Nigeria Turns 63
U.S. Deputy Secretary of the Treasury Wally Adeyemo traveled to Lagos, Nigeria, on a three-day visit last week as part of Washington’s strategy to counter China and Russia. His visit came at a time of growing instability on the continent caused by nine coups in three years.
The intended message of the carefully choreographed trip was clear: U.S. diplomacy in Africa is back, and to counter “foreign actors” the Biden administration wants to partner with Nigeria, the continent’s largest population and economy.
Adeyemo, the highest-ranking member of the African diaspora in the Biden administration, was born in Ibadan, a southern city about 80 miles from Lagos. His family emigrated to California when he was 2 years old.
Adeyemo told an audience at the graduate Lagos Business School that the country’s “economic and social impact” could be felt beyond its borders “with a diaspora that has spread across the world, bringing with them the unbounded creativity and innovation” found across the country. He drew upon Nigeria’s immense but underutilized global soft power in film and pop music.
But as Nigeria celebrates 63 years of independence on Sunday, the visit unintentionally demonstrated the country’s most glaring problem: Nigeria’s status as a talent exporter.
According to the Washington-based Migration Policy Institute, Nigerian Americans are the most educated immigrant group, and Nigerians top the most educated of all people living in the United Kingdom, where they occupy positions as surgeons, doctors, and nurses.
Grappling with a stagnant economy, failing infrastructure, rolling blackouts, and insecurity, it is not surprising that japa—a Yoruba word meaning to flee—is a prevalent thought among Nigerians looking to migrate. As Ugonna-Ora Owoh explained in Foreign Policy, the “japa phenomenon is fueling brain drain in Nigeria,” particularly within the country’s health care sector, which has seen a 280 percent increase in the number of Nigerian-trained nurses and midwives practicing in the United Kingdom since 2018.
Of course, many young urbanites in Nigeria are highly educated; they hold multiple degrees and yet are often without jobs. Meanwhile, Nigeria’s northern region has the country’s largest population of out-of-school children, who are destined for early marriages that bloat population figures and worsen the country’s economic woes.
Security remains a serious challenge. Gunmen abducted at least 20 students from a university on Friday in northwestern Nigeria, while a state commissioner and former local government official were kidnapped over the weekend. Some students were later rescued. Measly government spending on education, health care, and jobs continues to fan the flames of insecurity—a challenge Nigerian President Bola Tinubu has yet to address.
Several Biden administration officials, including Secretary of State Antony Blinken, have visited Nigeria, but Adeyemo’s speech in Lagos could be one of the most direct by a U.S. official on the problems ailing Nigeria. He said stabilizing Nigeria’s currency and rooting out corruption are key priorities. “I know the Nigerian people are willing to make sacrifices in the service of progress but have a legitimate fear that corruption and mismanagement will dash their hopes that the benefits of these reforms will enrich the people rather than the powerful,” he said.
Tinubu has tried to make the country more attractive to foreign investors by implementing tough fiscal reforms. He scrapped the fuel subsidy that cost the state $10 billion last year and ended a system of multiple fixed exchange rates, prompting the currency’s official value to plummet by more than 40 percent.
But the changes introduced together and without warning amid record inflation caused pain in a country where an estimated 133 million people live on less than $2 a day. “The country’s minimum wage of 30,000 naira per month has not increased since 2019, despite the sharp increases in cost of living,” Pelumi Salako wrote in Foreign Policy. To ease hardship, the Nigerian government suspended fuel price increases, which effectively brought back a subsidized price.
The U.S. business presence on the continent has historically not been geared toward what countries such as Nigeria need. By contrast, a new Lagos metro service that was built by the state-owned China Civil Engineering Construction Corp. began operation earlier this month.
Nigerian officials have railed against a global financial system that does not work in Africa’s interests. For years, Nigeria has argued for reforms to global corporate tax policies that favor the richer economies that make up the membership of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). A report, which will be finalized in the coming weeks, by United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres supported Abuja’s grievances, saying OECD rules “do not adequately address the needs and priorities” of poorer nations.
However, some Nigerians are skeptical that Tinubu will be a reformer. The country’s constitution requires at least one minister for each of its 36 states, but Tinubu’s 45-member cabinet is the largest since Nigeria’s return to democracy in 1999. Nigeria’s bloated cabinet means a continuation of rent-seeking within government; analysts say Tinubu has rewarded ex-governors who supported his election with jobs.
While Nigerians are asked “to endure record inflation and general hardship, the President’s failure to rein in the cost of governance from the top is disappointing,” read an editorial in the Nigerian newspaper Punch. The paper argued that Tinubu’s appointees included “recycled politicians with doubtful administrative value, and poor performance in their previous public office.”
Investors welcomed Tinubu’s swift removal of Nigerian Central Bank Gov. Godwin Emefiele, who oversaw a ruinous currency swap policy just before an election in February as well as other monetary decisions based on cronyism. Under former President Muhammadu Buhari, the bank lent more than the government could legally borrow, contributing to Nigeria’s $113 billion state debt. Yet Emefiele’s suspension cemented the erosion of Central Bank independence. Nigeria’s bank governor can only legally be removed following a two-thirds majority vote in the country’s Senate, but approval was not sought before his ouster.
Many Nigerians praised Tinubu’s speech at the U.N. General Assembly, emphasizing that he is “mindful” of the hardship he has asked Nigerians to endure on economic reforms, but in doing so Nigeria needs a “truly” equal partnership on foreign investment. Nigerians are also watching whether Tinubu can reform what keeps many qualified Nigerians out of Nigeria: its own government.
Nigeria matters—in global culture, in regional diplomacy, and in the potential of a young workforce. After six decades, Nigeria’s young and innovative citizens are still waiting for their parents’ and grandparents’ dreams of a prosperous Nigeria to be realized.
Six decades of Nigerian elitism. As Nigeria prepares to celebrate 63 years of independence, Adebola Rayo in the Republic reviews Chinua Achebe’s novel No Longer at Ease, first published in 1960. The novel set in a Nigeria about to gain independence explores a flawed political system in which bribery and the loss of traditional African values corrupt even the most idealistic of leaders. Rayo argues that the novel’s themes still hold lessons for Nigeria’s future.
Nosmot Gbadamosi is a multimedia journalist and the writer of Foreign Policy’s weekly Africa Brief. She has reported on human rights, the environment, and sustainable development from across the African continent. Twitter: @nosmotg