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Could a change of government keep the young in Nigeria?

Challenger Peter Obi promises a fresh start for the crisis-hit country

A man walks past a mural depicting Labour Party presidential candidate Peter Obi in Awka, Nigeria, on February 24 (Photo by PATRICK MEINHARDT/AFP via Getty Images)

The disaffected yet determined voices of young Nigerians are all over the European media this week as the country goes to the polls in an election dominated by anger over mass youth unemployment, a lack of economic opportunity and the emergence of a surge of activist under-35s.

“I should be in the peak of my life right now, balling financially and physically, but there is no money and there are kidnappers everywhere,” lamented Ovie Esan, a 25-year-old in Lagos. For Fred Oyetayo, a 29-year-old tech entrepreneur who travelled back to NIgeria from Britain to vote, the country’s myriad problems, from the failing economy to its security crisis, were the fault of Nigeria’s current and past leaders, and they all had to be swept away. “We want change,” he demanded, firmly.

Speaking to the BBC and AFP, Esan and Oyetoya are just two of those young voters expressing despair about the explosion of violence, corruption and hardship, many of whom have come out in support of Peter Obi, the relatively youthful 61-year-old challenging the two-party hegemony, who has promised that “a new Nigeria is possible.” 

That is the hope, but in the mean time, Nigeria’s burgeoning young, educated and skilled youth have been voting with their feet, increasingly moving to Europe, where deep skills shortages are emerging. In the United Kingdom, Nigerians constituted the fastest growing group of immigrants, in 2021, the first year after the post-Brexit transition ended. Students, tech entrepreneurs, engineers, lawyers and many doctors were among the nearly 53,500 Nigerians were granted sponsored study or work-related visas, a rise of 413.3% and 161% respectively. 

Despite the hardships, in Nigeria, and sub-Saharan Africa as a whole, a dynamic younger generation has emerged that has a lot to offer both at home and abroad, and their presence could prove a panacea in the Old Continent, where the elderly have begun to dominate the demographic. If a new Nigerian leadership does manage to improve the country, maybe in the future European countries will be fighting to stop them going home.

The world’s people are getting old. In 2018, for the first time in human history, people aged over 65 outnumbered children under five, and by 2100, the world will see just one birth for every octogenarian. And it is Europe that is the oldest region in the world, with 25 per cent of its population aged over 60. Across the continent, we are moving into a time when there will be more aged care homes than kindergartens, more funerals than celebrations of birth.

Ageing populations pose economic and social challenges – having fewer working age people makes it difficult for companies to fill job vacancies, leading to shortages in goods and services and contributing to rising inflation. It also reduces tax incomes just as a growing demand for pensions and greater pressure on health systems increase the financial burden on the public purse. In Europe, some of these problems are already surfacing. 

Britain’s chancellor Jeremy Hunt said in November that labour force shortages are more of an issue for the country’s economy than Brexit. In Germany, Europe’s biggest economy, there is concern that a shortage of workers could have a significant impact on future growth. It’s projected that the German labour market will have seven million fewer workers by 2035 – the country loses around 350,000 working-age people every year as baby boomers retire and there are too few young people to replace them.

 The result is a shortage of labour across sectors as diverse as heavy industry, healthcare and hospitality. It can take eight months for an elderly care home to fill a position; for construction companies, the wait is six months. According to a survey by the country’s Chambers of Commerce and Industry, around 56 per cent of German companies report being short-staffed and say they consider the growing labour crisis as one of the biggest risks they face.

Where Germany could once rely on finding workers from other countries in the European Union to compensate for domestic shortages, that’s no longer the case. Most European countries have birth-rates below the 2.1 births per woman necessary for natural replacement. According to UN figures, by 2050 populations will be in decline in more than half of the continent’s 52 countries, including Italy, Spain, Poland and Germany. In five – Bulgaria, Latvia, Lithuania, Serbia and Ukraine – populations are projected to fall by more than 20 percent. Latvia’s population is already 30 per cent less than it was in 1990. 

But while birth rates in Europe dwindle, there is one area of the world that is bucking this trend. The world’s 20 youngest countries are all in sub-Saharan Africa, where the median age is 18, as compared to Europe’s 44. By 2050, Africa will be home to 1 billion young people, and by the end of the century almost half of the world’s youth are expected to be from the continent. 

This surge of youthful energy is transforming sub–Saharan Africa and its prospects. In the global North, many still view Africa as largely agrarian, but in 2020 the continent had 74 cities with a population of more than 1 million people, equivalent to the number in US and Europe combined. Over the next 30 years, Africa’s bustling megacities will accommodate almost 950 million new urban dwellers, a transition that the OECD notes, “is profoundly transforming the social, economic and political geography of the continent.”

Lagos, Nigeria’s commercial hub, is Africa’s largest city and likely to become the world’s biggest by the end of this century. It has a nominal per capita income more than double the Nigerian average. The city is home to a pan-African banking industry, is a leader in the Fintech and crypto currency sectors and has become one of the continent’s biggest tech hubs. “Being in Lagos alters the way you see the world,” says 34-year-old Nigerian entrepreneur and influencer John Obidi. “Things are closer. You begin to think ‘I can do these things’. You begin to figure out your place in the world from Lagos.”

