Background: Limited data exist on retention of primary healthcare (PHC) staff in rural areas, crippling the already fragile healthcare systems in Nigeria. This study investigated why PHC staff would or would not want to work in rural areas and how they could be retained.

Methods: Four hundred and twelve (412) health workers and caregivers, and 21 key informants were interviewed in Ona-Ara LGA. Logistic regression statistics was used to analyse quantitative data and narrative for qualitative data.

Results: There was no significant factor influencing health workers' unwillingness to work in rural areas and, relationship between their demographic characteristics and perceived reasons to do so. Combined factors influencing PHC workers' willingness to work in rural areas influenced use of PHC.

Conclusion: Financial and non-financial incentives are responsible for workers' motivation to work in rural areas. The mal-distribution of health facilities and health workers between urban and rural areas must be addressed.