It was a rapturous euphoria when we heard that our neighbor was among one of the 50 doctors selected from Nigeria to go to Saudi Arabia to practice medicine. He was a doctor at a popular Psychiatric Hospital in Benin City. The year was 1991. I was very young and callow. But that was my first experience of skilled workers emigrating from Nigeria. To many of us then (and unfortunately to so many now), it was the fulfillment of a life-long dream. The answered prayer of endless fasting!
As a student in one of the foremost citadel of higher learning in Nigeria, University of Benin, I saw my friends in school of engineering and medicine leave the country even before their degree certificates were issued. Some were recruited by foreign firms. For others, it was personal choice to seek better life abroad due to economic and political crises that have bedeviled Nigeria and most African countries over the last few decades – failing economies, high unemployment rates, armed conflict and lack of adequate social services. “Checking out of the country” to go abroad was the order of the day. Even college professors were also checking out in droves. Unfortunately (or should I say fortunately?), this writer also checked out as a student when the opportunity came. A United Nations study found that more than 20,000 skilled African professionals leave the continent annually to work and reside in other parts of the world.
Brain drain is a large-scale emigration of individuals with technical skills or knowledge. Recent study presented at the National Symposium on Ethiopian Diasporas shows Ethiopia has lost 75% of its skilled professionals during the past ten years. Now there are more Ethiopian doctors in Chicago than there are in Ethiopia! More than 60 per cent of doctors trained in Ghana have left the country. Nigeria figure is too scary to mention. A Canadian research found that nine African countries (Nigeria, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Ethiopia, Kenya, Malawi, Tanzania, Uganda and Zambia) known to produce a large number of qualified professionals in the medical field are losing the equivalent of US$2 billion per year due to their healthcare professionals seeking employment in wealthier countries.
One does not need to be a rocket scientist to understand these numbers. Just take a walk to any Hospital in the New York area, you will find 1 Nigerian, Ghanaian or South African doctor (and at least 3-5 African nurses) in every shift. It is the same for college professors, engineering and technology firms. Over the years, it seemed Africa train her professionals not for Africa but to meet the needs of other parts of the world.
In 2008, a friend of mine with a Respiratory Therapy degree (needless to say, an American Citizen) working for a top-notch Hospital in New York called me and bellowed “I am relocating to Naija”. “How long are you visiting”, I asked? “You no dey understand English again. I say I dey relocate to Naija and you say visit. Visit and relocate na the same thing”? he retorted with a friendly sarcasm. Since 2008, he has been living in Nigeria. He called me recently and indicated he is in the process of setting up a Radiologist Diagnostic Center in his town. Just like him, there are many other professional Diasporas who have relocated from UK, America and Canada for whatever reason and are already making little impact in their country’s landscape.
Whether it is the revolutionary transformation in the Nigerian-Ghanaian music and film industry, implementation of new technologies solution in private and public sectors or the political pressure initiated by African Diasporas for better governance in Africa, it appears African Diasporas (against all odds!) are beginning to turn African Brain Drain into Brain Gain. Like my Respiratory Therapist friend in Nigeria told me recently, it is not easy adjusting to the seemingly dysfunctional system and all the other challenges. But with resolute will and chutzpa, one can make some impacts in his or her little way.
Do you consider yourself an African Professional in the Diaspora? Or do you have friends or relatives who decided or decided not or even deciding to relocate back to Africa? Share your thoughts and experience on this trend. Can African Professionals in the Diaspora serve as a catalyst to speed up development in Africa?