Martins Hile, Editor, Financial Nigeria magazine

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  • Governance
  • SMEs
  • Social Development

Nigeria is undermining and losing its best talent 12 Sep 2023

Nigeria continues to face a multitude of challenges, including growing poverty, stark inequalities, widespread insecurity, inadequate work opportunities, tepid economic growth, inefficient public services, among others. A chief cause of these coexisting and persisting challenges is failure to prioritise investment in growing talent, appreciating it, attracting and retaining it. For years, many economic and social indicators have been bearing out the consequences of undermining talent. However, nothing has been done to change tack.

Nigeria has been literally killing its own talent. Over 40,000 people die annually from road traffic accidents in the country, a situation Dauda Biu, the Corps Marshal of Federal Road Safety Corps (FRSC), has described as "avoidable scourge." Bad roads are among the main causes of these fatalities. Also, the recent tragic death of Vwaere Diaso, a medical doctor at the Lagos Island General Hospital, poignantly demonstrates how government negligence costs the lives of citizens. Diaso died a few weeks before completing her housemanship following an accident in the hospital's faulty elevator, which crashed to the ground floor from the 10th floor of the building.

When she was finally pried out of the elevator after nearly an hour of being trapped in it, a colleague of hers, Lase Moye, who narrated the incident on X, formerly known as Twitter, said Diaso kept saying, “I don’t want to die.” Of course, she didn’t have to die. Her colleagues who have left the country as part of the exodus of talent have escaped such gruesome fate.

Hundreds of thousands of doctors, nurses, and other professionals have emigrated to escape the mass immiseration, economic inequality, and insecurity that millions of Nigerians are suffering. Nigeria's brain drain is not new. The loss of human capital from Nigeria includes professionals who were trained in the country and Nigerians who travel abroad to study and do not return home after completing their education. Data from UNESCO shows between 70,000 and 80,000 Nigerians were going abroad for higher education annually in the years leading up to the pandemic. Many of these citizens end up taking advantage of better opportunities abroad, much to Nigeria's loss.

The vast majority of those who are left in the country are living in multidimensional poverty, about 133 million people. The population of Nigeria's multidimensionally poor exceeds the aggregate of people living in the United Kingdom and Canada, countries with combined gross domestic product (GDP) of over $5 trillion. These are Nigerians who may never be able to reach their true potentials because they lack the skills to do so. They may not be able to meaningfully contribute to the economy, resulting in the loss or underutilisation of human resources.  

The privation of citizens that prevents many from acquiring skills and knowledge, the avoidable deaths of Nigerians, and the ongoing human capital flight are means by which the country undermines and loses its best talent. Research has demonstrated that talent shortage would continue to be a roadblock to Nigeria’s ability to achieve sustainable development.

Global Talent Competitiveness Index (GTCI)

Global Talent Competitiveness Index (GTCI)

According to the Global Talent Competitiveness Index (GTCI) (GTCI) published by INSEAD, the French graduate business school, Washington DC-based Portulans Institute, and Singapore’s Human Capital Leadership Institute, Nigeria is one of the least talent-competitive countries on the planet. Nigeria ranked 109th out of 133 countries, dropping one place compared to its position on the 2021 ranking. The GTCI shows how talent performance and income per capita are strongly and positively correlated. In other words, Nigeria can only develop and become prosperous by winning the talent competition.

Ranked ahead of Nigeria are South Africa, placed 77th, Ghana (95), and Kenya (97), which are among the ten best talent performers in sub-Saharan Africa. The regional leader is Mauritius (51st), followed by Botswana (70th). Switzerland remained the global leader in attracting and retaining talent for the ninth consecutive year. Singapore retained its position as the second most-talent-competitive country in the world, followed by Denmark, the United States, and Sweden, completing the five most talent-competitive countries in the GTCI 2022 report. The UK was ranked 10th, behind Australia.

Besides the ranking of national economies, the GTCI also measures the talent performance of cities to show their comparative performances in driving innovation and economies of scale. Out of 175 cities, Lagos ranked 173rd, followed by Abuja in the 174th position. The only city Lagos and Abuja outperformed is Dhaka, the capital city of Bangladesh.

