Anxiety settled on Ehioje Ese like a blanket as his eyes darted back and forth at the people walking around the entrance of a private clinic.
The 38-year-old software developer had been recommended for a series of medical tests to ascertain his health status in order to qualify for a student visa to the United Kingdom.
At the private clinic in Ikeja GRA, Lagos State, the father of one was nervous because his recent battle with an illness might threaten his chances of leaving the country.
Munching away on a snack with a bottle of soft drink that hot afternoon, Ese explained to our correspondent why he was determined to leave Nigeria for better opportunities abroad.
“I have had enough of this country and as it is now, I have to leave with my family by every means possible. I studied computer science and graduated 12 years ago. I was unemployed for two years until I got employed in a tech company on the mainland. But the pay was not good.
“If you subtracted my daily transport from my total salary, what was remaining was small. The only advantage was that it gave me work experience but we were made to work overtime without pay. Our boss would not allow us to go home on weekdays and even insisted we worked on weekends or lose some days’ pay.
“The more people resigned from there, the heavier the burden of work thrust on me. I quit and later found a software design job on the island. It was then I realised my knowledge was insufficient as far as my career was concerned.
“For me to progress in my career and get a good paying job, my knowledge needed to expand towards Artificial Intelligence, which is what is reigning globally. But here I am in Nigeria where there is no stable power supply, there is a fuel hike, and the working conditions are poor.
“I am being paid peanuts, I am stressed living in Nigeria and it’s taking a toll on me. There is so much stress that it even prevents me from writing codes as I should,” he said, pursing his lips in obvious distaste.
Ese, who hails from Esan West Local Government Area of Edo State, further noted that most of his colleagues had travelled out due to the opportunities available for them in other countries.
He continued, “Almost every month in my workplace, I see my colleagues leaving Nigeria for greener pastures. I am in touch with some of them and they tell me that there are more opportunities for me to thrive in other countries.
“It was one of them who even guided me through the process of applying for a student visa. This is why I came here for a medical test. My wife and son have already been cleared but I am yet to be cleared.
“My fear is that they might not give me a visa because I just recovered from a serious illness and the doctor has been asking me questions about my recent health history.
“I can’t bear to stay in this country where I am being underpaid and overworked and I know I deserve better. Sometimes, I pause to reason it; the way Nigeria has many tech persons leaving its shores will affect several institutions that depend on us for their digital operations, especially banks.”
Three months later, when our correspondent reached out to Ese, he disclosed, in an elated voice, that his visa application was successful.
Ese has joined the growing mass exodus of young and urbane professionals from Nigeria into foreign countries, which has been termed the Japa wave.
Japa is a Yoruba word which simply means to escape from a bad situation and it aptly describes the emigration of skilled hands from the country.
The reasons for their migration differ. For some, it is to pursue further studies, while for others, it is to escape from the worsening socioeconomic situation and biting inflation in Nigeria.
Dashed hope, poor pay
For 10 years, Chukwuma Ugoji was hesitant to leave Nigeria, hoping to use his skills as a network support engineer in a telecommunications firm to develop himself and the community.
However, when the door to travel out of the country opened in 2021, he decided to take full advantage of it and relocate to the United Kingdom to work.
Explaining the reason for the move, Ugoji described the work environment in Nigeria as unsustainable for many young technocrats.
He noted that many tech workers lacked access to the resources and financial support required to work to the best of their capacity.
“When I was in Nigeria, I was working in a telecoms firm. Based on my desire for networking, my expectations didn’t align with my plans. When I joined them, my primary motive was to develop myself and impact the community because I was not doing my job just to get paid at the end of the month.
“But later on, I came to understand that even though the company tried by giving us diverse training, there was no good financial support, and that made my morale go down because there was no money to gain available resources I needed. For instance, you need a laptop to be able to do networking or programming, otherwise, you won’t be able to solve any issue.
“This was the state I was in for years and I now believe that I wasted my time there. The situation of the country is also not helping if you want to start on your own unless you want to do a dirty game because you will have to settle one or two people,” he said.
Since he started working in the UK, Ugoji said he could now understand the difference between both climes and why his present country of residence had many advantages over Nigeria.
“First of all, there is a template that you can build on no matter where you are coming from, and the stress that I went through back in Nigeria is less than what I experience here because there are different platforms available to do what you want.
“Here, what tech managers really need is your experience and certification. Once you can show them what you are made of intellectually, they will give you the job and they will pay you per minute or hour unlike in Nigeria where you have to wait till the end of the month to collect your salary, whether you work for the money or not.
