Looking to the Diaspora for help in national development.

By Obi. O. Akwani
MGV Editor

Posted November 4, 2007

Engaging the Nigerian Diaspora

Links to Various Resources

National Universities Commission
Linkages with Experts and Academics in the Diaspora (LEAD)
Nigerian National Volunteer Service (NNVS)
Federal Ministry of Science and Technology
Medical Association of Nigerian Specialists (UK)

Association of Nigerian Physicians in the Americas

Nigerians in Diaspora Organization

A perennial concern for most countries in the Third World, especially in Africa, is the issue of “brain drain” – the trend whereby the most talented people and best trained professionals leave those countries and migrate to other, more developed, countries in search for better living and improved prospects for their careers.

For some decades this trend was regarded as a major contributor to under-development in many African countries. Some people blame the trend on bad and repressive governments in the home countries of these migrant experts and professionals. Within Africa and among authorities in power, the persistence of the trend is often blamed on a deliberate policy of governments in developed countries to lure and keep Third World experts – many of them trained in the developed countries anyway – with good jobs in their fields and better living conditions.

There is no doubt that there is a global competition for the best minds, the most talented and best trained people. We see it happening even in sports where, in soccer, for instance, some of the best players in the world are highly sought after by rich club-sides in Europe and elsewhere; Nigeria alone, currently contributes at least 20 world class soccer players to this elite group of international professionals currently engaged by foreign teams. And what the Third World loses the developed world gains.

There is no doubt also that, given the opportunity, workers will move from areas with relatively adverse work conditions and lower value for their services to areas where they can get the most for those services. In this era of globalization, such opportunities have been increasingly available to professionals and other workers.

Before now, most Third World countries have simply cried ‘foul’ as they watched their most talented leave home for more lucrative places in the Western world. Today, many of these countries are beginning to view this so-called ‘brain drain’ trend in a different and more positive light. They are finding alternative ways to fight back in a bid to retain the services of their best minds.e

For Nigeria – a country that went through a devastating civil war between 1967 and 1970 and has seen four or five military governments since then, including the period from 1986 when the country went into a tailspin of worsening economic conditions; and the 1990s when repressive military dictatorships caused the imprisonment and deaths of many individuals – the globalization trend has led to the exodus of between 11 and 17 million people who now live in the Diaspora Nigerians. Many of these people have now resided in other countries for more than two decades. An estimated 2 million Nigerians live in the United States alone. Between ten and twenty thousand of these Nigerian-Americans are said to be medical doctors. In the United Kingdom, it is estimated that about 1.5 million Nigerians live there.

The problem for Nigerian governments since the 1970s has been how to tap into this vast skilled Diaspora population in a way that can be more directly useful to the country. Over the years, the talk has been of reversing the ‘brain drain’ but there were no practical steps laid down for accomplishing that objective. By reversing the brain drain, most people were thinking about attracting back the people who had left the country and retaining others so that they too do not find it more attractive to emigrate. But without dramatic and rapid economic and social transformation of the country for the better, that dream of reversing the brain drain was nigh impossible to realize.

Nigerian National Volunteer Service & Nigerians in Diaspora Organization
Since the return of democracy in 1999 the government of Nigeria has been rethinking the concept of reversing the brain drain. After his election as president in May that year, Olusegun Obasanjo undertook a round-the-world tour that brought him into personal contact with some of the millions of Nigerians in Diaspora in different countries, and it quickly became apparent to the President that there was no way Nigeria could re-absorb the millions of experts and professionals of her nationals gainfully employed in other countries. Moreover, it was not an advisable policy to pursue the return of the expatriates. There had to be a new way of reversing the ‘brain-drain’. And so the idea became to find a way to turn the drain into a ‘brain gain’ without requiring the expatriates to physically relocate back to Nigeria.

