History in its broadest aspect is a record of humans’ migration from one environment to another. An act of immigration may be defined as crossing a national border and going through customs with the intention to stay. From ancient to classical times, humans have migrated either voluntarily or involuntarily. Ancient Rome was home to immigrants from various locations, including Africans who were sold into slavery. Africans have migrated to different parts of the world largely through slavery from the 5th century, during the trans-Sahara slave trade, to the 18th century trans-Atlantic slave trade. This accounts for the initial black population of Europe and America. In recent times however, Africans migrate in search of ‘greener pastures’, better living and working conditions, etc. Some are also being trafficked, but that is not the topic of this work.
This study aims to examine the experience of those who moved to Britain voluntarily. It also hopes to answer the question of acceptance by the indigenous society. How have Nigerians been received by their host communities? This question is important because as a result of colonial legacies, Britain has been heavily involved in Nigeria’s affairs. The official language of Nigeria, English, is a result of this colonial heritage. It is estimated that over two million Nigerians are living in the UK. Thus, this work is carried out to examine how Nigerians are faring both economically and socially in the former imperial metropole. They seem to be doing well for themselves with respect to being gainfully employed and having a quality life. Some of them represent their host country in sports and other global competitions. They are also involved in the politics of the UK with some becoming mayors of communities and others serving in the Parliament. Does this mean that they have been accepted with open arms? This study answers that question.
Many books have been written on the African diaspora around the world. Most however do not focus on the Nigerian diaspora in the UK.
The New African Diaspora, edited by Isidore Okpewho and Nkiru Nzegwu, discusses the African diaspora in different places, from the United States to the United Kingdom to Canada. It picks particular cases, such as Ghanaian diaspora in the UK, black immigrants in the U.S. and women artists. It also examines the brain drain resulting from the immigration of educated Africans. It broadly covers the African diaspora. The major theme is the relationship between the diaspora and the host community.
Michael Gomez in his book, Reversing Sails, provides information about how Africans found themselves in places other than Africa. He traces the history of African migration, both forced and voluntary, to the ancient world of Rome, the Islamic world, and the ‘New World’. His major themes were how Africans got to different part of the world and their welfare in the host communities. It is a comprehensive account on the origin of the African diaspora. It however is a general study and does not deal with the Nigerian or African diaspora in the UK.
Background to the Nigerian Diaspora
The word diaspora originates from two Greek words “dia speiro” which means to sow over. It was used to refer to Greeks in the Hellenic world. It later was applied to Jews who had dispersed from Jerusalem. By the mid-20th century, it began to be associated with Africans. Generally, the term identifies a group who have a common origin but are dispersed in different locations away from that place.
The African presence in other parts of the world dates back to the ancient world. The ancient Mediterranean knew Africans from especially Egypt and Nubia, but also from North Africa, and the southern fringes of the Sahara and West Africa. Michael Gomez, in his book Reversing Sails states that rather than condescending, the Romans were curious and what they did not know about Africa, they admired. Although stunned by the pigmentation of African skin, the Mediterranean world did not equate it with inferiority as it is today. Some of these Africans were soldiers of fortune and fought either for or against the Greeks and Romans. Although a small fraction of them were slaves, many Africans were attracted to the Roman world for economic purposes and opportunities, working as musicians, boxers, day labourers, actors and so on.
The Muslim world also paid host to Africans. During the trade through the Sahara, many African males were taken to the Arab world to serve as eunuchs. They were castrated and those who survived continued the journey through the Sahara. Females served either as concubines or domestic help. Some served in the army while others were used as labourers in agricultural and mining operations such as the salt mines of Taghaza in the western Sahara.
A prominent early diaspora from Nigeria was Equiano Olaudah (1745-1797). He was sold as a slave at a tender age of 11 and ended up in Britain. In his personal biography, The Interesting Narrative of the life of Equiano Olaudah; or, Gustavus Vassa, the African, he detailed his experience away from what he had known as home. Although he adopted British ways, he never forgot his origin and agitated for a return of Africans to Africa.
Reasons/Motives for Diaspora
People migrate from their homelands for many reasons. In the case of the Jewish diaspora, they were dispersed due to the destruction of Jerusalem. They therefore scattered to different locations around the world and it was not until 1953 that they formed the state of Israel and began to return there. For Africans, the case is different. The majority migrated involuntarily as a result of being sold as slaves.
In contemporary times, Nigerians have migrated for two major reasons. During British colonial rule(1914-1960), many Nigerians went to the UK to study. Afterward, they usually returned to the country and were employed by government agencies. Moving into the UK in the early years after independence(1960) was easy and many didn’t make the move because economic and social conditions in Nigeria were good. Independence however brought out tribalism in Nigerian leaders, as they fought for ethnic interests. The Nigerian Civil War of 1967-1970, for instance, was as a result of clash of ethnic interests. Corruption was another issue that bedeviled Nigeria. A person could ‘grease palms’ to get a contract or a job they were not qualified for. In time, the economy began to decline and unemployment rose. Education and health service standards dropped and Nigerians began to look outside Nigeria for better socioeconomic conditions.
Higher education is usually a primary motive for migration. After getting an undergraduate or post graduate degree in the UK, migrants find jobs that are suitable and decide to settle in the UK. Currently, an estimated 30,000 Nigerians go to the UK for school each year¹. Others who were born in the UK were taken back to Nigeria to grow up and acquire basic education. They were later moved to the UK when they were teens to complete their education in higher institutions of learning. One of those who lives in the UK as a result of this says that she thought she was just visiting as usual but was told by her father that she was not returning to Nigeria. She therefore attended college and resides there permanently now.
