When we think about the role of the African diaspora in political engagement and policy on the continent, what comes to mind? Not a lot? That's right, we don't usually think about the diaspora in that way at all - or at least I know I didn't until recently.
As a second generation Nigerian born in the US, I grew up hearing stories of the relatively peaceful and prosperous Nigeria before the Biafran war and the subsequent spiral into chaos under corrupt, despotic regimes. Hearing these stories, backed up by horrifying depictions of the Africa's governance failures in Western media, I assumed that politics and public institutions in Africa were a black hole of corruption and greed where the uneducated crooks in power pillage with impunity and the few that try to change things for the better end up jailed, missing or dead. Remember Ken Saro-Wiwa.
With this bleak outlook, who wouldn't believe that those who return to try to improve governance on the ground risk being eaten alive? Why bother diving into such a treacherous environment when we (the diaspora) can sit comfortably at home and contribute to Africa's development through remittances with just the click of a button?
Let's be real - for most Nigerians who had the resources to leave, get educated and settled in the West, life tends to be less fraught with wahala (trouble). If the electricity mysteriously shuts off, you can count on the problem being resolved within 24 hours - permanently. If you have a heart attack or get in a car accident there will be an ambulance there in minutes to whisk you away to the nearest hospital and its competently trained physicians. So juxtapose these perks of living in a more developed nation with those harrowing tales of visitors to Nigeria who are kidnapped for ransom by area boys who have conspired with their own friends and family, it is no wonder why many don't want to return permanently.
That’s why many of us only go back for Christmas, weddings and funerals, while we remit, fundraise, and remit some more the rest of the time, content with the fact that we're contributing something. In fact, we are contributing a lot. According to the World Bank, in 2012 Africa received almost $60 billion from its workers abroad.
However, identifying the tangible development impact of remittances is the real challenge. We all know remittances can be used for anything from lavish weddings to diesel fuel. I remember attending a hometown association event with my mother near Washington, DC, and they were raising funds to enhance security and law enforcement in their community in Nigeria. I soon found out that those "remittances" would be used to arm area boys with rifles and guns to fend off the armed robbers and kidnappers that had been terrorising the area. I was shocked and alarmed – not only at the obvious risks of arming local guys with minimal training but also at the broader implications of what it all meant. I think more often than not, remittances are used to fund patchwork solutions to deeper structural issues that can only be transformed through real policy and governance shifts – in this instance the limited capacity and effectiveness of the local police to address crime.
But the diaspora isn't only remitting. Some people are also returning to launch enterprises and run businesses that stimulate local economies and create employment. More and more we see young Africans who have been educated abroad return to launch successful businesses in African markets – Tayo Oviosu of Pagatech and Jason Njoku of iROKO Partners just to name a few.
Of course there are numerous critiques of the real intentions of these returnees, much of which can be summed up in a recent op-ed by an anonymous yet "self hating" member of the African diaspora who posits that these people are nothing more than shameless opportunists who return to claim their place at "the top of the pile".
While some may share her pessimism, I personally find such gross generalisations erroneous and dangerously counterproductive, detracting us from the real issue at hand. Remittances and enterprises are great and we should keep doing them – I'm a firm believer that something is better than nothing – yet still keep in mind that they won't lead to institutional changes that are needed to create widespread political, social and economic stability.
I think the discourse around diaspora engagement should focus on how those first and second generation Africans abroad can become more politically engaged to better shape public policy to create an environment that facilitates positive change.
There are a variety of ways to politically engage the diaspora: from enfranchisement to representation in national assemblies and legislatures. Right now, over 25 African nations allow their diaspora to vote abroad in some capacity. With more advancements and innovations, for example Ghana's recent introduction of biometric voting during the 2012 elections, extending the vote to the diaspora should be more feasible than ever for those nations, like Nigeria, that have not made that step.
African governments should capitalise on the financial and intellectual resources of the diaspora and use political enfranchisement as a tool to give those abroad a sense of civic responsibility and ownership of the nation-building process. They should incentivise them to contribute their time, energy, resources and skills to address the problems on the ground. The fact is that while many are returning, many others have been, and will continue to be, seduced by the relative ease and comfort of life in the West.
Countries that don't make a concerted effort to maintain a sense of national/cultural identity and responsibility among this population, and create the foundation for engaging the diaspora in a positive way, risk losing future generations of would-be change-makers to the societies of more developed nations.
Make no mistake – the diaspora is not Africa's salvation. There needs to be a collaborative effort between those based abroad and those based within the continent to address issues, transform systems and achieve mutually beneficial goals.
One of the big questions I have is how people at home, across all socio-economic levels, view the importance or relevance of the diaspora in governance and change on the continent. How can we achieve coordination between these two groups, and where does political participation come into play? If at least one of your parents is a Nigerian citizen, should you automatically receive a voter registration card on your 18th birthday? Should countries allow citizens abroad to elect representatives to national assemblies, as in France and Cape Verde?
These types of questions should fuel the dialogue around diaspora engagement moving forward. Luckily enough, on 20 February, Vote or Quench, Sleeves Up Nigeria and Sonic Diaspora will be hosting two events during Social Media Week – “Who Needs the African Diaspora” in Lagos, Nigeria, and “Digital Africa: The Diaspora Strikes Back” in Washington, DC – that will touch on exactly this.
What better way to celebrate Africa's first edition of Social Media Week – a global event that explores the social, cultural and economic impact of social media – than with a much needed conversation on whether the diaspora really matters. If you think diaspora engagement is an important issue, and will be in Lagos, Nigeria or Washington, DC, check them out. If you think it’s a waste of time? Check it out anyway or voice your opinion on twitter (#SMWDiasporaVote) on why you think we should all just shut up.
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For further reading around the subject see:
|Refocusing Investment: the African Diaspora||Hold Your Tongue: Yoruba in the Diaspora||Diaspora Voting Rights|