This new understanding of the brain drain situation led to the formation of two new organizations in 2000. Nigerians in the Diaspora Organization (NIDO) was formed following meetings between the Nigerian president and members of the Nigerian Diaspora in North America and Europe after Obasanjo’s election as president in May 1999. NIDO was meant to provide a critical mass to ignite conscious participation by the Diaspora in Nigeria’s development. Also in 2000, the government established the Nigerian National Volunteer Service (NNVS) to harness the services of Nigerian experts, both retirees and active agents at home and abroad, for the development of the nation. These two organizations are the focal points for the national ‘brain gain’ project.

In July 2005, the first of an annual Science and Technology Conference between Nigerians in the Diaspora and those at home designed to map out the modalities of the ‘brain gain’ project, took place in Abuja. President Obasanjo described the conference as a “first step toward a national objective [of harnessing the talents of Nigerians in the Diaspora] as the engine of change and accelerated development in Nigeria.” During that conference, Obasanjo declared July 25 to be Diaspora Day in Nigeria. It is a day for all Nigerians to remember and appreciate the contributions of their expatriate nationals in the country’s development. The first Diaspora Day anniversary was celebrated on July 25, 2006 in conjunction with the three-day Science and Technology Conference for that year. The 200 registered Nigerian expatriates who attended the 2006 conference was more than double the 76 Nigerians from the Diaspora that attended the first conference in 2005. The emphasis on science and technology is a recognition of the need for Nigeria to begin now to “revolutionize its science and technology infrastructure [as the key] to the future.”

According to the organizers of the conference – the Federal Ministry of Science and Technology and NNVS, the 2007 conference was less successful, attendance wise, than the two previous ones. The most frequent reason mentioned by Nigerians in the Diaspora for the poorer show in 2007 was disenchantment with the Obasanjo administration and uncertainty about the direction the succeeding government under President Umaru Musa Yar Adua will take.

Most Nigerians, at home and abroad, were disappointed by the conduct of the April 2007 elections. Observers of that election delegated by Nigerians in the Diaspora and by international bodies as well as independent local groups were unanimous in agreement that the elections were marred by fraud and anti-democratic practices. This fact coupled with other political events that led up to the elections – such as the removal of the well-respected finance minister and the protracted but failed attempt to give President Obasanjo a third term in office – contributed profoundly to the disenchantment of Nigerians in the Diaspora as express in the low attendance for the 2007 conference.

Such disappointments not withstanding, the government’s effort to reverse the brain drain did yield some tangible results. There have solid personal and institutional linkages established between scientists abroad and at home. Many overseas based scientists now have access to local research funds through the Science and Technology Trust Fund. Many of the projects identified during past conferences are being carried out. Some of them, like Dr. Obaija’s research and development project to produce a drug for the management of arthritis has reached commercialization and been approved by NAFDAC. The 2006 conference produced a memorandum of understanding between the NNVS and Federal Ministry of Health on one hand, and Medical Association of Nigerian Specialists & GPs in the British Isles (MANSAG) and the Association of Nigerian Physicians in America (ANPA) on the other, to facilitate medical missions to Nigeria. Expatriate Nigerians are also actively involved in nation-building in other ways. Health insurance, mortgage, registered pension and credit purchase schemes which were ideas introduced by Nigerians in the Diaspora have become common realities in the country in 2007.

The 2008 conference is coming up in July. Registration for that conference will begin in May. Organizers are hoping for an even larger number of Diaspora attendees than in 2006 and there is reason to believe that this interaction will continue to yield even more concrete results of technology transfer and capacity strengthening in the Nigerian industry.

Obi O. Akwani is the editor of IMDiversity’s Minorities’ Global Village and the author of Winning Over Racism and the novel, March of Ages. He is a Nigerian Canadian. He lives in Cornwall, Ontario Canada.

IMDiversity.com is committed to presenting diverse points of view. However, the viewpoint expressed in this article is the opinion of the author and is not necessarily the viewpoint of the owners or employees at IMD.