The second major motive for migration is economic. Unemployment rates continue to rise and there are no jobs. Those who have jobs are underpaid or face problems in carrying out their jobs. Health workers for instance, are leaving the country for the UK because they are not well paid in Nigeria. Resident doctors went on strike in August 2021 in protest against the government. It is not uncommon to have federal hospitals shut down because doctors are on strike. Thus, many leave after training to be doctors or nurses. Others who work in financial institutions and other sectors leave either because of harsh policies or workplace politics. Some find it hard to grow in their careers because of the system. For instance, one may apply for a grant or to go for additional training and his application will not be granted because those who will review it(his colleagues may be part of the board) feel that he does not need an advancement in career. Many have looked outside Nigeria for better opportunities and the UK provides an excellent environment for economic and career growth as there are also available jobs. Nigerians thus travel there for better economic opportunities.
Food and the Nigerian Diaspora
A very integral part of a culture of a people is their food. Each ethnic group in Africa has a food that is peculiar to it. In Nigeria for example, ‘Àmàlà’ (yam flour) is popular among the Yoruba, the Igbo are associated with ‘abacha’ (a meal made from cassava), and the Hausa are known for ‘tuwo'(a meal made from corn). Even among the major groups, a popular food may not be eaten by those from a subgroup. For instance, although the Ondo are also Yoruba, they are known for eating ‘ìyàn’ (pounded pam) rather than Àmàlà.
Left: Àmàlà, Right: Abacha
Nigerian Diaspora population in the UK enjoy a variety of food. In addition to the food of the host nation, they are able to get Nigerian food in the markets. There are also restaurants that specialize in Nigerian food. Although most can be found in London, quite a number are also in other parts of the UK. The challenge however, is that the food items or the meals are expensive. Food items may also not be as fresh as those found in Nigeria.
Some Nigerian restaurants in the UK
Identity of the Nigerian Diaspora
“Who are you?” Is a question that is concerned with the identity of a person or a group. Gender, race, religion, age are some of the features used to identify people. How do Nigerians in the UK identify themselves. Generally, they are referred to as Africans or Blacks. They however, make a distinction between themselves and other Africans given the fact that Africa, like Europe, is a continent. They are known as Nigerians and they identify with their culture proudly. They have festivals such as the New Yam annual cultural festival of the Igbos. There is also the Yoruba arts festival which started in 2009 to celebrate Yoruba culture.
When Nigerians move to the UK, they search for organizations and communities of other Nigerians, such as the National Association of Nigerian communities UK(NANCUK), whose mission it is to create a viable and functional sociowelfare organization and network that will support Nigerians in the UK. Organizations such as this, gives them a sense of belonging as they navigate through their new environment.
Experiences of the Nigerian diaspora
A change in environment results in new experiences. One of the major changes is the cultural difference. In Nigeria, children or young people are taught not to look into the eyes of older people as a sign of respect. In the UK however, one is expected to look directly at whom he/she is addressing. Looking away may be interpreted to mean one is lying or being insincere. Also, people are called by their first names or addressed as Mr or Ms. in formal settings. In Nigeria, it is considered disrespectful to address an older person, even though not related, by name. It is not unusual to call strangers aunty, uncle, mummy or daddy.
Additionally, the government is one that is accountable to the people. This is not the case in Nigeria and Nigerians in the UK are experiencing a system that works and are trying to apply that to the governance of their organisations and communities. They are able to get jobs once they are qualified and they enjoy social amenities. The quality of their lives is better because they can access quality services such as health care. Although tax rates are high, the effect of the taxes they pay is felt.
It is interesting to note that, although there are traces of racism in the host population, it is not as obvious as it is in the USA and hardly results in violence. The people are conservative and usually express their dislike or displeasure in such subtle ways that it is not pronounced. In the workplace, a Nigerian may have to be on his/her best behaviour so that a negative report is not given by a workmate or supervisor who does not like them. They have learned to develop a thick skin to nasty looks and snide remarks from strangers with racial bias. Rather than focus on this however, they choose to show love, be diligent workers and caring neighbours.
Nigerians are a people who adapt well to whatever circumstances or environments they are in. Those in the diaspora are not an exception. More than adapting, they have integrated themselves well into the host community and are making the best use of the their abilities. They have made notable contributions to their host communities. Although they face challenges, they are not weighed down by these challenges. Are they accepted by the host community? This question can not be answered by a simple yes or no because acceptance is relative. There are laws that protect immigrants from discrimination and racism such as the discrimination act. They get jobs based on their qualifications and are not treated as outcasts based on their nationality. To the extent that the system does not judge them based on their nationality but on their actions, they are accepted in the society.
Do Nigerian diaspora feel as though they are home? Home they say, is where the heart is and each individual answer that differently. For some, the condition of Nigeria has not gotten better and as a result, they do not see themselves returning in future. For others, no matter how bad conditions in Nigeria seem to be, they feel it will always be home. Generally, the connection those in the diaspora have with Nigeria is cultural and being Nigerian is not synonymous with living in the country.
¹ Rane R. Trends in Nigerian Students Studying Abroad. September 2019. Retrieved from https://dreamapply.com/trends-in-nigerian-students-studying-abroad/
The New African Diaspora. Ed, Isidore Okpewho and Nkiru Nzegwu.
Reversing Sails. Michael Gomez.
Interview with Ms Enitan Ibiwoye on the 25th of August 2021, via video conference.
Interview with Mr Kunle Aderemi on the 13th of September 2021, via video conference.
Interview with Mr Ade Ajayi on the 30th of August 2021.