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Is Nigeria Losing Her 17 Million Diaspora?

04 Feb 2013

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The Soludo Solution By Chukwuma Soludo

Nigeria’s huge Diaspora population can be a portent force for national transformation. But the structure of the first generation Diaspora is changing fast; homeland consciousness among the next generation of Diaspora is waning; there is a crisis of identity; and the structure of Nigerian federation is such that future generations of Diaspora without explicit ‘state of origin’ cannot serve the nation. Does Nigeria run the risk as perhaps the only big country that will not continue to reap the dynamic benefits of her estimated 17 million Diaspora, scattered all over the world?

According to Wikipedia, the Greek word Diaspora (‘scattering, dispersion’) originally referred to “the movement, migration, or scattering of people away from an established or ancestral homeland” or “people dispersed by whatever cause to more than one location”, or “people settled far from their ancestral homelands”. In this generic context, an Igbo who lives in Kano or Lagos is no less of a Diaspora than a Fulani who lives in London. Here, we restrict the term to refer to ‘external Diaspora’ -- Nigerians who have ‘settled’ or live abroad (outside of Nigeria) for whatever reason. We exclude descendants of those who left as slaves (Africa’s first and authentic Diaspora)—and majority of them were said to have left from present day Nigeria—and focus only on the post-colonial Diaspora who voluntarily fled because of all kinds of ‘hardships’ or in search of better opportunities.

Everyone hoped that the massive brain drain would eventually turn into ‘brain gain’ which, besides money includes what the North-South Centre of the Council of Europe defines as social remittances---‘ideas, practices, mind-sets, world views, values and attitudes, norms of behaviour and social capital (knowledge, experience and expertise) that the diasporas mediate and either consciously or unconsciously transfer from host to home communities’. Usually the first generation of emigrants suffers a certain crisis of identity, with one leg in the host country, and another in the ‘home’ country to which they endlessly hope to ‘return’ but which less than 10 per cent actually do. The first generation emigrants remit money to their families, relatives and friends; build houses they hope to return and retire into, plus other investments. They sorely miss ‘home’.

If you believe the World Bank’s figures, Nigeria received about 10 per cent of its GNP in 2012 as remittances (about $21 billion). Some interpret these to be remittances by the ‘Nigerian Diaspora’. A caveat on the figures is important. They are total (recorded) inward remittances: we don’t know what proportion is from Nigerians on short-term assignments-- non-residents abroad (consultants, short-term workers, students, diplomatic staff, visitors, etc) versus those who have ‘settled’ or are resident abroad (Diaspora). Let me add that no one (not even the World Bank) knows for sure the nationality or ancestral origin of the remitters. We don’t also know the remittances through unrecorded, informal channels—cash transfers through friends and relations. Part of the remittances are for consumption; others for portfolio and capital investment. For the moment, let us assume that a significant proportion of the remittance comes from the Diaspora population. It certainly helps to reduce the big hole created by the outward ‘remittances’ (mostly capital flight?); is twice the Federal Government’s capital budget, and is essentially what sustains many households in Nigeria. Can this be sustained?

Many do not fully understand the demographics of our Diaspora. It is a common mistake to think of Nigerian Diaspora in terms of those professionals and educated work force in North America and Europe. No one has the correct figures, but it is reasonable to estimate that three out of every four Diaspora are in Africa, Asia and the Middle East. I am willing to bet that there are more Nigerians in Douala, Cameroon; Ghana; Congo DRC and Southern Africa than there are in Europe and America. Those in the western world left mostly as students or educated work force. Disturbingly the huge emigrations to Asia, Africa and Middle East in the last two decades are mostly semi-illiterates, and largely lost in the underground economies as traders, and indulge in all kinds of criminalities. To survive, they marry citizens of the host country and set up families that in all probability will never set foot on the homeland. Of the estimated 17 million Diaspora (if that figure is correct), this group constitutes what I call the bottom 13 million and most of them are, as it were, lost.

In Europe and America, there is a serious tightening of immigration rules/laws, and hence a halt in the growth of first generation emigrants. The dynamism of future Diaspora contributions to national transformation will therefore come from the children and grandchildren of the present day Diaspora. Here lies the problem. Are these children and subsequent generations of Diaspora conscious enough to think of Nigeria as ‘home’ worthy of any contribution? Having lived in Ethiopia, UK, and USA myself, I have often asked my friends in Diaspora if or when they think that their children will ever remit money or ‘go home’ to develop Nigeria.

