The “alternative” money economy of Nigerian students

In Northern Cyprus, African students, many of them Nigerian, study diligently for tertiary degrees while juggling multiple income streams in a peer-to-peer system for collective survival.

Image credit Laura on Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

The small nation of Northern Cyprus on a shared island with the Republic of Cyprus off the coast of Turkey is home to just 350,000 residents, but more than 20,000 African students.

Northern Cyprus is technically an internationally unrecognized state, except by Turkey. Since it declared independence in 1983, however, it has become a prime destination for education migration, with higher education contributing to 10% of its economy as of 2018. When famed Nigerian author, Chigozie Obioma, arrived in Northern Cyprus in 2007, he was among a handful of African students. Less than 20 years later, Nigerians represent the largest group of non-Turkish students (followed by Zimbabweans, Cameroonians, and Congolese).

Frustrated by the state of higher education in Nigeria, a system unable to guarantee a degree uninterrupted by frequent strikes, and the value placed on foreign certification given the scarcity of employment after graduation, Nigerians find easy footing in a straightforward passage to Northern Cyprus as a prime education destination. Pressures in Nigeria translate to prospects in Northern Cyprus as the latter leverages its favorable proximity to Europe and English-language instruction. Students further praise the ease of visa entry requirements relative to other European countries and the comparable quality of European education for less-than-average European tuition.

Nigerian students typically arrive with voracious optimism at the prospects of working and studying at the same time. For some, hope atrophies when they gain illegal employment at local hotels and restaurants with meager pay and sometimes work under exploitative conditions. Others operate side businesses selling foodstuff or offering beauty and hair services to other African students: “We are just rotating the funds we have within the black community and survive on that,” laments one PhD student from Oyo State. Still, other students adeptly access remote work, leveraging their teaching and technical skills.

Nonetheless, an interminable source of ire for Nigerian students is the ability to pay school fees and living costs. Students are unable to make international transfers because Northern Cyprus restricts the transfer of money from Nigeria due to the latter’s notorious financial reputation. More pervasive, however, is the general disinterest and unwillingness by Northern Cyprus banks to provide student accounts that permit foreign transactions. The Central Bank of Nigeria adds to the encumbrance by capping travel allowances at US$4,000, the permitted amount students can legally exchange before departure. Upon arrival in Northern Cyprus, the Central Bank of Nigeria further restricts currency flows by limiting overseas debit card withdrawals to the paltry sum of $50 a month. From day one, the squeeze of monetary policies narrows the formal paths to finance what is considered reasonable program fees (for example, €3,100 for a Master’s to €6,500 for a PhD). So how do so many Nigerians still study in Northern Cyprus despite the financial challenges?

Unsurprisingly, an entire economy flourishes in the interstices of institutional impasse. Nigerians are at the epicenter of this milieu of plural money. “Virtually everyone is a currency exchanger,” a Nigerian PhD student from Lagos chuckles as he explains the ubiquitous reliance on peer-to-peer money transfers among the Nigerian student diaspora on the island. Those with US dollars in hand find willing compatriots ready to exchange for Turkish lira, the currency used in Northern Cyprus. Otherwise, students can deposit naira to a peer’s account in Nigeria, and then the receiver will credit the depositor with its lira equivalent in Northern Cyprus.

In 2021, the rapid depreciation of the Turkish lira against the US dollar, losing more than 40 percent of its value, was compounded by inflation of more than 40 percent in the same year. The exchange rate nosedive and the skyrocketing cost of living steeled residents to find refuge in other stable currencies. Now, rents are settled by British pounds, school fees are paid with Euros, and consumer goods are purchased in US dollars. For those earning in naira, the fact that inflation of the lira is greater than inflation of the naira means they are treading “above sea level,” remarks another Nigerian PhD student, relieved to be the temporary victor in the steady decline of relative currency values. The lira has become a hot potato to be quickly converted short of paying government utility bills and everyday spending.

Further adding to the hodgepodge of circulating currencies, remote work generates remuneration not only in the trifecta of hard currencies now coveted on the island: British Pound, Euro, and USD, but also cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin and stable coins. Earnings cover the cost of living while the surplus is remitted back to Nigeria along peer networks to fulfill familial obligations.

Transacting in three hard currencies, two national currencies, and a plethora of cryptocurrencies mentally taxes the most calculative minds, not to mention accounting for the time to make this money. Endowed with prodigious endurance, Nigerian students balance multiple income streams while diligently completing their degrees. Incremental losses incurred by moving from currency to currency translate to marginal gains siphoned off by compatriots, and then brushed off as the cost of schooling in Northern Cyprus. When no other viable options exist, a peer-to-peer system for collective survival is indispensable. In 2022 Nigerian students continue to operate a resilient, “alternative” money economy they created for themselves—delivering exactly what it takes to obtain the education they seek to forge ahead.

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