Human Capital Flight in Africa since Slave Trade Era with
reference to Nigeria in the 20th Century to date.
Dominic A. Akpan Ph.D
Department of History and International Studies
University of Uyo
Two Hundred Years After the Slave Trade: Africa Talks
Africa, it is agreed, is the cradle of civilization. She had excelled in the areas
of agriculture, architecture, astronomy and industrial development and had
remained so until the introduction of European slave trade. The Trans-
Atlantic slave trade decimated Africans. It catered away the strong and the
best in the society. African environment was undermined, as was her
development. Meanwhile, human capital from Africa was used to develop
Europe and America. With the colonization of Africa by European powers,
Africa was integrated into global politics and economy. After independence,
Africa started pulling herself together educationally and to show-case herself
in various fields of human endeavour. The same European powers have
made African states, and indeed Nigeria, ungovernable through corrupt and
sit-tight heads of states, thus depriving Africa of a faster pace of
development. Because of this, a large number of educated Nigerians have
migrated to Europe, Asia and America and have been contributing to the
growth and development of those economies. A few years ago, the USA
came up with what is termed American Visa Lottery, a new method of
granting citizenship to non-Americans. With the turbulent Nigerian socio-
political environment, capable Nigerians in different fields have migrated to
America through this lottery. Some who had gone there for studies have
refused to return home. They are among those propelling the economy of
America. Many Nigerians have excelled in Automobile Industries,
Telecommunication, Environmental Sciences among others. While Europe and
America are doing well, Nigeria is groaning under underdevelopment. The
solution to reducing human capital flight is good governance, investment in
human development, reduction in militarism, corruption, and creation of a
safe environment for all.
For a long time now the issue of human capital flight from Africa and
indeed Nigeria to Europe, America, Asia, Canada, Australia, etc has been
discussed at various fora within the international system. The phenomenon is
becoming increasingly worrisome. This is because Africa has often been
described and, indeed, it is about the most backward continent in the world.
This backwardness is the product of exploitative European activities since the
15th century (Coleman, 1986), particularly through the Trans-Atlantic slave
trade, colonialism and neocolonialism. Indices such as low life expectancy,
high mortality rate, low capital formation and over dependence on advanced
foreign economies for survival attest to Africa’s backwardness. Except South
Africa, and to a certain extent Egypt, other African countries are begging for
attention and development aid. Hence, one of the most discussed issues at
the continental level and international fora on Africa is the issue of
underdevelopment with the central themes hanging on poverty, illiteracy,
HIV/AIDS, political instability, corruption, human rights violation,
environmental degradation and migration (human capital flight), otherwise
called brain drain.
This paper is divided into three sections: section one discusses the
human capital flight during the four hundred years of slave trade; section two
deals with human capital flight during the colonial era, and the last section
looks at human capital flight from independence, especially during the world’s
recession of the late 1970s to date, and the effect on Nigeria’s development.
Human Capital Flight in the 15th – 19th Century
Africa had been known to European countries such as Spain, Portugal,
Italy before the 15th century when the Tran-Atlantic slave trade began. They
were used in the homes and farms as domestic slaves (Wade, 1978). It is
confirmed that black Africans from Europe accompanied Christopher
Columbus to the West Indies during his first voyage in 1492. Hence, capital
flight from Africa is really an old trade. For the purpose of this paper one
discusses specifically from the 15th century Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade.
According to Uya (2005), the Atlantic slave trade became most significant in
that it represented the forced migration of millions of enslaved African peoples
especially to the Americas and that this changed their environment socially
Indeed, for nearly four hundred years, beginning from the 15th century
to 19th century AD, the African continent especially south of the Sahara and
north of Zambesi was the theatre of criminal activities perpetuated by some
European nations, notably Portugal, Spain, France, England and Denmark.
Africans were captured and sold as articles of trade to the waiting hands of
European traders for shipment to the Americas. This was the height of
criminality and cruel treatment of man by man. It was the worst form of
human degradation. That is now history. The question now is, how many
and what was the quality of people taken from Africa and Nigeria in particular
to the New World?
According to exponents of Trans-Atlantic slave trade such as Philip
Curtin, Okon Edet Uya, J. E. Inikori, the number of slaves sold by African
aristocrats to European slave merchants was roughly put between 10 and 23
million (Curtin, 1976; Uya, 2005). J. D. Fage, another exponent, put the
figure at over 23 million. The number of slaves taken from Nigeria is difficult
to estimate. It ranges from 4-6 million or more (Fage, 1969). But what is
certain is that the Niger Delta Region of Nigeria housed the slave markets and
routes corridors for export. Such slave market centres were located in
Calabar, Bonny, Akassa, Benin, Lagos, Opobo, etc (Fage, 1969, Uya, 2005).