“There are also more opportunities available here and greater access to resources and tools to work with. It’s a far cry from a place like Lagos where you will be stuck in traffic for hours from 6am. You get to work exhausted, drenched in your sweat and your armpit is smelly and you close at 5pm exhausted and stuck in traffic again.
“In our line of work, you need to communicate with people daily, troubleshooting the problems with the telecoms networks; stress reduces your work capacity.
“Here, the work is more flexible; you can even discuss it with your boss and ask if you can work from home, and they will agree as long as it helps you perform better. This is one of the reasons young people are leaving Nigeria in droves; they want a place where they can do better and their lives are safer,” he added.
Ugoji warned that if the talent exodus was not halted, it would continue to negatively affect institutions that relied on digital technology.
He said, “With the cashless policy in Nigeria, there is a need for improved digital technology. But due to the talent exodus, tech companies that work with banks and telecommunications have to outsource their networking and spend more money.
“These tech guys who work for Nigerian banks are not well-taken care of and they are now working in countries where they are well paid. Back home, you will have two people handling Automated Teller Machines and mobile software apps that are supposed to be handled by 10 persons.
“This shortage of skilled hands will definitely affect fund transfer and other services provided by these institutions and consequently, international big players won’t be encouraged to come into the country because they want to know if they start up they won’t be able to deliver good services for citizens.”
A tech worker in a new generation bank, Segun Ijatuyi, who was passionate about his data science job, called it quit early this year.
In a phone interview with our correspondent, Ijatuyi explained that he decided to travel out of the country after he worked in the bank for four years in a quest for a better life.
He said, “I resigned from my banking job when I got my admission letter to study data science at a university in the United Kingdom. I felt stagnated and didn’t see a bright future in the banking sector. Promotions and salary reviews would often take donkey years to attain.
“Of course, there is a massive brain drain in the IT department of most banks and I am sure it’s the same in some new generation banks. The management doesn’t appreciate its staff except for those at the top.
“To remain in the banking sector without any form of significant growth, promotion, or increment in salary is certainly not the kind of system I wanted.”
Expressing his frustration, a man, Elijah Opeyemi, who formerly worked in the IT department of another new generation bank, said he decided to seek greener pastures in Canada after his pleas for a promotion and salary raise repeatedly fell on deaf ears.
“When my appointment was confirmed, I hoped for a promotion and a raise in my salary, but after five years of rigorous service, I realised I was still caught up in the graduate trainee trap.
“When I got tired of frustrations from all angles, coupled with my workload, I decided to resign. Basically, banks are losing years of organisational knowledge through the exit of people who have known the organisations through and through and whom they could call on to sort out issues almost immediately.
“Now, they are being replaced by people who have barely understudied this system and do not have enough organisational knowledge to get things going smoothly. The funny thing is that the departure is often sudden due to years of frustration thrown at their employee’s faces,” he told our correspondent.
Opeyemi pointed out that the shabby treatments that many banks meted out to their tech staff were detrimental to the development of the workers.
He said, “IT staff members have also realised they can get paid better outside and they have received the ‘good news’ from outside (abroad) that it pays more there. Moreover, when they convert their salary to dollars and see it is barely 500 dollars, they just want to get out and earn more.
“So, basically, poor pay which sometimes I feel is beyond banks themselves, is the cause of major concern. However, I will have to question this when I see the jumbo pay of senior managers, but then that is how it is everywhere; management takes the most.”
On the increase in workload and vacancies in the IT sector, Opeyemi affirmed that banks had been pushed into a tight corner where they would need to cut down on costs.
He added, “When they sack in droves, they raise dust. Now, people leave in droves, of course, and that means there will be more workload for the remaining team members.
“I feel the bank management always have the thought that their staff are not as effective as they should be, hence they employ two people to do the work of one person. But there are key roles that should have proper replacements and one of such is the ICT sector.”
Struggling to retain talent
To stay afloat amidst the increasing rate of emigration and mass resignations, many commercial banks have resorted to measures that will help to retain talents within the establishment.
One of these is a reduction in the grade requirements for graduate trainees, given that many with high grades have higher chances of getting foreign scholarships.
Notwithstanding, the number of citizens willing to leave the country by conventional means has continued to surge.
According to a report from the Nigeria Social Cohesion Survey, seven out of 10 Nigerians are willing to relocate to other countries for various reasons, with a good number of them recording success.
