Opinion: Nigerians Good Or Ugly, Great Exports All The Same – By Chidi Amuta
The Nigerian diaspora has lately graduated into both an economic proposition and a grave strategic concern. Our diaspora home remittances have ballooned to anywhere between $24 to $30 billion since 2019. Many Nigerian professionals and entrepreneurs are making positive headlines for their successes in good things and in key places of the world. Yet plane loads of not so fortunate Nigerians are periodically being deported from bad places or hundreds of us are being tossed into jails around the world for acts that unsettle their host countries and embarrass our government. But love or hate us, our face has become an unmistakable international brand and a perpetual road show of who we are at home. Out there in the world, we are a sea of inherent goodness spiced with a few bad guys.
An evacuation flight earlier this week landed in Lagos from Libya. It disgorged 350 Nigerians hurriedly evacuated from Libya, a transit country for desperate Africans risking the Mediterranean crossing into Europe in search of a better life. These ones are lucky to return home alive. Others have perished in the process while many who made the great crossing ended up in punishing jails in Europe.
For good or bad reasons, Nigerians are streaming out through legal and illegal routes. While some seek legitimate livelihoods and are going to other lands through the front door, others are trekking across the Sahara or joining bad boats to cross the Mediterranean in search of scraggy livelihoods in Europe. The make shift dangerous boats are not exactly the slave ships that took our kith and kin trough the middle passage to America in the days of the slave trade. Those were forced cargoes; the new boat people are voluntary exiles who believe that dangerous journeys in search of a better life are better than death in installments at home.
Yet the bulging Nigerian diaspora is a dual heritage. Ever so frequently, we learn of collections of worthy Nigerians doing good things for themselves and thus glorifying the nation in the process. Some of them have risen to the pinnacle of enterprise, research and technocracy in the countries where they have settled. In our new embrace with the world, we have exported the very exceptional, those who went out to study and pursue the highest levels of perfection in almost every field. Some are top scientists in NASA and leading research laboratories. Others are leading lights in the best branches of academia, some of the best brains in public and corporate bureaucracies in the West. There are also plain ordinary honest Nigerians who went out there in search of the good life for their families and for work environments in which proficient men and women seek access to the best facilities for honest work and dignified labour. There are the new breed of tech entrepreneurs for whom there are no limits.
But the ones that make most of the news are the nasty oases of shame and ugliness that look more like exaggerated versions of our ugliness at home.
The ugly Nigerian is perennially out there on display. The internet fraudsters, the violent robbers, the rough ladies of the night, the common thief in search of an unguarded victim and the loud and loquacious crook and con man in search of prey. The desperation of some of our nationals in the diaspora has been increased by the economic adversity and poverty at home. This has created a hunger for quick material and financial ‘arrival’. This is what is driving the new spirit of insane money ‘spraying’ at parties and the bandying of financial figures in billions that has led many unguarded youth into internet scams and all manner of “Yahoo… Yahoo” exploits for quick quantum wealth. Dark offshoots of this macabre acquisitive instinct include a new spate of ritual murder, trafficking in human body parts and of course the fashionable industry of kidnapping for ransom.
Inevitably, the news is dominated by the ugly Nigerians who get into trouble in foreign lands for criminal infractions and acts of lawlessness. A few weeks ago, four Nigerians were arrested in Dubai for daylight bank robbery in the Sharjah principality. Those familiar with the order and tranquility of Dubai would readily testify that this is an aberration, a pattern of crime that is strange to the United Arab Emirates in general. Other Nigerians have similarly been arrested in the UAE for offences ranging from prostitution to sundry theft and fraud.
