“I just got back” is a phrase that allegedly peppers the conversations of Nigerians who have returned home to live and work.
When confronted with the erratic power supply, or the four-hour traffic jams or the day-long petrol queues, they sigh and say: “I’m not used to this. You see, I just got back.” So often do these returnees utter these words that they have come to be called “IJGBs”.
After home office vans began patrolling London’s streets telling illegal migrants to “go home” – making legal migrants of all backgrounds feel unwelcome too – some in Nigeria wonder whether this will mean a new wave of IJGBs.
This story of the African diaspora returning home to seize new economic opportunities is a familiar one, and is trumpeted on mainstream news channels. The continent is poised for unprecedented growth and, all over the world, young African professionals are heeding the call of the motherland and returning to lend their expertise.
From founding start-ups to working in established companies, from oil and gas to film distribution, from government appointments to niche private sector roles, the African marketplace is thronging with Africans who have lived and trained abroad.
Yet, where some see a Marcus Garvey-style exodus to the promised land, I also see a similar pattern to that laid down by European colonisers in the 19th and 20th centuries.
When IJGBs arrive on African soil, many come with a set of Victorian-era assumptions. The natives are backward. By natives I mean those who have not worked or studied abroad. The native, with his questionable degree from a rundown local university, does not have the skills needed for a modern business world. Thus the best jobs should go to the IJGBs. They have not flown south and crossed the Atlantic to be clerks and graduate trainees. They are here to be district officers and bank managers and live in the best sequestered accommodation.
Where possible, they ask to be paid in foreign currency and they found clubs of IJGBs and limit their contact with the natives. Often a foreign accent, preferably British or American, clings to their speech.
In Nigeria, where a year of national service is mandatory for all who have graduated before 30, the most likely to wriggle out are the IJGBs, with the excuse of illness, busyness or just a general inability to cope with the truly horrible living conditions that home-trained graduates endure.
I discovered that I had unwittingly imbibed some of the prejudices of the diaspora when I attended a reading in Lagos where the audience comprised chiefly of Nigerian students and graduates. Their contributions were abreast of contemporary discourse, and the breadth of literary knowledge on display put my own paltry store to shame.
And what other reason for my surprise but that I had unconsciously believed all I had heard about the Nigerian graduate. I felt like a reader whose knowledge of Africa had come from Joseph Conrad and Joyce Cary. I felt chastised.
This is not to say there is nothing the IJGBs bring to the story of Africa’s development. We need bankers from Goldman Sachs and legal minds from Clifford Chance. But we also need financiers who know the saving habits of market women in eastern Nigeria, and lawyers who know how to move around a Lagos high court. Most importantly, I believe that diasporans must accept that, with the internet, knowledge is migrating faster than we can pack our bags.
We are arriving on a continent where the natives are armed with local expertise and a knowledge of the outside world. Let us remember this as we decide to heed the writings on the vans. We are arriving to be partners, not lords and masters. So let us tread softly and tread humbly. – © Guardian News & Media 2013
Chibundu Onuzo is a Nigerian author. Her debut novel, The Spider King’s Daughter, is set in Lagos.