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Oil bonanza brings a wealth of knowledge back to Nigeria

Expatriates who went abroad for education and fortune are returning home in droves. The benefits can be huge.

September 21, 2008|Katy Pownall | Associated Press

LAGOS, NIGERIA — They speak in accents acquired in locales from Britain to California. They boast degrees and work experience from elite overseas institutions. And now they're coming home.

Nigerians who went abroad to seek riches are increasingly returning as Africa's biggest oil producer rides an energy bonanza that is creating unprecedented opportunities.

Abiola Lawal, 41, is part of this "brain gain."

He was earning a six-figure salary with business software giant SAP in Southern California before he returned to Nigeria in 2005 after 17 years abroad, joining a major Nigerian energy firm, Oando, as chief strategy officer.

"There are lots of 30- and 40-something-year-olds who are CEOs in this country, and that would never be in the States or the U.K. because the experience pool is much deeper there," Lawal says. "In the States I will have opportunities, but not at the level we are getting them in Nigeria."

Although most of Nigeria's 140 million citizens are deeply impoverished, some parts of the waterfront commercial capital of Lagos are becoming mini boomtowns.

With petrodollars strengthening the economy and the government deregulating key industries, Nigeria's telecommunications, banking and energy sectors are growing at double- and sometimes triple-digit rates, with stock prices to match. The overall economy is forecast to grow about 9% in 2008.

This growth has created an appetite for internationally business-savvy recruits. Many companies organize career fairs in major cities in the U.S. and Europe, seeking to personally woo Africans who have overseas training and work experience.

For many Nigerian expatriates, it's a tempting proposal: the chance to contribute to the development of their country while enjoying compensation packages that often include fast-track promotion, housing, a maid, a car and a driver.

No firm figures exist for how many Nigerians educated or working overseas are coming home. But recruitment companies report hundreds of applications for each job they advertise, and up to 85% of the applicants are Nigerians working in the West.

Shola Ajani, who runs recruitment firm Maximise Potentials, says that in the last three years, the company has placed 700 Nigerian expatriates in professional jobs in their homeland. Its website, nigeriajobsonline.com, has a database of about 10,000 Nigerians who have registered their interest in repatriating, he says.

Nigeria has always seen some of its diaspora return home, a process kick-started by the end of three decades of military rule in 1999. But brain gain "has taken a new dimension in the past year" as the economy has boomed, says Ade Odutola of another recruitment site, wazobiajobs.com, which has grown nearly threefold in the last year. "We are seeing greater awareness of the opportunities in Africa by Africans in the diaspora."

Word is spreading fast. Internet communities such as the Move Back Club put new "repats" in touch with those hoping to make the move.

Recruitment companies say Nigeria is leading in brain gain. But they say that as Western economies flag, young professionals are also heading for other fast-growing, if sometimes volatile, markets such as South Africa and, more recently, Ghana.

The contrast between the often high-living ways of repats and other rich elite -- such as politicians and oil tycoons -- and the circumstances of ordinary Nigerians can be jarring.

Widespread corruption and misuse of government funds have left Nigeria's infrastructure crumbling. Few people have access to reliable electricity, decent schools and health clinics, or even flushing toilets.

In the few comparatively posh sections of Lagos, high-security gated compounds have sprung up, roads have been resurfaced and glistening shopping malls have opened. The elite can be seen quaffing champagne and dining on sushi in air-conditioned restaurants, while outside, beggars and street children guard the immaculate SUVs of the rich.

Nigeria's government isn't complaining. It has set up groups such as the Nigerians in the Diaspora Organization to encourage Nigerians living and working overseas to come back and share their skills.

"These people are interested in staying and rebuilding their homeland, not just seizing the opportunity and then leaving back for overseas," says John Ejinaka, a senior consular official involved in the multimillion-dollar effort. "It's a great opportunity for all of us."

Erabor Okogun, a 34-year old business consultant, studied in Britain and held a job with Transport for London, the government body that runs London's transit system. He returned to Nigeria in 2003 to work for Transnational Corp. of Nigeria, a vast conglomerate with interests across the hospitality, energy, telecommunications and trade sectors.

He says salaries are high in Nigeria but that companies get what they pay for.

"Yes, we command above and beyond what is normally expected for employees in Nigeria," he says, swirling a glass of cognac.

"But in terms of work output, ethics, ideas and concepts, the company gets a lot of value. The economy gets a lot of value."

Of course, he says, there are drawbacks to moving back to a deeply corrupt country that receives only a couple of hours of state-provided power each day. Roads are filled with potholes and snarled with traffic. Gun-crime rates are high.

"In the U.K., everything has its place, there's an order to things -- that's what I miss most," Okogun says. "And that's what I want to create here."

For some Nigerian repats, being able to watch, and participate in, the development of their nation is sufficient reward.

But for most, there's another message that trumps all: "You can write your name in gold in Nigeria," Okogun says with a smile.

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