Easily the biggest single incident is the multi million dollar internet fraud syndicate involving Mr. Ramon Abbas, alias Hushpuppi for which he was arrested in Dubai and is standing trial in the United States. The tourist haven of Dubai was until recently the favourite trading and holiday destination for a number of Nigerians. Bilateral air services arrangements are in distress just as the work permits of well over 500 Nigerians were recently not renewed for reasons not unconnected with the general conduct of ugly Nigerians. As at 2019, the Nigerian Ambassador to UAE Mr. Mohammed Rimi revealed that 446 Nigerians were in Dubai prisons. Today’s figures are more disconcerting.
Similarly in India, incidents involving law enforcement have recently caught quite a number of Nigerians on the wrong side. Clashes between Indian police and members of the Nigerian community have been quite frequent. In one recent incident, a Nigerian died ostensibly after an encounter with Indian police. An officer from the Nigerian High Commission went to inquire. He was attacked and his official vehicle destroyed. When the Indian police intervened, there was a revolt by the Nigerian community in the area. They went as far as blocking a highway which led to the mass arrest of Nigerians. As it turned out, most of the Nigerians involved in the rampage were illegal and undocumented immigrants. Some were already wanted by the police for sundry offences. Currently, there is an estimated 5050-600 Nigerians in jails scattered all over India. Over time, the Indian mindset which thrives on profiling and stereotyping has come to associate Nigerians with criminal behavior especially illegal immigration, racketeering, fraud and cultism.
China has recorded many similar incidents of criminality involving Nigerians. Unfortunately for the ugly Nigerians, China has no pretensions to liberal niceties or the finer points of human rights observances. Those who affront Chinese laws know the consequences. The Nigerian Consul in Guangzhou recently disclosed in 2018 that an estimated 600-700 Nigerians were in Chinese prisons. The current estimate is anywhere between 850 and 1000. The offences range from visa overstays to narcotics trafficking, cultism, forgery and business fraud. An estimated 1000 Nigerians are languishing in Thai prisons for similar reasons. In the United States, the Justice Department has a huge trove of Nigerians currently undergoing criminal investigation or trials for sundry offences ranging from credit card fraud to bank wire transfer and internet fraud.
In response to these developments, government at home has come under increased pressure to go out more aggressively in defense of our citizens. Critics of government have insisted that our government has displayed the same tardiness in addressing the problems of our distressed citizens abroad as in its treatment of citizens at home. But it is a truism that the image that a nation projects abroad is more a reflection of its identity and character at home. We are abroad who we are at home. But the activities of the ugly Nigerians tend to overwhelm the essential nobility of the Nigerian national identity and character.
Above narrow moral qualms, there is a new positivity about our bulging diaspora. The Nigerian diaspora has in recent years become a strategic proposition of national economic survival. Inward diaspora foreign exchange remittances has become a major source of foreign exchange. The Central Bank of Nigeria and independent data sources indicate that between 2019 and 2020, inward diaspora foreign exchange remittances was in excess of an annual average of $34.5 billion. The population of the Nigerian diaspora is 1.7 million each remitting an average of $38,428.15 which comes to a total of $65.34Bn over the three up to 2020.
Our oil and gas revenue was $34.22 billion in 2019.
This means that our aggregate diaspora remittances are currently at par with earnings from oil and gas. Oil and gas reserves are natural resources and fairly fixed and may not be increased or expanded at will. But the quality, productivity and size of our diaspora population can improve and increase in relation to our overall population. Apart from the Indian (17.5 million) and Chinese (10.7 million) diasporas that reflect their obvious demographic advantages over Nigeria, other countries with comparable demographics or even less, have far larger diaspora populations. Comparative diaspora figures for Mexico (11.8 million), Russia (10.5 million), Syria (8.2 million) and Bangladesh (7.6 million) speak for themselves.
Since our diaspora population has become a strategic economic asset, it needs to be more consciously grown and jealously protected than our oil wells and gas fields. The diaspora is human capital. Protection of our oil and gas fields is part of our national defense and security responsibility. The actions required to protect and grow our diaspora population are a complex combination. First, Nigerians require maximum diplomatic protection wherever they may be in the world. Second, the quality of Nigerians out there can only grow if education at home improves dramatically. Perhaps President Buhari read his realization upside down when he recently crowed in Europe that Nigerians are doing so well abroad because of the sound education at home. Not quite yet Mr. President!
