What makes Nigerians in diaspora so successful

By Ima Jackson-Obot | Financial Times

Anthony Joshua, world heavyweight boxing champion; John Boyega, Hollywood actor; Pearlena Igbokwe, Universal Studios group chair and Maggie Aderin-Pocock, space scientist. These are just a few names in a long list of Nigerians in diaspora who have achieved success on an international scale in a wide range of fields.

61% proportion of Nigerian immigrants in the US to hold at least a bachelors degree

In the US, Nigerians are the most highly educated of all groups, with 61 per cent holding at least a bachelors degree compared with 31 per cent of the total foreign-born population and 32 per cent of the US-born population, according to 2017 data from the Migration Policy Institute.


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More than half of Nigerian immigrants (54 per cent) were most likely to occupy management positions, compared with 32 per cent of the total foreign-born population and 39 per cent of the US-born population. Similar Nigerian success is reflected in the UK, where many in a highly-educated diaspora work in financial services, IT, and the legal and medical professions.


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What drives Nigerians and the diaspora, and can future generations continue their success? The economic future of Nigeria and the success of Nigerians abroad are closely tied, as is the lack of opportunity that drives many to leave home in the first place.

John Boyega attends the European Premiere of ‘Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker’ in London, 2019 © Neil Hall/EPA-EFE

In the past three years, Nigerians abroad have sent home more than $25bn annually in remittances, according to President Muhammadu Buhari, who this summer emphasised the importance of support equivalent to about 6 per cent of the country’s GDP and 80 per cent of the annual budget.

A strong desire to succeed in life, enabled by education, is also a common theme in Nigerian homes. In 2016, the continent’s most populous nation sent the largest number of African students abroad — 95,000 — and ranked fifth in the world in terms of overall number of students in foreign study; the UK and US were among their top destinations for Nigerian students, according to figures from Unesco.


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“Education is an essential part of our culture,” says Emeka Okaro, a consultant obstetrician and lead clinician for benign gynaecology at St Bartholomew’s and Royal London Hospital, who was born in Moscow to Nigerian-born parents and now lives in London.

“[When] I went to school, we were encouraged to excel. Parents expected it of us.” His wife Joy Odili, a consultant plastic and reconstructive surgeon at St George’s Hospital, adds: “As a people we are very proud and we like to do well. I had a parent who absolutely believed I could be anything I wanted, therefore I grew up [believing] there was no obstacle to whatever I wanted to achieve.”


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Where others might see chaos, Nigerians see opportunity Resilience is another big part of the Nigerian identity. A “special case of lack of infrastructure [in Nigeria] engenders in us is a real creativity, so where others might see chaos, Nigerians see opportunity,” says award-winning Nigerian writer and novelist Chibundu Onuzo who lives in the UK and will publish her third novel — Sankofa — next year.

“Sometimes that is why Nigerians in diaspora — especially the first generation — can be reluctant to talk about race and racial barriers, because we are conditioned to not say, ‘It is not going to work for me because . . . ’. They don’t want to talk about racial bias. They want to talk about the opportunities.”

Chibundu Onuzo reading from her novel ‘Welcome to Lagos’ at the Hay Festival of Literature and the Arts © Alamy

June Angelides, a venture capitalist who was born in London but attended secondary school in Nigeria, says growing up surrounded by family and friends who were entrepreneurs, gave her the confidence to start Mums in Technology. The baby-friendly coding course trained more than 250 women to become tech literate, and some alumnae went on to start their own companies. Women are [also] realising they have to take charge.

They cannot wait to be given permission any more “It’s in our blood. One thing I love about Nigerians is we have this inherent ability to make things happen where it may seem impossible to others. We are extremely resourceful as a nation,” says Ms Angelides, who was awarded an MBE for services to women in technology this month.

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“Women are [also] realising they have to take charge. They cannot wait to be given permission any more. But we still need more visible female role models [in leadership].” Michael Eboda, CEO of Powerful Media Michael Eboda compiles the annual Powerlist to showcase the most influential people of African or African Caribbean heritage in Britain. He and Femi Ogunkolati, the UK-based chief executive of consultancy Synterra Energy Assets, say that travelling back to Nigeria for secondary school and university also made them more ambitious, as they saw black people in professional roles. UK-born Mr Eboda says that since the Powerlist was launched 15 years ago, the number of people of Nigerian heritage recognised for doing well has grown.

“It’s a function predominantly of the demographic,” he says. “[Mass] immigration from the Caribbean [largely] stopped in the 1970s, but from Nigeria and West Africa, more generally, it has continued.”


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The last UK census in 2011 found that those who identified as black African were the biggest group in the UK’s black community. But the migrant Nigerian population is complex. In Nigeria, there is a large middle-class population but an even larger underclass that is poorly educated — a situation exacerbated by falling standards in state-funded education and an increase in the number of expensive private schools to which many teachers have gravitated.

Increasingly, whether or not Nigerians are successful in the west depends on their ability to meet tough visa requirements, and afford the fees and living costs to travel abroad to work and study. That creates a hyper-selective population of high achievers, who pass their ambition on to their children, says Onoso Imoagene, associate professor at New York University and author of Beyond Expectations: Second-Generation Nigerians in the United States and Britain.

A woman from Nigeria arrives at at Washington Dulles International Airport © Katherine Frey/The Washington Post via Getty Images

Those who are poorly-skilled are more likely to take illegal routes out of the country. Often they are unable to get beyond Africa or if they do make it to Europe, they work in unskilled jobs.

“The number of Nigerians travelling to the diaspora will continue and those already in diaspora will influence their children to succeed,” says Nigerian-born Onyekachi Wambu, executive director of Africa Foundation for Development, and a former editor of the UK’s Voice newspaper.

Yet without improved education and training in Nigeria, and with a population predicted to reach nearly 800 million by 2100, the number of Nigerians achieving success in the diaspora could be limited. Richard Iferenta, a partner and vice-chair at KPMG and chair of the race diversity leadership team at the UK’s Business in the Community charity, is optimistic.

Models on the runway wearing Asi during Arise Fashion Week on in Lagos, Nigeria, in 2019 © Getty Bennett Raglin/Getty Images.

“On the assumption that the next generation will have good education, be fully assimilated into British culture and have networks within British society and, critically, have the hunger to succeed, I expect this demographic to be even more successful,” Mr Iferenta says.

For many Nigerian parents, becoming a doctor, engineer or lawyer were once the career choices laid out for their children. But that has been changing. Nigeria has a rich cultural history, and in the past 10 years that has fuelled an explosion of talent in art, music, literature and fashion. “For a lot of Nigerian parents who left Nigeria to come to the UK, they were seeking to give their children a better opportunity and a different life,” explains Yinka Ilori, an acclaimed artist and designer, recently appointed to the UK Crafts Council board of trustees.

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“When I was growing up my parents wanted me to be a civil engineer,” adds Mr Ilori, born in the UK to Nigerian-born parents. “When I went to college and started to discover myself and what I enjoyed doing, my parents were really supportive.”

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