Hello. It looks like you’re using an ad blocker that may prevent our website from working properly. To receive the best Tortoise experience possible, please make sure any blockers are switched off and refresh the page.

If you have any questions or need help, let us know at memberhelp@tortoisemedia.com

Sunday 2 June 2019

The ones who stay

  • Nigeria has been the source of one in five migrants who trust in people-smugglers to get them across the Mediterranean into Europe
  • Educated Nigerians are beginning to stay at home in search of a prosperous future in the nascent tech start-up scene in the capital Abuja
  • Africa’s most populous country will still be a significant exporter of its own people – but for many, Canada is now more of a draw than Europe

By Colin Freeman

Steven Adaga has some way to go before he becomes Nigeria’s Jeff Bezos. His online shopping start-up, Nairashop, has six full-time staff, a limited product range and problems that Amazon has never had to worry about.

Nairashop’s delivery vans have to contend with three-hour traffic jams, bribe-hungry police and occasional gangs of highwaymen. Many neighbourhoods have no street names or numbers, and some lack proper roads. Yet with 200 million potential customers – 40 per cent of whom are already online – Adaga does have room for growth.

Steven Adaga, business development manager of nairashop.ng

“Nigerians are very sceptical when it comes to online shopping, and many locations are hard to reach now,” he says. “But we have a big middle class and a young population, both of which are driving forces for online expansion.”

Adaga is Nairashop’s business development manager. He’s 26. Every year tens of thousands of Nigerians roughly his age leave for what they hope is a better life abroad, but he has chosen to stay.

We meet for coffee at Ventures Park, a new tech hub in Nigeria’s capital, Abuja. Built in the 1980s as an alternative to the overcrowded megacity of Lagos, Abuja is supposed to be an African Milton Keynes – neat, modern, business-friendly.

In practice its reputation is as a city that seldom earns an honest buck. As home to the country’s political class, this is where hundreds of billions of dollars of Nigeria’s vast oil wealth has been squandered and stolen over the decades, earning Nigeria its reputation as one of the world’s most dysfunctional kleptocracies.

Ventures Park, opened in 2016 as a local answer to Silicon Valley, aims to change all that.

There are bean bags, DJ decks and the obligatory table football. There is shared workspace for dozens of ambitious young tech entrepreneurs, all hoping to “disrupt” the disruption around them. For inspiration, there’s a Steve Jobs quote on the wall. “The ones who are crazy enough to think they can change the world are the ones who do.”

The vibe is hopeful; the reality tough. Daily power cuts, government incompetence and endemic corruption mean only one delivery service is really booming in Nigeria, and it isn’t Nairashop or any of its competitors. It’s the mass export of Nigeria’s own people.

Joshua Obi Ufoegbune, a computer games designer, at Ventures Platform

Some are slum dwellers desperate to earn more than $1 a day, but many are middle-class professionals fed up with a country that doesn’t work, and the exodus has been ongoing since the days of military dictatorship in the 1970s. An estimated 17m Nigerians now live abroad, creating “Little Lagos” districts from Houston to Beijing. On average, 164 Nigerians leave every day, according to UN figures. When the US-based Pew Research Centre published a study last year showing that three quarters of Nigerians would leave if they could, some here thought that sounded, if anything, too low.

Long visa queues outside the American and British consulates tell only part of the story. In 2016, Nigerians made up one in five of the 180,000 passengers on the people-smuggling rafts sailing from Libya to Europe. As Africa’s most populous nation – Nigerians make up roughly half West Africa’s population – Nigeria is likely to be a migrant exporter for decades to come. The UN predicts that its population could more than double to 410m by 2050, putting it behind only China and India.

Already, that scenario is cited by both sides in Europe’s migration debate. On the populist right, it’s the reason to pull up the drawbridge of Fortress Europe, no matter how many migrants drown in the Med. On the left, it’s a browbeater for radical action on global poverty and climate change. If white Europeans don’t want millions of Africans banging on their door in coming decades, they must do more to help. African leaders, meanwhile, fret about the brain drain of their brightest and best.

Ventures Park is a hub for Nigerian tech entrepreneurs

Ventures Park is one place where minds are focused more on home. The campus is part of Ventures Platform, a $100m venture capital fund set up by Kola Aina, a Nigerian financier, to create “inclusive and sustainable wealth in Africa”.

