To Japa or Not to Japa

Life is a potpourri of numerous choices we make, of which some decisions are key because of their overreaching impact on how our lives shape up from that point. In today’s Nigeria, especially among people who fit certain criteria, one such decision is whether to leave Naija (“to japa”) or stay back within its territory. As social media continues to be regaled with a nouveau popular meme announcing a glassy welcome to a new dispensation, we may draw some wisdom from an adaptation of author Julie Kagawa’s writing that “there are no good choices …only those you can live with, and those you can work to change”.

“So, Jonah, when are you japa-ing?” “Jonah, are you planning to japa?” “Jonah …something …something…japa.”

“Official” social media announcement banner for the Japa Movement

At least a few times each week, I get someone ask me why I have not left Nigeria, or wanting to know when I would be leaving, because they assume someone like me should not be in Nigeria. Some others ostensibly ask because they want to use me as a basis for their own japa wish. Something like “even Jonah is leaving”.  For the first set, I try to articulate why I am still having sustained fellowship with embarrassing potholes on poorly constructed roads, while for the latter, I attempt to deflect to ensure no one would hold me responsible for his or her decision to leave or stay.

One time, I tried to explain to a friend abroad that statistically speaking most Nigerians cannot leave. It is assumed that there are over two hundred million people in Nigeria. If we take an estimate for four countries who have an active policy of attracting immigrants and have the highest annual intake of “permanent” immigrants (United States, ~700,000; United Kingdom, ~600,000; Canada, ~450,000; Australia, ~160,000), we get less than two million slots per year. For discussion’s sake, we could triple this to cover for all other countries on earth, so we get roughly six million annual immigration slots. Assuming Nigerians could amass 10% of this total (with Indians watching), we could push out 600,000 (mostly skilled) Nigerians each year from our workforce. This is far less than the number of unskilled Nigerians entering the workforce annually. The point here is that even if we all wanted to leave, we simply cannot.

Does this mean we should resign to fate and sit our asses in a land where a policeman can threaten to shoot you and “nothing go happen”? Of course not! But my viewpoint as I always articulate to my friends is that whether you choose to leave or stay, do not think that life would be any “easier” or “better” for you, even if we agree about the subjectivity of determining what is easier or better. If you japa, do not blame anyone if racism shows up at work, just as someone staying back should not cry about ethnic jingoists at work. Only a child reserves the right to moan about his or her parents’ decision to japa or not to japa.

Talking about children, some persons say they are leaving because of their children; that they want to give their children a better life. Sincerely, I wonder if this is really a great reason. While appreciating the sacrifices that parents make, I am not sure we should be making this kind of decision for children who may not even believe it is for their good, may scorn their parents for uprooting them from childhood links in Nigeria, may turn out worse due to strange cultural influences in their new home, or may never appreciate their parent’s sacrifices. We have many older parents now regretting certain sacrifices they made because the children for whom they paid painful prices are today ungrateful and blaming them instead. So, if you want to japa, better do it with your full chest, for you (and your spouse, if married), so you will not blame anyone in future if things go south. Same with those choosing to stay put in Nigeria.

For some, their decision to japa is driven by peer pressure. They see their friends leaving and feel pushed to join the fray. This pressure is gaining steam due to “japa evangelism” where persons who have gone abroad actively seek to convince friends and family in Nigeria to abandon what they perceive to be a sinking ship. The converse tilt towards faux patriotism where people discourage others from leaving by trying to blackmail them with indictments of betrayal for wanting to leave their “fatherland” even if the father might be an abusive parent. For me, the decision to japa has nothing to do with patriotism as there has never been a forum where Nigerians agreed that loving Nigeria requires staying back within its borders.

Besides the fray of the japa movement, one conversation we do not seem to be having is about the impact on the Nigerian economy. While it is true that Nigerians have been leaving for decades, we should not assume that we have an unrestrained ability to replace any skill that is lost. A fresh graduate cannot have the knowledge and experience of a middle level manager, so if people with significant experience are leaving, we need to sit and think about the sustainability of our existence. Maybe this would force us to address some of the issues driving the urge to japa. Already, it is rumoured that some banks are struggling to retain talent for their operations, while hospitals are bleeding doctors and nurses.

So, should you japa or not? If some politicians will not categorically state whether they attended primary and secondary school, why would you expect me to give a straight answer to a question that has serious ramifications? All I would say is that whether you japa or not, seek to be a plus wherever you are. If you choose to stay back, commit to playing a part in fixing Nigeria in your own little corner. Maybe if Nigeria becomes better, the japa trend would reduce and some who have left would relocate their father’s house. In the meantime, our compatriots abroad should please continue sending FX remittances back home. Please do not let your people reach Sri Lankan levels.

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