LAGOS – In 2021, Olufemi Fadahunsi was working as a writer at one of Nigeria’s most popular online magazines before he decided to join a tech startup as a content marketer. His career was going well, but that wasn’t enough to deter Fadahunsi from what was then a four-year quest to move to Canada.
‘‘Nigeria takes so much from you that by the time you're trying to make something of yourself, you're starting with a handicap,” Fadahunsi said. “Leaving Nigeria gives people a fighting chance.”
He added: “‘People just want a life.”
It was while covering the nationwide #EndSARS protests against corruption and police brutality in October 2020 that Fadahunsi decided there was no turning back for him. The protests ended when authorities are alleged to have shot at peaceful demonstrators who were gathered at a toll gate in Lagos’ upscale Lekki neighbourhood, marking a low point for the current government. “‘Anyone could see Nigeria's steady downward spiral,” he said. “The Lekki massacre was the final nail in the coffin. It was like living in a plane with a murderous pilot in the cockpit.’’
On Saturday, Nigeria’s 213-million-strong population will elect a new pilot. The choice largely falls between Bola Ahmed Tinubu, a controversial former governor who is often referred to by his critics and allies as the “godfather of Lagos” for his outsized influence on politics across Nigeria; Atiku Abubakar, who was once accused in a US Senate report of funnelling “$40 million in suspect funds into the United States” (which he denies); and Peter Obi, a wealthy businessman popular among young people for promoting himself as a frugal, incorruptible technocrat.
The election comes amid a series of crises across multiple fronts. Unemployment in Africa’s most populous country is at 33 percent, while inflation has risen beyond 21 percent. In November, Nigeria’s central bank announced a change of currency, declaring all old notes illegal by the end of January. The move was an attempt to curb the hoarding, often by politicians, of naira outside of the banking system. But weeks after the initial deadline, the new banknotes remain hard to come by, leaving many angry Nigerians unable to pay for basic goods.
These issues feed into the two main, longstanding concerns on the minds of Nigerian voters: a growing insecurity crisis that has displaced millions and killed hundreds of thousands of people, and the deep desire by so many young Nigerians to leave the country.
Research by Pew Research Center shows that 45 percent of Nigerian adults plan to relocate to another country within five years. A 2021 report by the Africa Polling Unit showed that 70 percent of Nigerians would leave the country if they had the means – a considerable rise from 32 percent in 2019. During this period, the number of skilled worker and student visas issued by the UK to Nigerians tripled from 19,000 to 59,000.
The protests were a catalyst for many. ‘‘I never wanted to leave Nigeria until #EndSARS,’’ Daniel Orubo, 31, from Lagos, told VICE World News. ‘‘But after that, I kind of lost all the love I had for this place. And somehow, the country’s only gotten more unbearable since.’’
Fadahunsi moved to Ottawa, Canada in 2021, and despite the personal and professional challenges that come with a major move – building a new social community, career and adapting to a new country – he has no regrets. ‘‘It has been hard,’’ he said. “But at least it feels like there’s some direction. There’s some structure. There are so many little fears that hold you down in Nigeria that I no longer feel, and that has made japa-ing worth it to me.’’
Japa is a Yoruba word which means ‘to go or escape’. The word has become common among young Nigerians to describe the act of leaving the country with the hope of finding a better life elsewhere. Japa-ing became especially popular in Nigeria following the #EndSARS protests as young Nigerians posted photos of themselves across social media landing in their new countries.
The brain drain cuts across socio-economic groups; wealthy Nigerians cannot easily insulate themselves from rising insecurity and soaring inflation. Basic necessities such as food and household items have gone up so much that they have become luxuries. Professionals with well-paying jobs in industries such as medicine and tech are actively being courted by other countries.
“There’s something despairing about the way things are happening in Nigeria that makes a young person think, ‘I am still young, I can start afresh in a country that works,’” Olakunle Ologunro, 25, who left in October to do an MFA at the University of Iowa, told VICE World News.
For many, the coming presidential election has only raised their anxieties about the future of the country. Last August, 24-year-old Austin Tangban left Nigeria for Rwanda. “I didn't want to be in the country when the election happened,” Tangban said. “It’s perhaps an irrational fear but I wanted to be far away from any chaos.’’
Noble Ahiakwo, 26, shares the same fear. ‘‘I told myself the 2023 presidential elections won’t catch me in Nigeria,’’ Ahiakwo told VICE World News. ‘‘Elections in Nigeria are always chaotic but after seeing how bloody the #EndSARS protests became, I developed a new fear of the leaders of this country. In Nigeria, things always progressively get worse and harder. Japa-ing is bound to get harder… so it was best for me to remove myself and start planning how to move my family before it really gets impossible to do so.’’
Nigeria’s next president will have to find a way of stopping this excessive brain. One of the most effective ways of doing that would be tackling the growing insecurity around the country.
