East or West: Where is Best?

The greatest benefit of globalization is that it can shift your perspective on the world in both subtle and profound ways. The first time I remember meeting a Nigerian person who wasn’t Yoruba, was when I moved to New York City. I was the new kid in Ms. Liburd’s second grade class and so, naturally, I had to introduce myself and then watch as everyone butchered my name. Little did I know that this would be a running theme for the rest of my life, but that’s another story for another day.

I’m sure somewhere in the introduction, it came up that I was Nigerian so Ms. Liburd pointed to this light skinned kid named Arinze sitting across the room and says, “You know, he’s Nigerian too. Maybe you guys will have something in common.” We did not. For the rest of that year, Arinze and I got into a lot of fights. In the years since, I’ve come to understand Arinze and I never got along because we having very different conversations. In many cases, quite literally.

Prior to moving to the US, I had only ever lived in Ado-Ekiti. In the world that I had inhabited, there seemed to be three unwritten rules:

  1. Everyone must speak Yoruba or English if they’re trying to be fancy.
  2. Every name has to contain the words Olu, Ola, or Ade in order to be legitimate.
  3. The sanctity of iyan as a way of life must never be questioned.

When your world is so profoundly shaped by a singular identity, it’s really hard to conceptualize the idea that anyone could exist in the same space as you but experience it in radically dissimilar ways. After growing up in a bubble uniformly surrounded by all things Yoruba, being Nigerian was synonymous with being Yoruba and everything else was just an abstraction. So when I met Arinze, I was excited that there was another Nigerian kid in the class, and would try endlessly to try to communicate with him in Yoruba, much to his annoyance.

In retrospect, I don’t blame him for being so pissed. We came from radically different worlds. He was born and raised in America so he pretty much only spoke English as far as I could tell. Even if he spoke another language, it would have likely been Igbo, so me speaking Yoruba at him incessantly still wouldn’t have helped. If I had continued to live and grow up in Ado, it’s likely I wouldn’t have met a Nigerian with a different ethnic background for several more years.

Paradoxically, that’s what globalization does. It shrinks and expands worlds simultaneously. The instant that I met Arinze and my other classmates, both my concept of Nigeria and my concept of the world got significantly bigger in ways that I couldn’t have imagined back then and wouldn’t understand for years to come. My fellow classmates were kids with roots that extended into numerous corners of the globe. Real people with friends and families from places I couldn’t even name were sitting right there in front of me and it was amazing. Ever since, I have hungered to interact with people from all over the world.

Clearly, I’m someone who both loves globalization and has benefited from it on a personal level. However, the same cannot be said for an overwhelming number of people. Both the recent Brexit vote and the US election of Donald Trump are signs that there is brewing undercurrent of anti-globalization all across the world. It’s increasingly clear that globalization hasn’t been the panacea that many once hoped it would be. It has been asymmetric in both its benefits and harms.

I cannot profess to be an expert on the subject, but as far as I can tell, many of the criticisms of globalization really stem from criticisms various of economics policies enacted by leaders all across the world. In Africa, the perennially problematic combination of corruption and cronyism compelled many leaders to adopt policies that disincentivized the development of various local industries and ultimately disenfranchised the people.

In his book, The Looting Machine, writer Tom Burgis describes how the once burgeoning textile industry in Northern Nigeria was virtually crippled by the actions of Alhaji Dahiru Mangal. According to the book, Alhaji Mangal donated to the late President Yar’Adua’s campaign and in return, Yar’Adua turned a blind eye to some of the Alhaji’s more questionable business dealings, particularly the smuggling of Chinese made textiles to flood the Nigerian markets. Given that transportation is one of the hallmarks of the globalized world, it’s clear that without the relative of moving large quantities of goods and services that modern transportation has brought on, Alhaji Mangal’s business empire and his near complete hold on the northern textile industry would have been significantly less likely.

It’s not hard to imagine the kinds of detrimental effects that decades of similar practices can have. In the face of perpetually dwindling economic prospects, it’s only natural for those who have the means to seek economic prosperity elsewhere. Immigration, like its cousin globalization, has been a tremendous benefit to millions of people, but it is no way the silver bullet that many people dream it to be.

For starters, the people who tend to fair the best when it comes to immigration are often the highly educated and the wealthy. Many of the countries that people historically want to immigrate to like the US, Canada, and Australia, have some kind of system that ranks how valuable one might be to the country. These countries tend to prefer people who are well educated, have useful skills that are in high demand, and preferably have a lot of social or financial assets.

This makes perfect sense to any rationally minded person. If I were running a business, or even a country, I’d certainly want the best and the brightest to come work for me. For countries that tend to receive high volumes of immigrants, this is often a really great deal. However, the downside is that it takes those people, who are often the very people best suited to help develop goods and services that employ people and drive industry away from the very places where they are needed most. In fields like healthcare, the results can be far more dire. Ethiopia is a country that’s often cited in international statistics for having poor health outcomes and the brain drain that the country has experienced over the years is likely a significant contributor to the problem. I’ve heard it said that newly minted physicians in Ethiopia often have plane tickets to foreign countries in their pockets as they receive their diplomas on graduation day.

For a country with already limited resources, losing such high level intellectual capital is a recipe for disaster. Nigerians have recently taken great pride in the much touted news that Nigerian-Americans have the highest proportion of Master’s and Doctorate level degrees in the US. Inasmuch as it is a testament to the intellectual capacity and the tenacity of Nigerians as a people, it’s also a scathing criticism of our social, political, and economic system. What that statistic really shows that Nigeria failed to meet the economic needs of its best minds and so they went somewhere else to thrive. Most Nigerians who immigrated into the US in my parents’ generation already had university degrees when they were leaving Nigeria and many acquired more degrees once they got over here in order to get the necessary accreditations to acquire more desirable jobs. Because university systems in Nigeria are now often underfunded, understaffed, and overcrowded, many kids in my generation who have the means to do so, often leave to pursue their educational goals elsewhere.