The reality of the world, despite globalization, is that there is still the ethnicity of capital. A careful disaggregation of the ethnic origins of FDI flows might show that Asians—Japanese, Chinese, etc --- still invest mostly in Asian countries, while Americans and Europeans mostly invest among themselves. The transition economies of former Soviet Republics receive much of their FDI from their European brothers and sisters in Europe and America. It is not surprising that African countries receive much less FDI than would be predicted by the fundamentals of their economy, whereas other countries in other regions receive much more even when they reform less. It is estimated that about 50 per cent of the FDI into China in recent decades came mostly from the ethnic Chinese in Diaspora. The same is for India. Israel is said to receive most of its FDI and assistance from Jews all over the world. The ethnic Diaspora not only remit money—remittances and FDI, but also provide a veritable source of networks for opening markets for trade abroad.

Africa and Nigeria suffer from two kinds of outflows. First, a sizeable proportion of the private sector wealth is held abroad. Collier and others had estimated that about 40 per cent of the non-land private African wealth is held outside of Africa. In addition, it may not be inappropriate to also surmise that at least 40 per cent of Africa’s most talented and skilled manpower reside outside of the region.

Unfortunately, the crisis of identity and loss of homeland consciousness caused largely by what, for want of a better terminology, I describe as the bleaching syndrome of the emigrants may deny Nigeria/Africa its future Diaspora. Bleaching syndrome is a phenomenon whereby Africans, and particularly some ethnic Nigerian groups are in a haste to deny who they are, and distance themselves from their roots. The bleaching process starts with what some might see as ‘little things’ – their names and language. First, many are willing to adapt their names to suit the preferences of the Westerners. I have met scores of Nigerians who grew up in Nigeria with their beautiful African names (which have meanings) and who suddenly now answer all kinds of funny ‘foreign’ names. Some tell me it is to make it easier for the westerners to pronounce their names. Check out the names they give to their children! I am told that your name is part of your identity. Never mind that no westerner would shorten or change their name to make it easier for you to pronounce and would take serious offence if you don’t pronounce it properly. The US is the world’s classic melting pot. Even at that, it amazes me how people can still identify some others as being of Irish, Jewish, Greek, German, etc descent – just by their names.

The second symptom of bleaching and perhaps the most serious is that they start losing their language and fail/refuse to teach their children their native language in the mistaken belief that the further away they are from their language, the more ‘civilized’ they have become. This contrasts with other ethnicities. For example, wherever you go, ethnic Indians, Chinese, Latin Americans, still speak their language (in their homes and among themselves) even after several generations of settlement in the place. The implication is that even after several generations, the Diaspora can return to the ‘homeland’ and fit in easily.

In the case of Africa, the pressure to adapt and be ‘accepted’ in the West forces them into extreme forms of self-rejection or bleaching. The tragedy of this self-rejection is that it is manifesting in a second phase--- the first phase happened during slavery. The slave owners recreated their slaves into new personalities—gave them new names; gave them a new language; and it was only a matter of time and generations could no longer trace their exact roots. I meet dozens of ‘next generation’ Nigerian Diaspora who simply tell me that their ‘parents come from Africa’. Totally disconnected and disoriented, the next generation Diaspora can at best only see Nigeria as being of tourist interest, and I don’t see the consciousness or attachment that would make them remit money or want to transfer technology to Nigeria.

Nigeria needs a new template for Diaspora engagement. So far, the response is at best ad-hoc and pedestrian. One out of every six blacks in the world is a Nigerian. Strategically, Nigeria can embark on a programme of building a new black race/African consciousness with a motherland mentality and commitment. The focus should broadly include the entire black race in Diaspora—African Americans, Caribbean, South Americans, etc. They remain the hidden dynamite for Nigeria’s transformation. The black race cannot rise if Nigeria continues to slumber. However, for Nigeria’s potentials to explode, it needs the global networks of all black talents. As stated earlier, capital still has some skin colour! Moshood Abiola promised to make Nigeria the ‘home to the black race’. Let us get started!

But for this to happen, we need to redesign Nigeria as a true melting pot for the black race. With our current awkward federalism and its insistence on ‘state of origin’ as basis of engagement in literally every aspect of the formal economy, we cannot develop citizens with ‘national’ consciousness. A third or fourth generation Diaspora who decides that he has had enough of America or Europe and decides to relocate to say, Nigeria as his ‘motherland’ would still have to continually answer the question of his state of origin--- to be adjudged a ‘true Nigerian’. Of course, such third generation or so Diaspora has no state of origin because even the parents may have also been born abroad and with their names now as Jones Smith, Peter Bird, etc. So, even when you have a fourth generation Diaspora with a passion to belong and contribute, the system treats her/him as a ‘stranger’. If any of them relocates to Nigeria, he cannot serve as a Minister or serve in any government establishment where ‘federal character’ is required. That is why I have argued in my previous column that the state of origin should be removed from the Constitution and replaced with ‘state of residence’ and I am glad that the idea has elicited nation-wide polling and debate. Constitutional amendment is the place to start!

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