Again, the number of slaves taken to the Americas is important but not
really contentious, what is contentious is the quality of persons exported at
On the quality of slaves:
One Liverpool merchant cautioned his agents against
buying ruptured slaves, idiots or any “old spider legged
quality” (Williams 1964).
In another instance,
A West Indian poet advised the slave traders to see that
the slave’s tongue was red, his chest broad and his
belly not prominent (Williams, 1964).
Clearly, even at slave status, slaves that were not promising productively were
not needed since their output would be counter-productive. It goes to
confirm that the weak and infirm were not marketable while the strong and
non-blemished ones were priceless (Williams, 1964).
If these people were not exported…? If, as agreed, that civilization has
its roots in Africa; that Africa excelled in agriculture, astronomy, architecture,
mathematics, medicine; Africa had the technology that assisted her construct
the first canal, build pyramids, embalm dead bodies, make architectural
designs, and invent iron making, she was in a better position than other
continents. This would mean that Africa had developed her human capacity
for more development ahead of other continents. In other words, the formal
and informal sectors of the economy were able to sustain Africa before the
Tran-Atlantic slave trade and invaders punctuated her economy. It clearly
shows that Africa’s development was internally propelled as against the
Eurocentric idea that African development was externally induced. To support
the idea that Africa was self-supporting and that the informal sector of the
economy was also an important economic pillar that sustained the population
before the coming of Europeans and dislocation of her economy, Freyre as
quoted by Abia (2008), argues that in South American cities such as Porto
Bello, Panama, Quito, Lima, Buenos Aires where they were settled, African
slaves were conspicuous as blacksmiths, swordsmiths, fishermen, mechanics,
coachmen, carpenters, dressmakers, musicians, gardeners and domestic
servants. This fact demonstrates the calibre of persons that were taken to
the Americas from Africa. Because the best were exported, the European and
American economies were developing while African economies, on the
contrary, had come to almost a total halt. In other words African labour was
the foundation for the industrial development of Europe and the Americas. It
was the slave labour that laid the foundation for the industrial take-off and
rise of cities in Britain and the Americas. Such cities in Britain include
Liverpool and Manchester, and in the Americas Georgia, Louisiana among
others (Williams, 1964; Palmar, Colton, Kramer, 2007). The simple logic is
that during the trying years of the Tran-Atlantic slave trade and by extension
exploitative and destabilization of African environment, development came to
a stand-still. If Africans were allowed to develop on their own, today it would
probably have been ahead of Europe and the Americas. Africa was at the
forefront of world civilization before the Tran-Atlantic slave trade.
Human Capital Flight in Nigeria During Colonial Days
British Colonial enterprise in Nigeria is taken from 1861 to 1960.
However, it is an established fact that British activities in what is known today
as Nigeria pre-date 1861. For instance, British bombardment of Lagos
occurred in 1861. Since then she gradually intervened in the affairs of Nigeria
until 1913 when all parts of the country came under the British Crown
In the colonial period many Nigerians migrated to Europe and the
Americas. Although statistics are hard to come by, yet given the nature of the
immigration – that of seeking for knowledge in Colleges and Universities, the
number is uncertain. Not many migrated as skilled labourers in search of
jobs. But then some Africans and indeed Nigerians after their education did
contribute to the growth and development of Europe and the Americas. In
those days it was prestigious to be educated in a White man’s country, let
alone working there. Thus, between the 1920s and 1930s many Nigerians in
the likes of Drs. Nnamdi Azikiwe, Nwafor Orizu, Kingsley O. Mbadiwe,
Professor Eyo Ita, Mazi Mbonu Ojike, migrated to America for studies. They
schooled in historically Black Colleges of Howard, Fiske, Lincoln, Tuskegee and
some White Universities with liberal traditions such as Columbia, Wisconsin,
Michigan, Indiana, Harvard and California (Uya, 2005).
However, there were some Nigerian youths who dreamt of visitng
England because they were fascinated by the European style of life. In those
days England was perceived as a land of opportunities. They could do
anything to get there, stowing away was the most popular method of
migrating from Nigeria. Nigerians who migrated in that way included the likes
of Tom Daniel and Mobolaji Pyne. They lost memory of their Nigerian home
and were unable to return home. Newswatch magazine of April 14, 1986 put
it this way:
The lost Nigerians. They went in search of the
proverbial El Dorado, but the fourth generation of
Nigerians is now marooned in Liverpool, Britain’s once-
Daniel and Pyne are not the only Nigerians who went to Europe or the
Americas in that process. There are many out there who never returned but
assisted to shape the economy and social standing in these European States.
