“Japa” is a Yorbua word, meaning to flee or to escape. Since borders re-opened after the pandemic, the term has been co-opted to refer to the exodus of Nigerians.
@tosinsilverdam My Japa journey begins, the process and collection on International passport was so smooth at the passport/immigration office Ikoyi. Thanks to Madam Grace, PRO Ikoyi Passport office. I don scratch my car already, my village people at work #fyp #vira ♬ original sound – Tosin Silverdam
Young people like Tosin Silverman, the young man waving his passport, have flocked to social media to share their japa stories. Silverdam’s 48-second TikTok video has racked up almost 19,000 views alone, while the hashtag ‘japa’ has over 700 million views on TikTok. YouTube is filled with videos explaining ‘How to japa’ and ‘relocation content creators’ are becoming major influencers on Instagram.
For the study abroad industry, social media clicks are translating to new customers.
Emeka Ude, Nigeria managing director at BCIE agency, said the last two years had been the busiest of his 22-year career. “It’s the noise, it’s the buzz. Everybody is moving around,” Ude tells The PIE.
“What is happening now is like a trend, it’s like fashion,” agrees Chamberlain Okolue, centre operations manager for INTO University Partnerships at the company’s University Access Centre in Lagos.
In a 2021 poll, 73% of Nigerians said they would relocate with their families if the opportunity arose, and many are using international education as a way to do so. The number of Nigerian students in the UK more than doubled in the 2021/22 academic year, compared to the previous year. In Canada, there were over 8,000 more Nigerian study permit holders in the country in 2022 than in 2021.
But, while social media might add to the ‘buzz’, TikTok content alone is unlikely to persuade someone to up and leave the country they were born in. Rather, the explosion of japa content reflects the deeper factors driving Nigerians away from the country.
Political and economic turmoil
Nigeria’s February 2023 election was mired in controversy as the electoral commission failed to transmit results from polling stations on time, provoking accusations of manipulation and rigging. Bola Tinubu emerged as the country’s new president but opposition parties have called for another election.
“Nobody knows what’s going to happen,” says Okolue.“Is it going to go from bad to worse?”
Afolabi Adekaiyaoja, research analyst at the Centre for Democracy and Development, a Nigerian think tank, says the outcome of the election has “led to some renewed comments online to accelerate plans to move, largely because the ruling party responsible for the last eight years has won another term in power”.
“The divisive nature of the campaigns meant that there was always going to be difficulty for whoever won, and the disillusionment from the whole process has added to the ‘japa’ wave,” he says.
Nigeria’s economy is also under pressure. The country faces an ongoing forex shortage, high inflation (hitting 22% last year) and a poorer population, as the number of Nigerians living in poverty grew by 35 million in 2022.
Okolue said domestic problems are driving young people to look abroad for a better life. “That uncertainty is always there,” he says. “They would like to take this opportunity to move away from the crisis.”
Demand for higher education
Nigeria’s young people are among the worst hit by the country’s economic woes, with a youth unemployment rate of 43%. If those affected want to enrol in university and gain the qualifications needed to stand out in a crowded job market, it’s difficult to do so at home.
In Africa’s most populous country, the student-age population is increasing rapidly. According to a recent British Council report, the “subsequent surge in demand for university places over recent years has caused competition for limited places to increase markedly”.
With limited capacity at home and ongoing industrial disputes interrupting the education of those who do get into the country’s universities, students are increasingly looking abroad for qualifications.
“Nigeria’s historical ties to the UK and US mean they will remain far and away the most attractive destinations, but Canada and Australia are fast becoming desirable areas,” says Adekaiyaoja. “European centres of learning are becoming attractive and companies offering relocation to other African cities such as Nairobi, Accra and Johannesburg are heavily sought after.”
Students are also pulled to these destinations by attractive, student-friendly policies. The UK currently offers the golden combination of post-study work visas, dependant visas and work rights while studying. The decision about whether to study in the UK is simply a question of maths for many, say agents, with the cost of a one-year postgraduate course ultimately offset by two years of work.
The UK’s visa system is also perceived to be more flexible than in the past. “It’s so seamless right now,” says Okolue.
“It’s as if nobody cares,” Ude puts more bluntly, pointing to the number of students taking out short-term loans to bypass visa requirements.
But changes to UK policy are expected imminently and students are watching developments closely. Following reports of a proposed plan to reduce the length of the graduate route, one Nigerian paper ran the headline: “Nigerian students in UK risk deportation”.
As rumours like this swirl, students are keen to get in before the country takes any drastic measures. “We’ve had a lot of increase in applications and this is because students want to put in the application before… they announce the change in policy,” says Okolue.
“Students are quoting all the news articles in the world,” says Ude “telling us they’ve heard about it and they are panicking and that’s why you see some of the surge, because some of them are trying to get in before it starts.”
If the UK does introduce more stringent measures, will fewer Nigerians choose to study there?
Okolue believes changes to dependant visas could have a short-term impact on the numbers, but will make little difference in the long term. “The dependants can always come on a visiting visa to see their loved ones, then come back,” he said. Ude agrees that the Nigerian market will continue to grow either way, predicting that more Nigerians will find the money to enrol as students instead of migrating as dependants.
Changes to the graduate route are likely to have a bigger impact on the numbers, agents say. Students would be likely to switch to other destinations that offer longer post-study work visas, such as Australia and Canada.
Is japa a trend?
Beyond generating noise, japa content on social media is making the study abroad process more transparent. “People hear about it, but they don’t know how to go about it,” says Okolue. “So the social media platforms gives people experience, people tell their stories, or people tell their progress reports on how they’ve been trying to make applications to study abroad.”
But, as Adekaiyaoja points out, no matter how much content there is online, not everyone can ‘japa’. Migrating comes with high costs and often lengthy immigration processes.
And, while japa content may go viral, in reality migration patterns in Nigeria are “nothing new”, says Adekaiyaoja. He argues that this particular wave has received more attention than past ones because it is so well documented – and that’s not necessarily a good thing.
“Ultimately, and sadly, this brain drain will only serve to deprive the country of necessary talent and manpower at a time when all hands are needed to try and push the country forward.”