Access to new technology is also offering this cohort opportunities that were out of reach, or simply did not exist, as little as a decade ago. Young Nigerians and their peers across the continent are using tech-based solutions in agriculture, education, finance and healthcare to bypass traditional routes to development and, in some cases, surpass the global North. 

“African countries have already taken a leap forward, leaving more developed countries behind,” says Catherina Hinz, director of the Berlin Institute, an independent scientific research institute that investigates international demographic change. “In Europe, for example, drones as suppliers of blood reserves or medicines are still dreams of the future; in Ghana or Rwanda they are a reality. In rural areas in some African countries, they are using eco-friendly, high-tech solutions that use less water, leapfrogging the approach taken in developed nations.”

Talented, innovative and confident, young Africans are the leaders, scientists, artists and entrepreneurs that will shape our world in the next 50 years. Ageing European nations need to recognise and tap into this potential. “We need young Africans to come here,” says Hinz. “Regular migration will become a necessity for European countries that are dealing with an ageing population.”

If current demographic patterns continue, European dependence on African skills is only likely to increase. But to benefit from this vast pool of African talent, European countries must move beyond the negative stereotyping, often mired in post-colonial racism, that still dominates talking points around immigration, which continues to be one of the most polarising political issues across Europe. In Britain, Brexit was dominated by discussions about immigration, with the Vote Leave campaign implicitly linking the decision to the opportunity to reduce immigrant numbers. Talk of Europe being under siege – of millions of unwelcome migrants arriving at our borders – is part of the political narrative in countries as diverse as Hungary, Italy, The Netherlands and Sweden, and anti-immigration parties have benefitted at the polls.  

Even in European countries that are relatively welcoming to immigrants, there can still be a negative mindset. Bettina Offer is a lawyer who helps to facilitate visas for prospective employees of German companies. She finds that even when candidates have a job offer, there can be reluctance by German embassies to issue visas. In an interview with the German public broadcaster Deutsche Welle, she says: “I always have the problem that you have to fight a mindset that a foreigner who stays out of the country is a good foreigner. That just isn’t the case. We need a paradigm shift. Every worker that comes to us is a win for the country”.

In reality, the hyperbole around increasing numbers of immigrants is overblown. Even including the extraordinary number of Syrian refugees that arrived in Europe in 2015, fewer asylum seekers came to Europe between 2011 to 2015 than in the last five years of the 20th century.  The share of Africans living abroad has also barely increased since the 1960s and immigration from Africa to Western nations remains largely limited to specific demographics, in particular the well-educated. US Census data shows that some 374,000 Nigerians have made their home in the USA. They are the most highly educated of all groups in the country, with 61 per cent holding at least a bachelor’s degree. 

Some politicians are slowly beginning to realise the need for a change in policy. The number of skilled work and study visas issued by the UK to Nigerians increased by 210 per cent between 2019 and 2021, from 19,000 to 59,000. Faced with a critical shortage of workers, the German labour ministry announced in September that it will launch its version of a green card, to make it easier for non-EU nationals to work in the country, though critics argue the policy does not go far enough. 

And while the advantages to European nations of attracting young migrants are clear, encouraging migration should not be seen as plundering young African talent for western benefit. Migration can also help to rectify global income inequality, with migrant remittances often delivering a significant economic impact. For four consecutive years, official remittances from diaspora Nigerians have exceeded the country’s oil revenues.

According to the Nigeria White Paper by consulting group PWC, the diaspora accounted for US$23.63 billion in remittances in 2018: an amount equal to 6.1 per cent of Nigeria’s GDP, 80 per cent of the country’s budget and 11 times the foreign direct investment flow into the country during the same period. 

Migration can also result in a mutually beneficial transfer of skills, with young workers offered a chance to learn new techniques and return with enhanced expertise to their home countries. For the reality is that most young immigrants do not plan to spend the rest of their lives in Europe.

“In all of my time living and working in the West, I have yet to meet a young African professional who doesn’t dream of one day moving back to the continent,” writes film maker Ras Mutabaruka.  “Besides systemic barriers that prevent many from fully realizing their potential abroad, this generation doesn’t just want to work for a paycheck. They want to be a part of the continent’s rebirth.”

Ndeye Diagne is the West Africa managing director at consultancy and data analytics firm Kantar. The group has run cross-continent studies of young Africans, analysing their hopes and ambitions. She echoes Mutabaruka’s sentiment. 

“This younger generation is very proud of their culture and all that comes with it. They are citizens of a boundless world but feel deeply rooted in their African culture. They are determined to create a different future for Africa. To create an Africa that counts and that inspires the world.”

Trish Lorenz is a writer won the 2021/2022 Nine Dots Prize for her essay Soro Soke: The Young Disruptors of an African Megacity, and last year published a book under the same name. She now divides her time between Berlin, Lisbon and Madrid

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