Africa: Why Are Nigerians Keeping Migration Plans Secret From Their Friends?

Many relationships have suffered as people planning to leave Nigeria only inform their nearest and dearest once they’ve already gone.

On the morning of 21 September, Kelvin, a Nigerian media professional in his mid-30s, woke to a WhatsApp message from his friend Lydia. “I’m in Kenya on my way to London and never coming back”, it read, abruptly.

Kelvin was shocked. Lydia was one of his closest friends, and the two talked regularly. In fact, they had spoken just a day earlier and Lydia had never even mentioned an upcoming trip, let alone life-altering plans.

“She’d even asked to stay at my place because she wanted to get something done in Lagos,” recalls a dismayed Kelvin. “Imagine my shock when she told me via WhatsApp that she was already in Nairobi, where her flight had a layover.”

Kelvin was taken aback and hurt by this news. But he was not wholly surprised. Lydia was his fifth friend to have left Nigeria recently, and she was not the first to keep her plans secret until she had already gone.

Lydia is part of a phenomenon popularly known in Nigeria as Japa (which loosely translates to “flee” in Yoruba) in which large numbers of young people are leaving the country amid a cost-of-living crisis, 20.7% inflation rate, and 42% youth unemployment. Companies across Nigeria have reported high rates of resignations as employees seek jobs abroad – even if they are menial and lower-skilled – and a crop of businesses have sprung up to service the needs of those looking to emigrate.

“When people are trapped in a system that offers no hope for the future, life loses its meaning so they migrate to favourable climes,” says Enang Ebingha, a specialist in population studies and professor at the University of Calabar. The result, he explains, is that the quality of the workforce in Nigeria depletes as industries from banking, to healthcare, to oil and gas experience a brain drain.

As Kelvin has experienced, out-migration can also have more difficult-to-measure personal impacts on those left behind. For many young Nigerians like him, it has become commonplace for friends to disappear to foreign shores without any tearful farewell, or even disclosing the faintest idea of their plans.

Many who Japa break the news while enroute – as in Lydia’s case – or the moment they arrive at their new home. Others go weeks before letting on. Sometimes, a random picture on Twitter or Instagram of their friend in a woollen sweater and beanie – a nod to a colder climate – can be the first hint for those back in Nigeria. Whatever way they eventually find out, friends who had been left in the dark experience a feeling of melancholy.

“It says a lot,” says Alex, 25, living in Abuja. “Having someone you’ve known for many years suddenly relocate to the UK or wherever without informing you means they don’t value or trust you.” Alex likens this “abandonment” to a breakup. Following a breach of trust, the relationship starts to falter as conversations become strained and infrequent.

Keeping Japa secret

Those on the other side of this dynamic say there can be good reasons for keeping plans secret.

Clavia, a 27-year-old content marketer now living in Australia, only told her “closest family” before she relocated, and informed her friends once she had reached her destination. Though she regrets how this damaged some of her relationships, she believes her approach was “justified”.

“We don’t communicate as much as we used to and I totally understand their feelings, but for me, it’s better safe than sorry,” she says. “I’ve heard many stories of Japa gone wrong mysteriously. There are so many powers at play in this part of the world – powers that we don’t know how they operate – so it’s best to keep your plans to yourself. As long as they’re not sponsoring you financially, they have no business knowing. People can’t destroy what is unknown.”

In Nigeria, many people hold superstitious beliefs of dark powers working against well-laid plans. In June, for instance, a woman’s tweet about the sudden death of her niece, who had received a scholarship to study in France, went viral. Many of the comments under the tweet were quicker to dole out advice than sympathy, extolling the virtue of caution over friendship.

Others who keep their Japa plans secret do so out of fear of more mundane reasons. Given the uncertainties that come with applying for visas and arranging relocation, some prefer to keep their intentions quiet to avoid the “shame and fear of ridicule” from plans falling apart, as Damilare Shodayo, a freelance copywriter who now lives in the US, puts it.

Shodayo and her family learnt this the hard way. When they were preparing to move, her parents had been open about their intentions. “I remember my mum saying, ‘it’s people who don’t have faith in Christ that hide it when they’re travelling abroad’,” says Shodayo. “She gave out most of our clothes and several belongings to our neighbours. My father’s colleagues and a couple of my mother’s friends threw such a large send-forth party for us that I felt nostalgic saying goodbye.”

Things fell apart on the day of departure, however, as they stopped to collect their Covid test results en route to the airport. “My dad’s result turned out positive,” says Shodayo. “You should have seen the look on my neighbour’s face when I went to pick up the gas cylinder we’d given her. I felt so ashamed.” The family eventually made the journey, but not until several embarrassing weeks later.

Jerry Chiemeke, a media personality, was left similarly ashamed after his plans to do a postgraduate degree in the UK collapsed. He had already turned in his resignation at the media firm where he was working before he learnt that the scholarships he was offered weren’t sufficient to make the courses affordable. “Months past, colleagues would see my pictures and wonder why I hadn’t travelled yet,” he says. “A former colleague, out of curiosity or mischief, called my Nigerian number and was surprised that it connected. It was embarrassing. After all that build-up, it really left me red-faced.”

“Nonsense behaviour”

These concerns have seemingly contributed to a national culture of Nigerians keeping their migration plans a closely guarded secret until they are complete. For them, it is a case of better safe than sorry. While the friends often kept in the dark may sympathise with these worries, it is difficult not to feel betrayed when a supposed confidant suddenly announces they now live on the other side of the world.

“This nonsense behaviour from [Lydia] and one or two others is forcing a rethink,” says Kelvin. A few weeks later, he received another message from Lydia with her new UK mobile number. Kelvin saved it but has been loathe to reply.

“I’ll get over it at some point,” he says, “but that point isn’t now.”

Kingsley Charles is a freelance journalist based in Calabar, Nigeria.

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