More than 500 Nigerian professionals from 32 countries attended the second diaspora conference that ended in Abuja, Monday. For VOA, Gilbert da Costa reports the forum has emerged as a platform for engaging Nigerians abroad in developmental efforts back home.
Nigerian expatriate groups say more than 17 million Nigerians and people of Nigerian origin now live abroad. And the number is steadily climbing as Nigerians flee deteriorating conditions at home for a better life elsewhere.
Nigeria is regularly rated one of the most corrupt countries in the world by Berlin-based anti-graft watchdog, Transparency International. President Umaru Yar'Adua, on taking office in May, pledged to fight corruption, largely blamed for widespread poverty and lack of development in Nigeria despite its oil riches.
Nigerian Central Bank Governor Chukwuma Soludo Nigerians living abroad are increasingly cutting ties to the homeland, often changing their names, and abandoning their languages and other ties to the continent.
He says it is critical for those living abroad to stay in touch with their roots.
"Even the first generation [African] immigrant, the first thing they do, you drop off your name or your change it, it used to be Chukwuma, it becomes Chucks. That is what I call the bleaching syndrome," he explained. "And you get to the homes of Nigerians, be it in America, Europe and so on, the first thing they take pride in telling you, no, he doesn't understand [Nigerian language]. That child who does not understand, who does not speak the Nigerian language unfortunately is lost."
This year's conference is focused on getting Nigerians living abroad involved in developmental projects at home.
"The primarily objective is to tap into and utilize the knowledge, skills and resources of the Nigerian diaspora to strengthen and complement government efforts aimed at addressing the issue of sustainable development," said Joseph Keshi, coordinator of the Nigeria Volunteer Service.
The Nigerian diaspora represents some of the best educated and most highly trained individuals. It is estimated that more than 60,000 Nigerian health professionals now live abroad.
Babagana Kingibe, Nigerian government secretary, says a brain drain of educated professionals leaving the country is a serious challenge to Nigerian development.
"Our home-grown and home-trained professionals migrate for various lengths of stay away," he said. "This brain drain poses a serious challenge to our national efforts at growth and development. That is why any effort to reverse the brain drain and turn it into brain gain is a welcome development."
But the loss of highly trained Nigerians to foreign employment can have a positive impact at home.
Economists believe that money sent home by Nigerians living abroad now exceeds four billion dollars annually, ranking only second to oil exports as a source of foreign exchange earnings for the country.
Money from Nigerian professionals abroad have helped to pump up the stock and real estate markets in Nigeria.
John George, leader of the Nigerians in Diaspora Organization, says they are now poised to make even greater contributions to the Nigerian economy.
"In partnership with all the diaspora organizations, Nigerians in Diaspora Organization is planning to launch an investment fund especially for strategic development projects in Nigeria," he said.
President Umaru Yar'Adua wants Nigerians abroad to take their roles seriously.
"You, our brothers and sisters in the diaspora, are the first face of our nation which the world sees, especially to the community amongst which they live," he said. " It is imperative therefore that you take very seriously, your roles as good ambassadors of Nigeria and positive assets to your host communities."
Nigeria is Africa's biggest exporter of crude oil and the continent's most populous nation with 150 million people. Experts say the vast majority of Nigerians live in poverty because of corruption and mismanagement of the country's vast oil resources.