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The trend of young Nigerians leaving their country in search of a better life

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Japa is a playful Nigerian word that's trending in that West African country for all the wrong reasons. It's Yoruba for run away or escape, and many young Nigerians are doing just that in the thousands, leaving the country in search of a better life abroad. It was and still is a sort of comical expression, but it has also evolved into a more serious national talking point ahead of next month's elections, as NPR's Emmanuel Akinwotu reports from Lagos.

EMMANUEL AKINWOTU, BYLINE: Japa - a single word which sums up the desire that many young Nigerians have to leave their country.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: You discover there is a movement many of us who are youths here know. They call it japa - people running out of the country just anyhow.

AKINWOTU: Pastors preach about it, and it's discussed on radio shows.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: And let's talk about what's trending right now. What's trending right now, of course, we can't hide it. It's japa left, right and center.

AKINWOTU: The word even surfaces in song...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "JAPA")

NAIRA MARLEY: (Singing) Japa, japa, japa lo London.

AKINWOTU: ...Like this hit track by Afropop star Naira Marley. The word has evolved and has come to define the high number of people leaving Africa's largest economy. It's even an issue ahead of next month's presidential election. We cannot all japa; let's fix Nigeria, is a campaign slogan for one of the leading candidates. Stop any young person on a street in Nigeria, like here in Lagos, and you'll find someone who either wants to japa or knows someone who has. The trigger for this has been a crumbling economy and rising insecurity. Nearly half of young people are unemployed, and in a country where two-thirds of the population are under 30, the impacts can be felt across Nigerian life.

TAIBAT RAHEEM: We Nigerians are suffering a lot. And to be facts, to be sincere, we had a lot problem in Nigeria.

AKINWOTU: Taibat Raheem says she would leave if she could afford the ticket. There are no comprehensive figures for this latest japa wave, but everyone in Nigeria has been affected by it.

CHIOMA AGWUEGBO: You have to think about, why are all these people leaving? The answer is they don't see hope.

AKINWOTU: Chioma Agwuegbo founded a women-focused tech company in Abuja. A few years ago, she noticed that one by one, her close friends were leaving Nigeria.

AGWUEGBO: Between 2020 and today, of my five friends, four left. You can't quantify the loss of community just from people leaving. It's the absence of hope. People are watching their savings just come to nothing.

AKINWOTU: In this climate, online communities and influencers are becoming an important touchpoint for young Nigerians trying to leave.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

FUNKE OGUNKOYA-FUTI: How can I apply for a U.S. visa? Go to the ustraveldocs.com...

AKINWOTU: One popular influencer is 36-year-old Funke Ogunkoya-Futi, or Sassy Funke, as she's known on TikTok.

OGUNKOYA-FUTI: Over time, notice on YouTube, there are a lot more videos of people just, you know, finally I'm out. Or even on Twitter, it's like, celebrated.

AKINWOTU: Ogunkoya-Futi literally gets millions of people viewing her TikToks for advice on leaving. And in a way, her success makes her worry about the exodus of talent.

OGUNKOYA-FUTI: Who's going to be running our hospitals, right? Who's going to be taking care of our health care if everyone's leaving? So it's actually - it's going to trickle down and start affecting everybody else in Nigeria. I'm hopeful that these people, in a way, acquire the skills they need, and maybe in 10 years they come back.

AKINWOTU: Chioma Agwuegbo finally left the country last year, like many of her friends did.

AGWUEGBO: It's almost like the ship is sinking, and everyone's just, like, how quickly can you get out?

AKINWOTU: She says she never planned to leave, but it became inevitable. She wanted to stay and help build a future in her own country. But increasingly, she felt it was hard to see one. Emmanuel Akinwotu, NPR News, Lagos.

(SOUNDBITE OF BRENT FAIYAZ SONG, "WASTING TIME") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Emmanuel Akinwotu