Long seen as a fraudsters’ haven, Nigeria used to be hostile territory for any kind of e-business. In the last five years, though, leaps in online payment security have let technology kick in.

Gone are the days of endless tussles with cabbies, now that Uber is available in both Lagos and Abuja. Ventures Platform meanwhile invests in start-ups that address specifically Nigerian problems, viewing “inefficiencies as opportunities”.

Need $50 quick? Try PayConnect, which offers quick, small loans, without completing the textbook-length forms required by many Nigerian banks. Hundreds of miles from a decent hospital? Try MDaaS Global, an e-health start-up which operates tech-enabled diagnostic centres.

Among Ventures’ best prospects is Tomi Ayorinde, 32, who worked for a German software multi-national before setting up CrowdForce, a market research firm. Tapping into Nigeria’s vast army of unemployed but web-savvy youth, he pays 40,000 youngsters to use their smartphones to gather data on the economy, be it prices in a market or toothpaste sales in roadside kiosks.

Tomi Ayorinde, co-founder of CrowdForce, at his offices in Abuja

“Business data is seldom reliable in Nigeria, but this gives an idea of the ground truths,” says Ayorinde. “Our clients can work out where to target their products, and how to track their competitors.”

Last year, CrowdForce earned $450,000, having started in 2017 on just $20,000 of seed capital. Whether or not it succeeds, Ayorinde insists his future is now in Nigeria.

“It’s more fun to be one of the young people taking on the odds here, rather than fitting into someone else’s system abroad,” he says.

“Nigeria’s still a virgin land waiting for anyone to cultivate it,” adds Joshua Obi Ufoegbune, 28, a games designer, who has built an online snooker app that lets punters play each other for money. “Abroad, you’ll have to be a god to succeed.”

The filmmaker Joel Kachi Benson with his assistant producer Samira Jimeta

On the evening I visit Ventures Park, Joel Kachi Benson, a documentary maker, is screening his new film about Boko Haram’s kidnapping of the Chibok schoolgirls. He spent a fortnight filming in the town – all but impossible for a Westerner because of the security risks. It is proof, he says, of how staying at home can play to one’s advantage.

“I know talented friends in the creative industry who’ve moved overseas, and are still struggling five years later,” he adds. “They don’t want to come home out of pride, but when I travel abroad myself and see them, I still find myself giving them money.”

The strivers of Ventures Park aren’t typical, however. They aren’t even representative of Nigeria’s metropolitan elite. Outside the rarefied tech start-up world it’s more common to hear voices like Sharon Dandy’s.

“I don’t want to stay in Nigeria – you can’t fend for yourself financially here,” Dandy says. “Overseas, you learn why things work properly. I want my daughter to grow up abroad, with better life chances.”

Sharon Dandy has an online business but is keen to leave Nigeria

Dandy is 30, and after years in dead-end receptionist’s jobs she has an online business selling wigs. In the 1970s, she might have looked to Britain or the US, each now home to roughly 200,000 Nigerian-born people. Today, with immigration rules tightening in both countries, she and many other Nigerians look instead to Canada. There, the Liberal government of Justin Trudeau is half-way through a plan to admit a million new skilled migrants by 2020, bringing new blood into an ageing population.

Among those already settled there is Odunola Babalola, who moved to Toronto with his wife and two young children last year. Previously, he saw his future in Nigeria: he worked for a Lagos investment bank, with good chances of promotion and his children at private schools.

Then, at a wedding in Nigeria’s south-west in 2017, he fell victim to a kidnapping in which a friend was killed.

“We were leaving the wedding venue in a convoy of six cars when we were ambushed,” he remembers. “My friend was shot dead and they took me and two others into the bush. We walked for 12 hours, then spent six days being held under a tree.”

Babalola suspects his Lagos car registration convinced the gang he was wealthy. The attackers, who had AK-47s and machetes, struck brazenly close to two police checkpoints. Neither gave chase.

The unreliability of Nigerian police is one reason migrants give for leaving

“It summed up Nigeria’s security situation,” Babalola adds. “Nobody came to rescue us, so we had to pay a ransom of millions of naira (1m naira = £2,150). And when my friend was taken to a nearby hospital, they said they couldn’t treat gunshot wounds. He died from loss of blood.”

The ordeal shattered Babalola’s faith in Nigeria and left him in constant fear. “If ever I was crowded spaces or in a traffic jam, I’d get nervous. If another motorist was blocking my path I’d want to ram them off the road.”