Nigeria After Independence
After Nigeria’s Independence, there was an acute lack of manpower in
nearly all sectors of the Nigerian economy. To ameliorate this, the new state
embarked on the training of Nigerians to fill the vacuum created by the
exodus of White administrators. Scholarships were offered to deserving
Nigerians both locally and abroad in needy areas such as the sciences, law,
economics, etc. It is argued that more than half of the Nigerians who went
overseas never returned home. The likes of Philip Chukwurah Emagwali a
computer scientist and engineer from Anambra State who is recognized as a
‘Father of the Internet’ for programming 65.536 processors to perform 3.1
billion calculations in a second – a feat that propelled the reinvention of the
supercomputer, the technology that inspired the internet. Emeagwali is a
colossus in the computer world (Celtel Quarterly 2007).
Another prominent Nigerian, Bartholomew Nnaji, is rated as the world’s
foremost authority in automatic robot and machine programming. He
developed technologies which are applied in aircraft manufacturing, medical
imaging, computer design and chassis control (News Africa, 2001).
Human Capital Flight in Nigeria from the 1970s
Human capital flight from Nigeria became a phenomenon and a cause
for concern in the early 1980s when Nigeria’s economy became prostrate
because of the twin evils of poor standard of living and poor leadership.
Successive Nigerian leaders and governments were pursuing their own
agenda while the interests of Nigerians were thrown to the winds. Besides,
the successive, repressive military regimes have forced many to leave Nigeria.
In other words, individuals seek peace and security for selves and families,
better pay, conditions of service, job satisfaction and a higher standard of
living. The above conditions are parallel to patriotism. However, the
presidential committee set up by the Babangida Administration to find the root
cause of human capital flight in 1988 argued: “… we realized that the major
problem is the economy, particularly the devaluation of the naira and
inflation”. This explains the unreasonably low wages paid to workers and
professionals could not level the corresponding living conditions, thus
throwing a large number of people into the poverty pool.
Indeed, about ten years ago, the USA devised a new method of wooing
people from developing economies to assist develop her economy, named
American Visa Lottery. The Lottery provides the winners with American
citizenship and automatic settlement in USA. With Nigerian environment
crippled by poverty, insecurity, human rights violations, many have become
pawns in the hands of these phenomena. Hence, both professionals and non-
professionals alike ‘baggage’ themselves to USA. Human capital is a problem,
but there is a ‘corridor’ problem to it, that is training of the personnel who
later migrate to serve their skills in another man’s land.
Over the years, developing countries and indeed Nigeria keep spending
huge sums of money to train their citizens only for them to practise their
trade in developed lands. That has been the scenario among developing
nations even before the 1980s. It is against this background that Surendra
Patel, the former Indian Director of the United Nations Conference on Trade
and Development (UNCTAD), called on the developed countries to pay back to
the developing countries some form of financial compensation. In this
connection Uwechue summed it up thus:
During the past decade, Africa, Asia and Latin America
have lost an estimated 6 million dollars invested in the
training of skilled manpower employed in North
America, Western Europe and Australia. Now the Third
World wants its money back (Africa Magazine,
Undoubtedly, human capital flight is not a recent phenomenon as people may
think. It is fairly old and it thwarts the development of developing economies.
Patel further argues that, ‘from his childhood, we clothed him, we fed him, we
invested in him. If some country takes him away, we should get an
equivalent financial compensation. Patel calculates that the human capital
flight of all professionals cost the developing countries about $6 million in the
past decade, estimated on the basis of an annual exodus of 50,000 skilled
workers to countries like Canada, Australia, etc.
Nigerian Professionals in the Diaspora
Nigerians are found in almost all countries of the world practising their
skills. They are particularly found in Europe, the Americas, the Gulf States,
Canada, Australia. Current estimates put the population of Nigerians in the
USA alone at approximately 1.1 million; and probably another one million in
other countries put together. Many of these Nigerians are professionals with
specialization in such critical fields as medicine, education, information
technology, engineering, etc. It is estimated that between 21,000 and 25,000
Nigerian doctors are practising in the United States alone. Those practising in
Saudi Arabia and other Gulf States, Europe, Australia and other African
countries puts the figure close to 30,000 (Uya, 2005; Anekwe, 2009). It is
worthy to note that there are 185,000 Information Technology Nigerian
professionals. Nigeria also parades about 59 million teachers world-wide.
This number alone can change the poor state of education in Nigeria if pooled
Nigerians are also found in various European, American and Asian
States in the entertainment industry. The most spectacular field of
entertainment is sport-football. In the early 1980s, Stephen Keshi, who
played for the defunct African Continental Bank football club of Lagos,
emerged and changed the fortunes of many Nigerian footballers. Between
1982 and now there are over three hundred Nigerians playing professional
football in Europe, the Americas and Asia. Usually, these footballers are
trained locally only to seek greener pastures elsewhere. Equally, others are in
athletics, basketball, etc. (Bilewomo, 2009). The argument is usually that
these people have been making remittances back home, and that these
remittances run into millions of dollars yearly. That may be true, but if they
are here to pool the resources together, it would be more beneficial socially
and economically than their remittances.