The more talent-competitive countries and cities do not only prioritise developing local talent, but they also attract global talent to drive their economies. Significant investments in education and lifelong learning are a key part of their human capital development strategies.

The subpar educational system in Nigeria needs to be fixed before the country can start reversing brain drain and strengthening its talent competitiveness. One of the reasons there is a surge in the number of Nigerians seeking to pursue higher education abroad is because Nigerian universities are not exactly paragons of excellence. Many of them are yet far from becoming institutions that nurture intellectual curiosity.

Needless to say, Nigeria cannot achieve greatness without competent political leadership. Therefore, it is high time we started rejecting the political incongruence whereby the ineptitude that is unacceptable in the private sector is permissible in Nigerian politics and the public sector. We need to ask ourselves: Why should people without the skills or character to be the chiefs of staff of political leaders in serious democracies be commanders-in-chief in Nigeria? Why should the behaviour and practices that are frowned upon in white-collar professions normal in the Nigerian government? The quality of public services in the country can only be a function of the quality of the people in charge.

When the ministerial list of President Bola Tinubu was unveiled to the public by the Senate in July, many Nigerians on social media made caricatures of the list, with some referring to it as a "compensation list" and others calling it a "settlement sheet." While the comments were funny to read, the common understanding was that the appointment of the nominees – most of whom have since been confirmed by the Senate and taken the oath of office – had little to do with their academic and professional bona fides. A number of them were appointed as payoff, while the preeminent consideration for many others is their sworn fealty to the president and the ruling party.

Most people do not think the men and women the president has chosen to be his ministers are a true representation of the skills and competencies in Nigeria's talent pool. Neither is there a high optimism that Nigeria can attract and increase investment at a faster pace and accelerate social progress because of the cabinet's appeal and gravitas.

The situation is not different in the legislature where many maladroit individuals are running the business of making laws for the country. The resulting suboptimal policies and their implementation due to the inability to have the ablest minds in key decision-making positions in government will continue to hinder progress in achieving critical development targets.

The problem is not the total absence of technocrats in the federal government. Tinubu's cabinet does have a number of respected minds. Indeed, Nigeria's public sector has never lacked experts in different areas of policy formulation and implementation. But the sad reality is that the public sector – pivotal to the functioning of the Nigerian state – seems to be a place where technocracy goes to extinction. This is primarily because of the compromises that some people with talent and character often have to make in the course of carrying out their official functions. Many educated people who should strongly value meritocracy end up settling for the status quo, thereby failing to distinguish themselves.

I asked Efem N. Ubi, an associate professor and the Acting Director of Research and Studies Department at the Nigerian Institute of International Affairs (NIIA), why he thinks a lot of the technocrats who remain in the country, especially in the public sector, find it difficult to distinguish themselves. “The enabling environment is not there,” he answered, adding that inadequate financial and other resources, stringent bureaucratic processes, corruption, among other challenges mitigate against the flourishing of technocracy in public service.

The Nigerian public sector could definitely perform better with more expertise and leaders who encourage it. But as Dr. Ubi said, the lack of enabling environment disincentivises and prevents this from occurring.

As to why Nigeria generally struggles to attract and retain talent, the former Acting Director-General of the institute said, “there are no astute policies that encourage talent in Nigeria.” According to him, “we have a government that is not development-focused.”

The GTCI is a tool with useful insights on how Nigeria could become talent-competitive. For instance, the report’s ample variables indicate how improvement in regulatory, market, business, and labour landscapes would enable the country to stem the haemorrhaging of top talent, and perhaps even start attracting the vast community of its diasporic talent. The GTCI specifically suggests this can be transformative for Nigeria and Ghana, for example, if they "could capitalise on their innovative citizens abroad."

Coherent talent policies have to become a national priority in Nigeria. Governments would need to collaborate with private organisations in championing these policies, while driving a Nigerian exceptionalism agenda. Beyond just hubris, the notion that Nigeria is the giant of Africa is yet to comport with actual facts in terms of economic advancement and social progress.

Martins Hile is a sustainability strategist and editorial consultant.