He now relishes being able to raise his family somewhere safer, yet he still has mixed feelings about leaving. “As part of the middle class, life was enjoyable in Nigeria, and it felt things were getting better. Sure, there were problems, but you could buy your way out of them: you could get a generator to deal with the power cuts, for example, and it’s cheap to hire people to work for you.

“But the kidnapping showed just how the middle class are easy prey for robbers. I tried to continue my life in Lagos, but eventually I just compromised to have a better life.”

In 2017, more than 4,200 Nigerians were granted permanent residency in Canada, adding to an existing population of around 40,000. Since word got round of Babalola’s move, many friends have called him for advice on how to follow suit.

“At another pension fund in Nigeria, 14 people resigned in the same month to go to Canada,” he says. “It’s sad, because these are the professionals who should be Nigeria’s future.”

Abuse of the migration scheme has caused controversy in Canada. Between June 2017 and May 2018, 7,000 Nigerians on temporary US visas crossed the border illegally, hoping Canadian officials would let them stay. In response, the government is now spending an additional $1bn on border security, and beefing up deportation procedures.

Illegal immigrants try to cross the border into Canada from Champlain, New York

Such crackdowns are all too familiar for Nigerians, who are used to their green passports being scrutinised closely at borders, or being turned down even for temporary visas.

So for many – especially the poor – the path to the West involves not a queue at an embassy, but a trip to Benin City on the storm-lashed plains of southern Nigeria.

The capital of Edo State, Benin City is part of the kingdom of Benin, which was among the first in West Africa to trade with Europe. Historically, it is famous as the home of the Benin Bronzes, which were looted by British imperial troops and are currently the subject of talks to repatriate them from the British Museum.

Modern-day Benin City, however, has a different claim to fame: as a centre for sex trafficking, people smuggling and witchcraft, three trades that have merged to make it one of Africa’s biggest hubs for illegal migration.

Prostitutes on a street in Benin City, hub of Nigeria’s illegal migration

It began in the 1980s, when local women visited Italy to work as tomato pickers, and realised they could earn much more in prostitution. When they returned rich enough to build themselves smart new villas, word quickly spread. Soon, networks of “madams” formed in Benin City, recruiting girls for prostitution all over Europe.

Lest the girls decide upon arrival that life in a brothel in Naples or London wasn’t to their liking, the madams would make them swear an oath of obedience at a local juju shrine before they set off. With belief in traditional magic still particularly strong in the ancient kingdom, it amounted almost literally to signing their soul away. Anyone who fled their brothel would have the all-seeing juju gods pursuing vengeance.

Over the last 30 years, tens of thousands of women have been despatched from Benin City into sex slavery in Europe. The trade has morphed into a wider people-smuggling racket, shuttling male migrants across the same routes over the Sahara to Libya. Roughly half of all illegal Nigerian migrants come from the Edo State area, and as many as 90 per cent of trafficked women.

These figures represent the paupers in Nigeria’s migrant story. With no visas, the most they can often hope for in Europe is a life in the twilight economy, where the same criminal networks that smuggle them in can tempt them into crime.

Obi Sunny returned to Nigeria after three years in Spain

“Most migrants just hawk stuff on the streets or do manual labour, where you get ripped off on pay because you’ve got no documents,” says Obi Sunny, 42, who returned to Nigeria voluntarily after three years in Spain. “You get police hassle too – it’s not worth it.”

Anti-immigration politicians are not the only people worried about southern Europe’s growing migrant underclass. It also causes alarm in Benin City, where former émigrés are accused of bringing bad habits back with them.

“Benin City these days has nothing much except clubs, beer and prostitution,” said one local woman. “You can tell the people who’ve just came back from Europe: they’ve got new tattoos, wear Nike trainers and drive flashy cars with loud music. You wonder where their money comes from, but others see it and want to follow suit.”

With that in mind, the city’s governor has partnered with a European Union scheme to encourage migrants who have already reached Libya to return home. It’s estimated that there may be up to 400,000 sub-Saharan migrants in Libya, most still planning to risk their lives crossing the Med. Those who accept “voluntary repatriation” get a free flight home, three months’ pocket money and job training.

Migrants off the coast of Libya wait to be rescued

In Benin City, where about 5,000 migrants have returned since the scheme began in 2017, they also get a pep talk from Solomon Okoduwa, a former migrant himself, who now advises the governor.

