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Young middle-class Nigerians are desperate to leave

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By Jing Jing Liu

Since the 1980s, migration has been a part of the Nigerian middle-class psyche, catalysed by the usual suspects: high unemployment, security concerns, infrastructure gaps, and poor governance. Migrants tends to be middle-class since one needs resources to migrate.

For many young Nigerians, the bloodshed that ended the 2020 #EndSARS protests against police brutality proved to be a decisive factor. Their desire to leave the country crystallised into action. Leaders had disregarded their criticisms and, for some youth, it seemed futile to continue struggling.

In 2022, 70% of Nigerians aged 18-35 surveyed by the African Polling Institute reported they would relocate if given the opportunity, a marked jump from 39% across all age groups in 2019. Moreover, the number of passports newly issued or renewed almost doubled, from one million in 2021 to 1.9 million in 2022.

Data from popular destinations, such as the UK and Canada, suggest that education is the primary migration pathway. In the UK, the Office for National Statistics reported an increase in Nigerian students, from 6,798 in 2017 to 59,053 in 2022. Similarly, in Canada, Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada reported an increase in the number of study permits issued, from 12,565 in 2017 to 37,314 in 2022.

As a sociocultural anthropologist, I have been researching migration and money flows between west Africa and China since 2008. Global south destinations like China were becoming increasingly popular prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. I was interested in understanding what propelled Nigerian youth to a variety of new locations.

While gaining prestigious degrees, international work experience and a pathway to citizenship are cited as reasons to migrate, my recent research explores how a new term, japa, has emerged to capture an additional layer of contemporary migration.

Japa stitches together the Yoruba expression já pa, meaning “to run” or “to flee”. But it’s more than another word for migration. The expression captures the sentiment of desperation and danger. According to Michael, 27, a journalist from Lagos who took part in my study, “japa doesn’t mean to migrate; it means to run for your life.”

For this research, I conducted in-person and online interviews with 21 Nigerians aged 20-35 in Nigeria and the diaspora in 2022 and 2023. I also analysed 20 interviews on migration, money, and relationships published in the “Abroad Life” and “Sunken Ships” sections of Zikoko! from 2020 to 2023. Zikoko! is an online media platform catering to Nigerian youth.

An additional motivation to leave

When people think of “survival migration”, the image that comes to mind includes perilous journeys to escape poverty or war. When middle-class Nigerian youth draw on the same term, they highlight another reason: existential worry about the nation’s future.

Another study participant, David, 32, an engineer in the UK, reinforced that youth “are migrating out of survival and necessity rather than choice” and that “there is a massive, massive difference”.

To speak of japa is to identify Nigeria’s social, economic and political circumstances as the drivers for migration, but with the added twist of a refusal to endure these conditions.

Chinaka, 20, an economics student in Lagos, declared: “This country is not moving anywhere again; for me, that’s why I want to japa. Nigeria has tired me.”

Specifically, youth in the study said they were tired of interruptions to their tertiary education in public institutions, and unnerved by the unprecedented currency depreciation of the naira. From January 2022 to March 2024, the naira has declined by 74% against the US dollar. Rather than expending additional effort to survive in Nigeria, they announce: I’m not doing this anymore. (Aisha, 23, a student in Ibadan)

African survival migration tends to be associated with impoverished migrants, immediate and choiceless departures, and irregular journeys. Japa complicates this image. It invites us to see that survival migration can be organised through urgent but organised departures that require years of planning, saving and managing unpredictable events. Contingencies can include sudden changes in visa policies, such as the UK government’s decision in May 2023 to exclude dependants from accompanying certain international students.

Japa also encourages a revised understanding of destination “choice” in migration. While Canada, the US and the UK remain top of mind, the middle class captures a range of people with varying financial situations, travel timelines and appetites for adventure. Under the impetus “to flee”, youths are open to additional destinations, including Germany, China and Northern Cyprus.

Effects of japa

Besides state-level concerns with “brain drain”, some of the more pressing consequences of japa include secrecy, solitude and the reorganisation of social relations. Much discussed by youths online and in the interviews is the secrecy surrounding japa plans for security or personal reasons. Tired of losing friends or feeling betrayed by friends concealing their plans, the youths who remain in Nigeria might withdraw from friendships or be unwilling to make new ones. This stance of solitude is accompanied by a contradiction: a sadness about being left behind and pressure to leave, even for those who feel content to stay.

Lawrence, 26, a freelance writer, was comfortable living in Nigeria, but faced growing scrutiny over his decision. Family, friends and strangers swarmed him with incessant prodding: “When are you leaving?” followed by “Why aren’t you leaving?” The desire to leave reconfigures youth towards the near future at the expense of their immediate social relations.

The state of japa

The reaction from the government and current president Bola Tinubu is one of concern and alarm about the loss of educated and talented youth. The issue, however, runs deeper. Nigerian leaders should not underestimate the profound emotional and symbolic aspects of “survival migration”.

Youth no longer see themselves in the country. The double meaning here is intentional. The desire to leave is intensified by the feeling that the values and ethos they embody and uphold are not adequately represented by the nation and its leadership. Japa should be understood as a middle-class sensibility that conjoins a critique of state viability and a mode of self-care. Their existential reasons for migrating must be addressed.

This article was first published on The Conversation:

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