The Nigeria Immigration Service also disclosed that a total of 1,899,683 passports were issued in 2022, constituting the highest in a single year, and in the last seven years.
A higher education platform, Erudera, revealed in 2021 that Nigeria’s 21,305 student population in the UK made it the third non-European Union country with the highest number of students there.
In July 2022, the Association of Nigerian Students in Europe revealed that Europe alone had more than three million Nigerians enrolled in different higher institutions of learning.
The Nigeria Market Sentiments and Study Motivations Report also indicated that 89.87 per cent of Nigerian youths preferred to study in a university outside the country.
The survey added that seventy-three per cent of Nigerians, 60 per cent of doctors, and 89.87 per cent of students wanted to leave the country.
A doctoral researcher at the University of Edinburgh Business School, Dotun Ayeni, in a paper, noted that the Japa wave was forcing employers to embrace ‘i-deals,’ a non-standard work model, to combat the difficulties of attracting and retaining talents.
In his reaction to the situation, the Director-General of the Nigeria Employers Consultative Association, Adewale Oyerinde, stated that in terms of relocation to the United Kingdom, India was first, followed by Palestine and then Nigeria.
He said, “It is not a strange thing. Sometimes, when there is the mobility of labour, people will move for many reasons apart from the two predominant reasons, which are economic and security reasons.
“It creates talent issues because businesses also need very strong hands and competent workforce to be competitive and grow. So, if those workforces are moving, it creates a gap within the system, and some have said every problem creates an opportunity.
“While we were talking about the issue of unemployment as some are moving, it also creates opportunities for others to take those positions. But also, it is a cause of worry for everybody. It is a cause of worry for talent management, and it also creates dynamics for talent managers to start building the pool and become more conscious about succession planning.”
Govt should address loopholes
A former Chairman of First Bank of Nigeria, Mrs Ibukun Awosika, during the annual Vanguard Economic Discourse in Lagos, lamented how Nigerian youths were contributing their intellectual and material resources to the development of other countries.
She urged the Nigerian government to address the loopholes in the economy to prevent the Japa syndrome from threatening the country.
She said, “In many ways, the sad part is after we have used our money to pay the countries for the education of our children, we then leave our children behind to serve them to build their economy, even though we paid for that education.
“So, I want you to dimension the impact of that. It means every penny we paid for the education of every child that chose not to come back was not an investment for a nation. It was a total export of resources for which we might never get any return on capital investment. We have to live up to our responsibilities in upholding sanity in our socioeconomic, political and leadership systems.”
Speaking with our correspondent, the Head of Strategy, Sonora Capital and Investment Limited, Ubah Jeremiah, said Japa was detrimental to the country’s technology industry.
“This Japa movement has certainly had some damaging impact on the Nigerian economy, particularly in the banking and telecommunications sectors.
“In the banking sector, the brain drain has resulted in a shortage of skilled personnel, as many experienced bankers have left the country. This has led to a decline in the quality of services offered by banks and a lack of innovation in the sector.
“The loss of experienced personnel has also made it difficult for banks to implement new technologies and financial products, which can negatively impact their competitiveness in the global market.
“The telecommunications sector has also been negatively impacted by the brain drain. Many of the skilled professionals in this industry have left Nigeria in search of better opportunities elsewhere.
“The loss of skilled personnel has also made it difficult for the industry to keep up with rapid technological advancements in the telecommunications sector, which has resulted in a decline in the quality of service offered by telecom companies in Nigeria,” Jeremiah said.
He urged the government to invest in viable policies that would create better workplaces for professionals.
“To address this issue, the Nigerian government needs to invest in policies and initiatives that will encourage skilled professionals to remain in the country and contribute to their economic growth,” he added.
Also speaking with our correspondent, a tech consultant, Solomon Nwadike, noted that the government needed to collaborate with the private sector in order to retain talents in the digital space.
He said, “We can’t stop people from seeking greener pastures because there is an innate desire for people to migrate towards greater light. So, one of the solutions to the Japa syndrome in Nigeria lies in creating a more conducive environment in our banks.
“This is not only the responsibility of the government; the private sector also has its role to play. There should be collaborations that will enhance talents to thrive in our country and reduce the rate of Japa among youths.
“This is a different generation we are dealing with and in a post-COVID-19 era, workplaces have to change to march global realities. People want to work more productively and ensure there is a healthy work-life balance. A lot of tech startup companies need to pay more attention to the mental wellness of their employees.”