But the improvement of the quality of the manpower that migrates from Nigeria to the rest of the world is an aspect of social investment at home. We can only grow this asset through greater investment in education. India has done well in this regard. India is currently the leading “exporter” of IT executives, and IT engineers to the US and Europe. Both our annual education budget (7.2% in 2019) and overall education standards remain disgracefully low. Even worse is our competitiveness in tertiary education especially in the areas of cutting edge scientific research and innovative technologies. As a consequence, the bulk of the Nigerian diaspora consists of middle to low level manpower and an assortment of petty traders and other menial operatives. The underground activities of these low level groups aggravates the country’s negative perception.
We can increase oil exploration activities, invest in better extraction technologies or expand the fields of exploration. But fossil fuels as an energy source is an endangered resource. The global race is for cleaner, cheaper alternatives energy sources. The global clamour for climate change awareness and heavy investment in cleaner and renewable energy alternatives mean that our over reliance on oil and gas is a dead end. But investment in higher quality human resources and skills is a road not yet traveled by Nigeria. Nigeria’s long term salvation lies in massive investment in human capital development than in dying extractive industries.
Yet grappling with how the Nigerian state discharges its obligations to its citizens scattered all over the world remains a burning concern. It is part of an ancient definition of the reciprocity between the sovereign state and the individual citizen. There is no escape from a proper grasp of that ancient relationship.
My nation right or wrong was the classic dictum of the golden age of Western nationalism. The emergence of the nation state as a republican entity was the ultimate repudiation of the absolutist monarchical state. In that state, the necessity of patriotism was dictated by the will of the monarch who defined what constituted patriotic conduct. But with the toppling of the monarchy and the rise of the popular democratic state, the concept of patriotism was similarly democratized. The patriotic commitment of citizens was now guaranteed by an elected sovereign with a corresponding obligation to protest every citizen equally. The unflinching loyalty of the citizenry and their faith in the nation was guaranteed by the social contract between citizen and ruler.
Therefore, an unquestioning belief in the rightness of one’s country in its encounters with other nations was the mark of patriotism for which people earned state honours, medals and other sovereign decorations. Underlying that belief was the assumption that the leadership of one’s nation, being democratically elected, were persons who embodied the wisdom of the state as a reflection of the best wisdom and interest of the populace.
Citizens were therefore presumed good ambassadors of their nations because they embodied the values of a ‘good’ nation. Between citizens and their government, there was a reciprocal goodwill which energized citizens to be ready to die for their nations while compelling governments to go all out to defend and protect their citizens wherever in the world they may be in distress. In whatever circumstance, governments acquired a bounding obligation to defend and protect their citizens when they get into trouble in other lands but within the bounds of the laws of those alien places.
Quite often, the Nigerian state fails in its responsibility to its citizens in the more obvious instances where diplomatic and legal intervention can save a Nigerian life or secure a valued freedom. That is a matter more of competence and diplomatic astuteness than resources. But ‘ugly’ Nigerians who flagrantly violate the laws of the places where they go to seek livelihood cannot expect the government to turn into a multinational policeman. After all, there are less than two million Nigerians in the diaspora as against the over 200 million Nigerians living in the homeland. In apportioning attention and resources to the welfare of its citizenry at home and abroad, governments are usually guided by the same principle of proportionality in relation to resources and capacities.
The governing consideration in dealing with our good and bad citizens abroad ought to be guided by current economic considerations. Both noble and ugly Nigerians bring back good money which we desperately need to survive. It is better to adopt the attitude of the Chinese leader Deng Xiao Ping when he set out to engage the free capitalist world. He placed China’s economic interest above all else and declared: “It does not matter whether it be a black cat or a white cat. If it catches mice, it is a good cat.”