A huge experiment is underway in reversing migration and thousands of Nigerians represent the vanguard. But what are "Assisted Voluntary Return and Reintegration" programmes—and what are the human consequences?by Daniel Howden / November 9, 2019 / Leave a comment
Osita Osemene’s voice commands your attention in the same way a subwoofer does. His sermon has a bass line that washes over you in waves of rhetorical questions. Should his audience falter in their attention, he snaps it back into place with a booming “hello” that reverberates off the plastic pillars and tatty golden curtains of the ballroom of the Zafike Hotel.
Osemene is in the business of “re-engineering your mindset” to get you behaving like “someone who has a future.” This might be considered a reasonable proposition—except for the fact that his audience of around 100 Nigerians have risked their life savings and lives to not be here in the first place. Their problem is not the Zafike, an unlovable dive on the outskirts of Benin City in southern Nigeria, it is that they are only being re-engineered because they left their country in a doomed bid to reach Europe.
Forty-six-year-old Osemene tells his mostly younger compatriots that they have an “old and destructive mindset” for wanting to migrate. And he can sympathise because he once had the same condition. The son of a preacher, whose charisma survives and defies his buttoned-down look of a well-fed IT worker, Osemene had his own road to Damascus moment 15 years ago. It came on the Libyan shore of the Mediterranean where he abandoned a harrowing attempt to reach Europe after seeing the dead bodies of other migrants washed up on the beach.
It took money wired by his sister and three tortuous weeks to unwind his journey and return to Nigeria. Like a true convert, he now lectures recent returnees and produces pamphlets that read like public health circulars about the dangers of an illness called migration. His routine is equal parts Pentecostalism, psychoanalysis and NGO jargon, delivered in the rhythm of a Methodist sermon but peppered with development buzzwords such as “empowerment,” “capacity” and “resilience.” He can sound like a man on a singular mission, but this is no solo effort.
Osemene’s work is paid for by a Who’s Who of European authorities, from the EU to the Swiss and British governments. What they have in common is a shared desire to see fewer…