In 2017, one Wall Street journal bestseller popularized a then little-known finding about happiness. Contrary to common perception, citizens of the wealthiest countries are not necessarily the happiest nor the poorest the unhappiest – though there are certainly correlations. The unhappiest place in the world is instead the country where trust and feelings of community between citizens is virtually non-existent.
At the time of the study, Moldovans so distrusted each other their national philosophy was aptly summed up by researchers as “not my problem”. This culture of distrust was learned over decades of corruption and leadership failures. With the bonds of collective national identity effectively severed, citizens simply refused to take any action for the collective good, without the promise of clear and present personal benefit. This might sound extreme, but if you are Nigerian, it shouldn’t. A similar mindset at home, may be what’s fuelling Japa. And initiatives like Run 4 Justice , now in its fifth year, may hold a lesson for reversing the trend.
Economic indicia only scratch the surface of what’s driving Japa. And arresting the trend will require more than an increase in real Gross Domestic Product (GDP)
During a recent leadership town hall, Mr. Peter Obi, the Labour Party presidential candidate in Nigeria’s 2023 election, reportedly promised to reverse the brain drain phenomenon colloquially coined ‘Japa’. Japa refers to the mass departure of young Nigerians in their peak productive years, to foreign jurisdictions with more favourable economic and living conditions. Mr. Obi is quoted as saying when good jobs and opportunities are available in Nigeria, those who left for ‘greener pastures’, will return. As a Nigerian who would generally fall within the Japa contingent, I laud Mr. Obi’s sentiment. Jobs and opportunities to break ground in entrepreneurship are important. However economic indicia only scratch the surface of what’s driving Japa. And arresting the trend will require more than an increase in real Gross Domestic Product (GDP).
Much like in Moldova, trust and well-developed bonds of community are endangered currencies in Nigeria. If indeed it takes a village to raise a child, then the village you belong to, matters. Those of a certain generation feel this angst rather acutely. The average young professional depends heavily on artisans, childcare centres, live-in domestic help, etc. to run their life while chasing the corporate or entrepreneurial grind. In a village that has lost the essence of its social contract, the potential for previously inconceivable, but now commonplace breaches of trust, is painfully ubiquitous. Its consequences can be fatal. This is not something more money or opportunities can directly fix or even influence. Granted, it might buy more layers of insulation for a time, but anything short of mental and systems reform is a band-aid solution at best. Leadership does play an important role in setting top-down behavioural norms. Yet no amount of leadership initiative can solve the root cause: a crippling trust deficiency.
Emigrants from Nigeria are as often as not, embraced by communities that welcome their skills, diverse experiences, and passion to succeed. These societies provide the basic infrastructure for a secure, balanced personal and professional life, and access to merit-based opportunities. After all, if one succeeds, we all succeed. When a community chooses cooperation over rivalry, its members are fulfilled in sharing their individual value as part of the whole, and focus even more on striving to better themselves, instead of striving for superiority in the pecking order. The result is evident. So many Nigerians achieve success and fame abroad, as to not warrant examples. It’s certainly not all roses. There are prejudices, and many other barriers to entry into a new society. Laws are obeyed not purely out of altruism, but in the certain realization that consequences for disobedience will likely come swift and certain. But importantly, there is a social contract that most recognise and respect. These mutually reinforcing patterns of behaviour have solidified the mental linkages between individual action and the collective good. So that volunteerism, constantly expanding social safety nets, and many forms of social activism undertaken by the not for profit and business sectors, are simply a common-sense recognition that “the quality of a society is more important than your place in that society”.
Given the capacity for sports, art, and other creative mediums to reach people universally – across artificial lines of stratification – a marathon is an apt platform for social activism that urges a renewal of our social contract. Running for Justice should remind us that all Nigerians are beneficiaries, and thus stakeholders, of a properly functioning justice administration system. Even for the indirect users of our courts, a failing justice system creates a propensity for unfair legal precedents that they could someday be subject to; bad policy that could affect their ability to make a living, and law enforcement impunity that could tragically impact their daily lives; as in the many incidences of alleged law enforcement brutality.
Since “Japa-ing”, through my continuing connection as a consultant with Perchstone & Graeys, I’ve managed to maintain some awareness of not only developments in law and policy, but also reform initiatives like Run 4 Justice, and the Justice Reform Project (JRP). I am not sure many other diasporans are fortunate to enjoy the same level of access to the pulse of such developments. By the time Nigeria is, someday, ready to woo us back, we may all have just moved on.
Likening the process of reforming Nigeria’s justice administration system to a marathon, could therefore not be more apt. I think that the Japa contingent still have something to sacrifice that complements the effort of those on the front lines of the race; as advocates, coaches, cheerleaders, vendors of metaphorical pure water, and whatever else may be required to ensure success. Simply put, our physical absence does not relegate us to relevance in some future utopia when things will be ready for us to return. We are still part of the system, and part of the broader community of Nigerians. I believe there is space for our voices on the national and international stage. Ours might not be a marathon; maybe a 100m, 200m or 400m sprint? The point is, we can, and should all keep moving forward together.
Ogundipe is a Consultant/ex-Senior Associate of Perchstone & Graeys