African American With Career Across Africa Shares Life In Abuja, Nigeria
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Originally from North Carolina, Christopher Johnson's phenomenal career has availed him the opportunity to work all over the African continent, a life he dreamed of as a teen. He shared reflections on life in Abuja, Nigeria, details on the Nigerian business environment, how to make the most out of visiting African nations, and more.
Hi! Where in Nigeria do you live?
Abuja, Federal Capital Territory.
How long have you lived in Nigeria?
When did you first visit the African continent and what were your first impressions?
I first came to the continent in 2006 on a short assignment with my employer in Nigeria. In 2007, I was transferred from Washington, DC to head up its southern Africa office in Johannesburg, South Africa. I lived in Johannesburg for five years. Since 2006, I’ve worked in the following African countries: Nigeria, South Africa, Swaziland, Lesotho, Mozambique, Namibia, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Cameroon, and Ghana.
I studied African politics and history in graduate school and worked in development prior to my first visit to Africa. My first impressions of Lagos, Nigeria were of being excited and overwhelmed. Lagos is a fast moving city that can at first be a bit much to absorb. After a few days, I was able to follow its fast pace. I met wonderful people who exposed me to different corners of the city. I felt I had a well-rounded experience.
How did you end up living in Nigeria? What are you doing professionally there?
After spending five years in South Africa with my employer I accepted a transfer to lead its West Africa office based in Abuja. I’m a trade unionist and work for a labor service NGO affiliated with a labor federation. Most of my work falls under democracy and governance broadly.
ON BUSINESS OPPORTUNITIES AND IMMIGRATION
Would you say Nigeria has a lot of entrepreneurial opportunities? How easy is it for a foreigner to start up a business?
The informal economy is the largest sector in Nigeria. That is neither a good nor bad thing. A great many workers struggle to earn a living here.
For those with means to invest in a business the sky is the limit! Nigeria is a regional hub for banking, telecommunications, filmmaking, fashion, and the list goes on. I’ve often seen long-term residents and newly arrived expats alike engage in business development and ownership since moving here. I’d say the success rate is probably no different than the U.S. (for those with the means). A lot depends on how strong the business plan is and, depending on the sector, the understanding of local law and customs. Nigeria is a huge country. A business owner in say, Lagos, will have both similar and differing factors affecting business than an entrepreneur in Maiduguri, for example. A lot to consider.
Please describe your experience immigration wise, of moving to Nigeria.
Initially the temporary permits for my family and I were a bit tricky. My employer provided much needed help upon request and things moved fairly smoothly. It’s important to have legal counsel that’s very familiar with immigration law or at minimum someone who understands how to move past the bureaucracy here.
Any advice for potential expats? What industries are potentially hiring the most?
Extractive industries is huge here, especially oil. Those jobs can be difficult to acquire but not impossible.
The NGO community is massive here. That industry can be a bit difficult to penetrate on the American side and pay varies.
Business consulting is valued here. Checking out the international job sites is a good start. I’m most familiar with those in the development field. Devex.com can provide a fair overview of opportunities for those in the NGO world.
ON EVERYDAY LIFE
What is everyday life like in Nigeria for you?
I’m married with a six year old son. For me, a weekday is work and home to spend time with family. On weekends, we might go to a school function (the schools provide a lot of activities for our son); check out a movie at Silverbird cinemas; or go out to eat as a family. Abuja is not as busy as Lagos. The traffic is much better and it’s growing really fast. There’s enough to do to keep things interesting.
How were you welcomed as an African American? Or as an American in general?
After spending a few years in Johannesburg, the atmosphere was much friendlier in Abuja. Folks generally believe that I’m a Nigerian perhaps raised or schooled in the U.S. I don’t dispel them from that notion for the most part. I find it easier to just blend in. I like Nigeria overall and I reflect its appeal in how I treat people. As a result, I’m treated with the same openness and respect given.
What do you love the most about living in Nigeria?
This will be broad. But in the work I do I love the fact that Nigerians think on their feet and can implement a plan quickly. We do all the social media and phone contact that anyone in America would engage in, but there’s still value in developing personal relationships with people here. Sometimes what could be handled in a phone call is dealt with better by a short visit. There’s a community vibe to business dealings here.
Easiest things to adjust to?
Abuja and Lagos are modern fast growing cities. So we have the fast food, cinemas, and other stuff that one would be used to in America if you chose to engage in that.
School here is very serious and rigorous for our son. The involvement of parents is critical to a child’s success here. The issues of race that I had to navigate as a youngster in the American school system are unknown to my son. He can focus on learning.
Most difficult things to adjust to?
The security situation is up and down. For now it is calm in Abuja, but there have been terrorist attacks by the separatist group Boko Haram that have claimed the lives of scores of people in the Federal Capital Territory where we live.
The unstable electricity flow can be a bummer at times. A good generator can get you through that but it is not ideal.
What is your social life there?
For me, I stay extremely busy with work and reserve most of my time outside of that for the family. In addition to Nigeria, I travel throughout west Africa. So, I don’t control as much of my time as I once did. I make the most of that situation though.
My wife and son love it here and stay busy with an ever growing circle of friends. Their happiness makes me happy.
Can you share a few details on the cost of living in the community that you live in?
Abuja can be a bit pricey depending on where you live. I live in the Wuse II district which is neither the most expensive nor the cheapest area to live.
For a secure family size apartment in the city with rent and utilities you could expect to pay around 2000USD per month or more. Less depending on your taste and how much room you require.
ADVICE AND FINAL REFLECTIONS
Did you always dream of living abroad?
I always dreamed of living on the continent of Africa. In my teens I recall seeing a book displaying modern African cities. I became very curious about urban Africa from that point forward. I thought it would be an amazing experience to live on the continent.
Best advice for someone who wants to move to an African nation?
I’ve got a few bits of advice. Travel! Do your research. Connect with people who know the country you are interested in. And visit. Do not commit to any potentially life changing experience without doing the research. Take your time in making a decision. Determine if you can handle being far away from home. My first 18 months overseas were wonderful and rough at the same time. Don’t expect the world to stop back home because you’ve moved overseas. Folks may have no interest in visiting you and you may have to do more work in keeping up with people that you care about.
What would you say to encourage more African Americans to visit Nigeria or the African continent at large?
It’s important to see the world. For African-Americans so many of our ancestors were stolen from Nigeria that you will at minimum meet your twin which is amazing. So many of the things we believe to be unique to our communities back home originate in this part of the world. If you are intellectually curious it’s definitely worth the investment.
What has living in Nigeria taught you?
This is not a tourist destination. The government is working on that but that goal has not been achieved yet. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. If you choose to come to Nigeria you will be drawn to it by the work available or personal interest. It’s a dynamic place with the largest population of people of African descent on the planet. The impact of global white supremacy is here. It’s imbedded in the system, but you don’t feel it on top of your back like you do in South Africa or the USA.
Is there somewhere we can follow your experience?
I don’t have my own website or blog but my work has appeared in Sahara Reporters, e-International Relations, Face2FaceAfrica, ThyBlackMan, Racialicious, and International Policy Digest.
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
There’s 54 counties on the continent. There’s a good chance at least one of them is perfect for you to visit, work, or live. Do the research.