Effect of Human Capital Flight on Nigeria and Africa
There are many Nigerians in the United States, Europe, Asia and
Australia offering skills in fields as diverse as medicine, engineering,
aeronautics, education, entertainment, etc. But back home, because of lack
of skilled manpower, Nigeria and indeed African countries are lagging behind
in development. For instance, it is reported that Nigeria has 19 physicians for
every 100,000 people. The painful aspect is that most of these professionals
were either trained locally or overseas by Nigerian governments. These funds
would have been used in the development of other sectors of the economy.
It is reported that Africa loses as much as $20,000 in training every skilled
emigrant. Hence, by extrapolation and based on the average skilled
emigration of 20,000 Africans per year, Africa is subsidizing the technological
development of the developed world by $400 million every year. It means
that the total cost of the 250,000 African professionals abroad is at least $5
billion (NewsAfrica, 2001).
Besides the cost of training, Africa is denied the benefits of its skilled
manpower in improving the quality of life on the continent. Considering the
health sector, 19 medical doctors to 100,000 patients is pathetic. Health is
wealth. When the productive population is weak as a result of poor health,
the economy cannot grow since productivity will also be low. It is not only
the medical doctors that are abroad, nurses also emigrate to greener
Human capital flight is negative and causes slower economic progress
and lower living standards in poor countries. Besides, poor countries lose
their potentially most enterprising and ambitious youthful population, thus
stifling the development of a more dynamic private sector. For instance,
African football leagues cannot progress because talented players are in
Europe perfecting on their skills for higher returns. Human capital flight from
a skill-scarce country leads to a prolong loss in growth in income levels.
African states, apart from South Africa, Egypt and Botswana, suffer from this
paradigm. In effect this reduces the growth rate of the effective human
capital that remains behind in the economy and hence generates a prolong
reduction in per capita income growth in the home country (Ndulu, 2004;
According to the United Nations Development Programme, educational
skills lost through human capital flight are not easily replaced given the limited
capacity to fund higher education and training in developing countries; and
the paucity of the means of acquiring these elements elsewhere (UNDP,
The UN High Commission for Refugees estimates (2001) that the educational
capital embodied in highly skilled graduates who emigrated to the United
States in 1990s alone was $640 million. It concludes that emigration
represents a significant transfer of resources from poor countries to the rich.
The UN Commission on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), on its part,
estimates annual cash value of each African professional migrant, based on
1979 prices, at N184,000 (Oyowe, 1996). With an estimated 21,000
professionals in the US alone, Nigeria is losing about US $4 billion annually
through human capital flight. However, it is argued that these estimates do
not necessarily represent the opportunity cost of the loss to Nigeria as it is not
certain whether the skilled emigrants would have been gainfully engaged in
their professions at home. There are ample cases of internal brain drain,
through which professionals engage in petty trade and other non-professional
activities because they are unable to find sufficiently remunerative
employment in their own lines of work.
Nigeria and indeed African human capital flight is a problem, which
manifests itself mainly in terms of a rising level of higher skill emigration. The
phenomenon denudes the victim region of the expertise necessary to support
faster growth and reduction of poverty. Because higher skills are lacking,
capital projects in oil and related industries, road and dam construction, etc.
are given to expatriates in the execution of these jobs. In monetary terms,
our foreign reserves are hugely expended. More often than not the monetary
involvement is much higher than its local expertise need. In the medical
sector, because of our hospitals’ lack of capacity the well-to-do seek medical
attention abroad. Again, foreign exchange is heavily expended. The poor are
dying in their hundreds because they have no means of seeking medical
attention abroad. All these would not allow for the growth of our economy.
If all the skills lost to Europe and the Americas were available in Africa, the
continent would have taken her pride of place as one civilized environment
that was once ahead of Europe and the Americas. But in the present
situation, there is little or no hope for progress beyond this level if the
leadership in various countries do not change their perceptions about their
It may be near impossible to abolish human capital flight in its totality.
There is no legislation that can confine individuals or groups to a permanent
environment. However, to stem the tide, certain things need to be done.
Everybody likes peace and security for himself and family. People working
within a given environment should enjoy a certain level of job satisfaction,
and the pay packet and conditions should be attractive. Wages in African
states are the lowest in the world. Clearly, when the African environment is
devoid of political instability, ethnic and religious crises, insecurity and
provision of good infrastructural facilities (such as affordable transportation,
communication, water, uninterrupted power supply), good and well equipped
schools, affordable medical services, good and affordable housing for workers,
food security, and enhanced standard of living is assured, human capital flight
would be drastically reduced. When these conditions are met, direct foreign
and local investment would thus be gingering the economy. This would lead
to a massive growth and development of African economies.
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