selling its best players and collecting transfer fees. Japa will sapa the country. But any government filled with expired governors who have been indicted publicly by the anti-corruption agency cannot inspire the youth. The country doesn’t need slow, incremental progress. It needs transformational leadership. The rot is deep. Remittances are helpful. But a country that sows Japa will reap Sapa in the end. 

The best of the youth are fleeing. The government is sleeping. The clock is ticking. Only a leadership that embodies clear vision, inclusion, empathy moral values, innovation, creativity and productivity can stem the tide.