It isn’t easy for returnees, Okoduwa admits. Having often sold the family silver just to get to Libya, many feel they’ve blown the chance of a lifetime. Peers may see them as failures, or even poor marriage prospects.

“I don’t paint it nicely: I tell them that I know what it’s like to come back with nothing to show for it,” Okoduwa says. “But with our job training, they can rebuild their lives here.”

Or can they? Well-intentioned though it is, the job training for returnees is in modest occupations like poultry farming and pig breeding. For those who dreamed of becoming urban slickers in London or Rome, it feels like going back to the peasant lifestyles of their parents’ generation.

“So far, I’ve earned just 10,000 naira [around £20],” says returnee Fred Omogui, 32, who is enrolled at a local chicken farm cooperative. “That’s not enough to feed myself with. Six other people at the farm have gone back to Libya. The only reason I haven’t followed is because I don’t have the money.”

Men like Omogui get little sympathy from fellow Nigerians. With social security largely non-existent anyway, most consider him lucky to get any state help at all.

Yet Nigeria’s rulers are now facing hard questions. If the population doubles as predicted, and no other country wants their citizens, they’ll have to do more for them within their own borders. There’s little sign of that happening.

Since the global oil price collapse in 2014, Nigeria’s economy has tanked. Unemployment has doubled to nearly one in four of the workforce. Nearly half the country live on less than $1.90 per day, the WHO threshold for “extreme poverty”. Economic growth, at 1.93 per cent in 2018, is being outstripped by population growth, at nearly 3 per cent.

The Mosafejo area of Lagos, where housing redevelopment is planned

In a report in April, the Financial Derivatives Company, a Nigerian finance house, warned that “failure to match the high rate of reproduction with a corresponding level of productivity has set the stage for a ticking time bomb”.

Not that tackling poverty will necessarily curb migration. Jeff Crisp, a research associate at the Refugee Studies Centre at Oxford University, cites the “migration hump”, by which growing income in developing nations leads to more people aspiring to move abroad.

“The standard wisdom is that development makes people less likely to leave,” says Crisp. “But early on, it’s the opposite, as people get better access to money, communications and transport.”

Right now, nobody seems to have an answer. One Nigerian newspaper noted recently that China tackled a similar population surge in the 1970s with its controversial one-child policy. Draconian birth control programmes, though, do not sit well in a 21st-century democracy. And even if the West was willing to massively expand its aid programmes and migrant worker schemes, Nigeria would still have to do the heavy lifting.

The young entrepreneurs at Venture Park in Abuja are keen to rise to that challenge, but as the West is already learning, tech innovations can cost as many jobs as they create. With most Nigerians still employed in manual labour, disruption may not help returnees like Fred Omogui.

“I pray Nigeria will become a place I can earn a living in, and if not me, then my children,” he says. “Right now, I don’t even have much hope of that.”

Nor does Babalola, who remembers how shortly before leaving for Canada, he heard his son shouting “Up NEPA” when the lights came on after a power-cut. The expression refers to that welcome moment each day when the Nigerian Electric Power Authority finally gets its act together.

“I thought to myself, I was saying ‘Up NEPA’ as a kid 30 years ago,” says Babalola. “It was a sign this country isn’t going to get better any time soon.”

Portraits for Tortoise by Tom Sater

All our journalism is built to be shared. No walls here – as a member you have unlimited sharing

Further reading

A critical overview of Western attitudes to migration is provided in this 2019 piece from The Atlantic. It focuses mainly on the US but discusses issues relevant to the debate in Europe too

Lagos, Nigeria’s largest city, has a reputation for being chaotic and crime-ridden, but as the Daily Telegraph reports here, improvements have been made in recent years

This report from the Migration Observatory at Oxford University gives a concise overview of the current migration picture in the UK. As of 2015, Nigerians made up 2.3 per cent of Britain’s foreign-born population

This report by the Finnish Immigration Service has a detailed account of the history of human trafficking in Nigeria.

One of the notorious victims of human trafficking was “Adam”, an unidentified young boy whose mutilated torso was found in the River Thames in 2001. Forensic tests suggested he was originally from the Benin City region, and had been killed for witchcraft purposes. Richard Hoskins, an expert on African tribal religions, was brought to help police investigate – and wrote this compelling book.