Despite an African Union and European Union-backed multinational joint task force composed of units from Niger, Nigeria, Cameroon, Chad and Benin, Boko Haram still wreaks havoc in northern Nigeria and the wider Lake Chad region. The group is a largely homegrown jihadist organisation that emerged from the northeastern city of Maiduguri 20 years ago, seeking control of territory to administer its interpretation of Islamic governance. The UN estimates that nearly 350,000 people have died in the crisis that the conflict has triggered, and 90 percent of those deaths are of children younger than five.
Speaking in the Nigerian capital of Abuja, Major General Musa Danmadami, the military’s director of media operations, told journalists that troops had neutralised 42 insurgents, rescued abducted civilians and overseen the surrender of hundreds of Boko Haram members in the past weeks. During the operations, 12 AK47 rifles, four rocket-propelled grenades, an armoured personnel carrier and hundreds of rounds of various levels of ammunition had been recovered.
Last month, President Muhammadu Buhari blamed unnamed foreigners for the continued presence of Boko Haram. “I suspect there’s an international group that wants to destroy Nigeria,” Buhari said.
Buhari has infamously declared the defeat of Boko Haram more than once. But for those who live in the affected areas, it feels like it’s been a never-ending nightmare. Two million people in the region have been displaced, while dozens of women and children have been abducted.
“My body is covered with wounds,” one former female prisoner who managed to escape told VICE World News last year. “I never thought I’d make it out.”
“They beat us [every] morning, every night,” a child victim recalled. “We suffered a lot. They only gave us food once a day and water twice a day.”
Dozens have women have recounted their experiences of being raped and tortured by the group. More than 500 women have been recruited as suicide bombers.
The Boko Haram that was initially formed in 2002 is not the same as today. The group is split into two distinct factions: the Islamic State of West Africa Province (ISWAP), which officially emerged around 2016 as an official affiliate of the ISIS movement and Jama’atu Ahl al-Sunna lid Da’wati wa al-Jihad (JAS) which was led by the notorious Abubakar Shekau who allegedly killed himself in 2021 during a raid by the rival ISWAP faction. A third faction, known as Ansaru al-Musulmina fi Bilad al-Sudan, or simply Ansaru, has long been viewed as an outlier but has increased its activity, operating mainly around Nigeria’s northwestern and central region.
But it is difficult to say how big these factions are. A 2020 report from Bulama Bukarti, a security analyst at the Tony Blair Institute, estimated that 5,000-7,000 fighters are split between JAS and ISWAP. Jacob Zenn, an adjunct associate professor on African Armed Movements at the Georgetown University Security Studies Program, says that an unspoken stalemate has led to a decrease in dramatic shifts in the conflict.
“In other words, the military has the basics of what it needs, which is control of the major population sectors of northeastern Nigeria. Boko Haram also has the basics of what it needs, which is control of much of the rural hinterlands of the northeast where it can then administer its sharia rule. And neither side is really able to overcome the other,” Zenn told VICE.
The Nigerian military strategy has largely been to focus on securing major towns and cities, seemingly at the expense of the remote parts. Around 2019, Nigerian soldiers were redeployed out of villages to bigger bases in or near highly populated areas. What has become known as the “super camp” strategy has faced some public criticism. Residents say it leaves the villages largely unprotected.
But the military still struggles to coordinate its operations against Boko Haram. In a recent interview, the former head of the army once in charge of managing the counterinsurgency, Lieutenant General Tukur Buratai, admitted that complacency and negligence have caused the insurgency to “degenerate into a full-blown nightmare.”
Sparking fresh concerns is an expansion of the insurgency beyond the northeast. Boko Haram’s raid on a prison in Abuja in July 2022 left Nigerians wondering if the security of the nation’s capital had been compromised after hundreds of inmates – suspected Boko Haram members – escaped. A few weeks later, news that insurgents had attacked at least three soldiers from a battalion belonging to the Nigerian army’s presidential guard brigade stationed in Abuja unleashed panic across the city, with parents keeping their children home from school. The government eventually ordered all schools in the capital to shut down.
The capital appears vulnerable. In 2021, the governor of a state which neighbours Abuja remarked that Boko Haram is occupying communities there, and had forced 3,000 people to flee their homes in search of safety.
In Nigeria, the kidnapping-for-ransom hustle has boomed into a multimillion-dollar industry. Between 2011 and March 2020, at least $18.34 million US dollars were paid to kidnappers as ransom, mostly by families and the government, according to the Lagos-based risk analysis firm SBM Intelligence.
So with nearly 95 million Nigerians preparing to go to the polls on the 25th of February, the country’s seventh general elections since the 1999 return to civilian rule, questions around security linger.
“There is a thick veil of violence shrouding the 2023 elections that undermines people’s fundamental right to vote,” Anietie Ewang, a Human Rights Watch’s Nigeria researcher, said in a recent statement.
These are the dynamics that make it hard for many Nigerians to commit their future to the country. However, for some young Nigerians, if their preferred candidates win the elections they might be persuaded to stay or, at least, not rush up the process to move. ‘‘If Peter Obi wins, I’ll probably calm down and stay a bit,’’ Orubo added. ‘‘But if anyone else wins, I’m out of here as fast as I possibly can.”