Nigeria calls expatriate sons and daughters home

Government hopes a return of natives will bolster democracy and economy.

It started more than three centuries years ago with slave ships bound for the New World.

More recently, the exodus has continued, with this nation's best educated and most ambitious fleeing deplorable political and economic conditions here for the freedom and prosperity of the Americas and Europe. Now an estimated 15 million Nigerians - more than one in 10 - live abroad.

The first democratic government in 15 years wants to reverse the tide and lure Nigeria's best and brightest back home. That some of them are returning shows that this is a hopeful time for Africa's most populous nation.

Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo, his wife, ministers and state governors have made an appeal to Nigerian expatriates on foreign visits since the beginning of their administration two years ago. "Even if you cannot relocate to Nigeria immediately, visit home to see in which way you can lend us a helping hand in rebuilding the country," said first lady Stella Obasanjo on a recent visit to Cape Town, South Africa. "I am inviting you to please come home and rebuild our nation."

So desperate is Nigeria to win back its talented sons and daughters that government officials personally phone Nigerians overseas and ask them to consider national service. The Nigerian federal government has discussed starting a database of Nigerian professionals abroad.

David Thomas, a psychiatrist living in England, is among those responding to the government's appeal. While the doctor is not moving home, he is starting businesses in Nigeria. "I wouldn't be here if I wasn't Nigerian," said Dr. Thomas on a recent trip to his homeland, where his company is rebuilding the country's electricity network.

Others, like Omorede Osifo, a resident of Chicago until last November, are going home for good.

"Before, with the dictatorships, I had no hope," said Ms. Osifo in an interview between business appointments. "Now it's free, and I can contribute and express myself."

The Nigerian government has no statistics on the number of returnees. So mismanaged is this country - which despite significant oil and gas reserves is frequently listed as among the world's 20 poorest - that the government doesn't have an accurate census. The frequently quoted population of Nigeria - 120 million - is just the best guess of various non-governmental organizations and foreign governments.

Still, most every hotel from frenetic Lagos, the country's commercial capitol, to dusty Gusau, in the impoverished north, has a guest like Osifo - proof that overseas Nigerians are leaving regular running water and electricity behind for the love of their country.

Osifo is just the sort of catch the new Nigerian government is after. She has a graduate degree and four years' experience working in the US banking sector. She exudes the energy and directness that characterize many of her fellow countrymen and make Nigeria's present state all the more shocking.

Osifo is considering starting a real estate firm or home mortgage company. Home mortgages are unavailable in Nigeria, where most people build a home one room at a time, as they come upon money.

"My dad thought I was crazy for coming back," says Osifo with a hearty laugh. "'People are looking for ways to get out,' he said. 'Why are you coming back.?'"

Her two young sons were equally perplexed: no Nickelodeon - and no electricity, either.

Osifo says patriotism spurred her decision. "I should be able to help my country. I want to make Nigeria like America - a country people want to come to."

Osifo acknowledges that the Nigerian friends she left back in the states and her younger sister, a sociologist who still calls Chicago home, are skeptical. They fear the country's democratic spring will not last and warn that another coup, civil war or fall in oil prices could dim Nigeria's future again.

Like Basheer Abdullahi, a surgeon living in Dublin for the past six years, many want to see a few more years of free elections and free press before they start packing. "Right now, I'm just waiting and seeing," he said on a recent visit home.

"I have the belief I can help my state and if given the opportunity, also my country," he adds. "But the way things are going now, it is still difficult to tell if this will work out."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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