Lagos: From cocktails with hip-hop stars to sushi with smooth-suited bankers, it’s no wonder Nigerians moving back after decades in New York or London feel right at home among the high-rolling elite of Lagos.
This urban sprawl of 14 million people, the chaotic hub of Africa’s most populous nation, may epitomize what foreigners fear most about megacities in the developing world: violent crime, corrupt police and crumbling infrastructure.
At home: Kayode Akindele at his office in Lagos, Nigeria. Photograph: Akintunde Akinleye / Reuters
Yet legions of young Nigerians, educated at English public schools and the US Ivy League universities, are leaving highly paid careers with Wall Street banks and London consultancies to return to the Lagos hustle.
Not just a pay package that approaches or matches what is on offer in the US or Europe, but a dash of patriotism — a chance of building world-class Nigerian businesses as an example to the rest of Africa.
“In the States, it’s an established economy. You can’t create another Apple, you can’t create another Microsoft, you can’t really create another Disney,” said Michael Akindele, who left US consultancy firm Accenture to set up his own business investing in Nigerian media and entertainment.
Nigeria is the world’s eighth biggest oil exporter but its economy has been hobbled by decades of endemic corruption and unemployment is high.
Many wealthy Nigerians of Akindele’s generation were sent to boarding schools in England or the US in the late 1980s and 1990s, when Nigeria was under a military dictatorship with little foreign investment and a disintegrating education system.
They watched with cautious optimism as it began to return to democracy in 1999 with the election of Olusegun Obasanjo and welcomed the reforms he started to push through after winning a second term in 2003.
When Nigeria used $12 billion (Rs5 trillion) of oil savings to pay back debts owed to the Paris Club of rich creditor nations in 2005, and won the write-off of a further $18 billion in return, foreign investors and diaspora Nigerians sat up and took note.
“I was following all this from London and started to believe now was the time to start planning to come back,” said Kayode Akindele, 28, no relation to Michael, who returned to work for United Bank for Africa’s (UBA) investment banking arm, UBA Global Markets.
Kayode, an Oxford graduate who lived in Britain for more than 16 years, was working on structured derivatives for Lloyds TSB in London when he was introduced to Tony Elumelu, chief executive of UBA, two years ago.
“There was a sense of patriotism. I have always regarded myself as Nigerian and planned to return to Nigeria eventually,” said Kayode, now a vice-president at UBA Global Markets.
Financial sector reforms in 2005 forced Nigeria’s banks to consolidate, creating multibillion-dollar institutions with the capacity to branch out into new markets and pay salaries on a par with their Western peers.
Nigeria’s $95 billion stock market was one of the best performing emerging markets in the world last year, attracting investors from Europe, Asia and the US.
The government is still the largest official single employer in Nigeria, and majority of people still live on less than $2 a day, but the new private sector elite hope that if they avoid the mistakes of their predecessors, Nigeria may haul itself out of poverty and corruption.