By Crystal Nwokorie
When we think about the role of the African diaspora in political engagement and policy on the continent what comes to mind? 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. When I talk about the diaspora I mean those 1st and 2nd generation Africans and their children that have settled in more developed countries abroad, although I recognize there is a large population of the diaspora that have settled in other African countries. As a second generation Nigerian born in the U.S. I grew up hearing stories of the relatively peaceful and prosperous Nigeria before the Biafran war and subsequent, unfortunate spiral into chaos under corrupt, despotic regimes. With these stories, justified by even more horrifying depictions of the Africa’s governance failures by 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. We all remember Saro-Wiwa.
With this bleak outlook, who wouldn’t believe that those who return to help improve governance on 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 many (but not all) Nigerians that 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 pretty much 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 where you can guarantee the competency and training of the physicians. Oh and by the way – the public schools are free and usually pretty good. So juxtapose these perks of living in a more developed nation with the harrowing tales of those that travel to Nigeria and 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. So many of us just go back for christmas, weddings and funerals and remit, fundraise, and remit some more the rest of the time, content with the fact that we’re contributing something – and 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 mom near Washington, D.C. 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 terrorizing 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, they 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 generalizations 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. But they won’t change the institutions that are needed to create widespread, political, social and economic stability. I think the discourse around diaspora engagement should focus on how those 1st and 2nd generation Africans abroad can become more politically engaged to better shape public policy that will 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 for their diaspora to vote abroad in some capacity. With more advancements and innovations that facilitate the electoral process, 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 capitalize 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. Incentivize them to contribute their time, energy, resources and skills to address the problems on 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 changemakers to the assimilative 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 February 20th 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, D.C. 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, D.C. check them out. Don’t care or can’t be bothered – check it out anyway or voice your opinion on twitter (#SMWDiasporaVote) on why you think we should all just shut up.
Crystal Nwokorie is a Management Consultant and Africa enthusiast in Washington, DC. @CrystalNwokorie
On a lighter note, the Social Media Week Diaspora team recently made a Nigerian version of the viral video, Harlem Shake on You Tube. Check it out here.