The words on my mind

An interview with Luqman Onikosi about the complex links between immigration, education, and the global economy
Photo credit: David McHugh

“The words one whispers into the gourd are concealed in it forever.” – Nigerian proverb

Luqman Onikosi immigrated to the United Kingdom (UK) from Nigeria in 2007 to pursue his education at Sussex University. When I contacted him to request an interview, he shared this Nigerian adage and pointed out the parallel between it and the concept of Words in the Bucket. “Ma só adó òró,” he enthusiastically responded – “I will smash the gourd and release all the words concealed within it.”

When I began preparing for our conversation, I anticipated talking a lot about Luqman’s experience in the UK over the past decade. I expected to learn more about his hardships as an international student in a nation where increasingly strict immigration laws have created a climate of suspicion on university campuses. Surely, I thought, Luqman would voice how challenging it was to focus on his studies while under the constant threat of deportation; he would describe how difficult it was to concentrate on academics when his health required prioritization. (Luqman was diagnosed with a life-threatening chronic liver condition, due to contracting hepatitis B, that is manageable as long as he receives treatment.)

But, I found that his concerns span far beyond his personal experience as a former non-European Union (non-EU) student in the UK. I was pleasantly surprised when Luqman shared his broad, global perspective on the link between immigration and the world financial system. The latter alone is a complicated topic to tackle in one hour without trying to untangle its complex connection to migration. Yet, Luqman passionately sketched the momentous economic events that bled into Nigeria’s education system and ultimately led to his relocation to Sussex but carved a less prosperous path for many young Nigerians.

The meaning of money has always been complex in Nigeria. During the British colonial period, governors of the Crown imposed taxation policies to effectively demonetized indigenous currencies that competed with the pound sterling. Roughly a century later, development banks like the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank emerged to manage the increasing interdependence of the world economies. From Luqman’s perspective, the policies of these modern institutions are not dissimilar to the economic system forced on Africans by the British Empire—that is, they tend to act against the interests of impoverished developing countries.

Despite an abundance of evidence contradicting the effectiveness of Structural Adjustment Programs (SAPs), the IMF and World Bank continue to prescribe these top-down economic reform policies to developing countries. In 1986 the IMF issued Nigeria a ‘one size fits all’ loan aimed at stabilizing, liberalizing and privatizing the economy, but failed to take into account the country’s unique characteristics or watch for unintended side effects. Two decades later, the SAP had failed to achieve its fundamental objectives and was abandoned, though the adverse effects of the program are still with Nigeria today.

Luqman described a generation of disillusioned Nigerians and Africans who have felt failed and forgotten by their government and international financial institutions supposedly set up to help them succeed. In 1999 Nigeria began transitioning from a military dictatorship to a democracy. Though Luqman noted that his peers were excited about Nigeria becoming a democracy, a lack of consultation with young people in the process left them feeling ignored and disappointed by the older generation whose decisions—like their agreement to the terms of the 1986 SAP—seemed to be destroying the country. Posters hung in classrooms reminded young Nigerians that “the youth are the leaders of tomorrow,” but Luqman and his classmates wondered when and if their tomorrow would ever come.

While Luqman was attending university in Nigeria in the early 2000s, the state frequently withheld the salaries of university lecturers. Luqman and his peers were obliged to pay professors under-the-table handouts (about 2 pounds at that time, which is still a fortune in Nigerian Naira nowadays) in addition to their regular tuition. In exchange for the handout, the lecturer would record the student’s name on the official course registry, which is a requisite for matriculation. Professors profited enormously from entry level classes that enrolled up to 1000 students each. When lecturers were not collecting handouts from students to (over)compensate for their withheld wages, they were on strike.

Luqman was growing increasingly vexed with the Nigerian government. He and his classmates participated in political protests and marches, and several of his friends were shot and killed by police during demonstrations on the university campus. Luqman decided that he had had enough and applied to study in the UK. One visa application and three appeals later, the Home Office finally granted him permission to do so.

Luqman is among a growing number of Nigerians who have left home to pursue their education in the UK. The visa process for non-EU students has grown increasingly demanding since 9/11, tuition is up to four times higher than the cost of university for UK-nationals, and the language barrier and cultural differences students experience upon arrival add a layer of complexity. Nevertheless, these challenges outweigh the alternative of studying in Nigeria where course schedules remain irregular due to perpetual lecturer strikes. Luqman told me about a friend that took the same course five years in a row, not because the content was too intellectually demanding, but because the lecturer rarely showed up for class. Those patient enough to graduate must compete in a job market with 13.3% unemployment.

This story transcends Luqman’s personal experience. For him, the broken education system in Nigeria is one symptom of a deeper disease that afflicts many African countries—that is, the empirically flawed neoliberal economic policies recommended by international financial institutions and implemented by the state. Currently, Luqman is writing a book about multifaceted ties between the global financial system, immigration, and education.


Human Rights
Ashley Miller

Ashley is a researcher and global education advocate with a B.A. in Public Policy Analysis from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and M.A. in International Relations from Institut Barcelona d’Estudis Internacional. Her studies and travels inform and inspire her interests in international education, social justice, economic empowerment, and human rights. To connect with Ashley, send her a personalized message on LinkedIn:
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