Despite the generally dire picture that the decline in education quality paints, that’s the not the worst part about this scenario from the standpoint of Nigeria’s future economic interests. The real heart of the matter is that these people will go on to live in other countries, give their most economically productive years to that country,  make a family in that country and the children from those families will also grow up to live and work in that country. This makes it a generational issue that further compounds with each turn of the wheel. In truth, it’s already begun.

In my family alone, most of my father’s siblings live here in the US and several of my cousins on that side were also born and raised in the US. One of my cousins has a son who just started university this year. That’s three generations of Nigerians who have already given or about to give their most productive economic years to a country that’s not Nigeria. It goes without saying that I am included in that category as well. Given that Nigerians are among the largest groups of African immigrants in the US, Canada, and the UK, one can only imagine the economic impact of such trends on a global scale. If we want to move Nigeria forward, we have to start reversing these trends.

Given the level of increasing levels of anti-globalization across the world, one might think an easy solution would be to adopt policies that effectively halt people’s ability to emigrate, but that’s actually the wrong approach. Protectionism and Isolationism don’t have particularly great track records as effective long term strategies. In the best case scenario, we’ll turn out like the China of 30 years ago and in the worst case scenario, we could become something closer to what North Korea is today. As a testament to how ineffective those strategies have been, China has dramatically relaxed many of its more stringent protectionist policies in favour of greater competition with the global market. This has resulted in a massive boom in the size of their middle class.

Nigeria did not get this way overnight. It took several decades of benign (and often malicious) neglect to create the current crises. As such, fixing these problems will most likely take several years and probably several decades. The very first step has to be making sure that Nigeria actually serves the needs of the many millions of Nigerians still living in the country. This will require massive investments in infrastructure and diversifying the economy. If we can create a Nigeria, that’s globally competitive, it will help to stem the tide of the brain drain and may even make repatriation into an economically attractive proposition for Nigerians living abroad. Admittedly, these are tough sells considering how drastically Nigeria’s economic outlook has fallen in the last six months in particular. Even so, there are still a number of steps that I believe we should begin to place greater emphasis.

The current youth employment rate of 50% is unsustainable to say the least. Over the next 10 to 20 years, we are going to need to invest heavily in sections of the economy that are focused around primary production (preferably for resources other than fossil fuels) and also manufacturing. Primary production has the benefit of being able to employ large numbers of low skilled labor while manufacturing can help fill holes in the medium skilled market. It’s a well-known fact that most of mineral resources and even our agricultural sector are under-utilized so this could easily help to solve that problem.

According to data from the World Bank, roughly 10% of our GDP comes from oil, but given the ever-growing concerns about climate change, oil is increasingly becoming a less desirable commodity for most of our primary markets around the world. Despite our vast coal deposits, it’s likely to suffer the same fate as its more famous cousin. Because the world is increasingly reliant on the production and development of tech products like smart phones and tablets, Nigeria could actually become a major player in the tech market by becoming a supplier of minerals like Tin, Tungsten, Tantalum, and Lithium. Most of the mining operations for these minerals are small-scale at best, but there’s plenty of room for growth, and in the case of Lithium, Nigeria currently has no known mining operations. It’s really quite a shame that we are not investing more in this tremendously valuable resource because demand for Lithium is expected to double over the next 10 years. If we made mineral exploitation scalable in Nigeria, then manufacturing tech products could easily become a bigger chunk of Nigeria’s GDP.

To be fair, increasing our manufacturing and mineral extraction capacity isn’t going to solve all our problems. As our storied history with oil has proven, resource based economies will always be subject to market volatility but we would be better served by having a greater variety of commodities to export. It’s possible that mining and manufacturing activities could have significantly detrimental effects on the environment but even that isn’t necessarily enough of a reason not to try.

We’re certainly not the first country to take on the challenges of the trying to industrialize. Despite the many problems that globalization has caused for Nigeria, it’s also the best tool that we have to combat some of the more entrenched problems facing the country. Because of globalization, we have greater access to information than any generation in history. If the greatest gift of globalization is the change in perspective that it brings, then its true power is that it can show us what others have done right, what they’ve done wrong, and we can do differently. Globalization has made the world so much smaller than it ever used to be but if we use it to our advantage, it can expand our reach much further than we could have ever imagined.

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Omotola Ajibade often describes himself as an aspiring renaissance man. He is a graduate of Emory University and Mercer University School of Medicine. He has been a writer, a musician, a dancer, a photographer, and a medical professional. He has a deep love for the world and the people in it.

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    I knew it was Tola even b4 I read through..
    Nice writeup!????

    December 17, 2016
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    Good read.

    December 17, 2016
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    Excellent article. I disagree with mining we have yet been unable to effectively utilize oil in a manner that is safe and not detrimental to the environment and the people. And in the end just like oil these natural resources will only be used by and benefit a minority. We have to change our mentality in order to improve our economy. Helping out the greater good and not looking for only ourselves or what are we to gain. I’ll agree that other aspect as manufacturing and agriculture should be developed.

    December 17, 2016
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    I feel that the real reason people are fleeing Nigeria is that they know it’ll take decades to fix the economy so, why let my life slip away waiting when I could make it somewhere else? You get my drift…

    December 19, 2016
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