Engagement of Nigerian Diaspora for National Development: The Challenge of Structural Re-alignment


By Bola A. Akinterinwa

At the epicentre of Nigeria’s foreign policy in 1960 was Africa as the cornerstone and thereafter, in 1976, as the centrepiece. Africa, as cornerstone and centrepiece, was largely defined by Nigeria’s policy of no compromise with the obnoxious policies of apartheid in South Africa and the need for decolonisation. In the eyes of many scholars, Nigeria had a foreign policy with the anti-apartheid war and struggle for decolonisation. This was the first pillar of Nigeria’s foreign policy. When South Africa was freed from the clutches of racial segregation in 1994, the belief was that Nigeria did not have any foreign policy anymore.
A second foreign policy pillar was introduced in 1987 with the establishment of the Technical Aid Corps (TAC) Scheme, which has been, since then, the most important, instrument of Nigeria’s foreign policy. It was put in place by Professor Bolaji Akinwande Akinyemi when he was Minister of External Affairs. The TAC Scheme has remained a catalyst in promoting Nigeria’s international cooperation. As explained by the then military President of Nigeria, General Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida, ‘the TAC Scheme is in furtherance of our commitment to our foreign policy, which makes Africa its centrepiece. This administration believes that it is in Nigeria’s national interest, and that it should be regarded as Nigeria’s sacred duty to enhance the status of Blacks all over the world…’

What is noteworthy about Africa as centrepiece and the TAC Scheme is that emphasis was placed on helping others and defending black dignity, in the strong belief that any taint on any African or Black man is necessarily also a taint on every Nigerian. While the protection of black dignity remained a major focus, a third pillar was again introduced in 2017. This was the focus on the use of Nigerians in Diaspora as an instrument of foreign policy, especially in growing national unity and socio-economic development.

In this regard, efforts were first made by President Olusegun Obasanjo, GCFR, to bring together Nigerians in the Diaspora in September 2000 when he held a meeting with 3,700 Nigerians in Diaspora in Atlanta. He asked them to prepare ‘to participate fully in the process of visioning, planning and pursuing the political well-being, the economic development and the sound governance of their country. As further explained by Dr. Bashir Obasekola, the Chairman of the Nigerians in Diaspora Organisations Europe (NIDO-E), President Obasanjo said that ‘we can tap the knowledge and skills of many of our fellow Nigerians, wherever they are,’ and had therefore called for the establishment of a mechanism ‘to establish structures and networks that will promote the use of special skills of Nigerians in the Diaspora. It is against this background that the formation of NIDOs began in 2001 in the United States and thereafter in 2002 in Europe.

It is not only within this context that a third important pillar of foreign policy was also introduced, with the establishment of the Nigerians in Diaspora Commission (NiDCOM) in 2017 which is currently headed by Honourable Abike Dabiri-Erewa, but also why, on Tuesday, 15th December, 2020 the Diaspora Affairs Department of the Directorate of Technical Cooperation in Africa (DTCA) held a ‘Think Nigeria’ Diaspora Symposium,’ on ‘Engaging the Nigerian Diaspora for Inclusive Development’ at the Chida Hotel, Jabi, Abuja. The symposium was chaired by Ambassador Joe Keshi, former Permanent Secretary.

Issues in Engaging Nigerians in Diaspora
The first issue in seeking the engagement of Nigerians in the development of Nigeria is who should have full responsibility for the conduct and management of Diaspora Affairs. There are currently two important institutional mechanisms competing for the management of Diaspora affairs. There is the Directorate of Technical Cooperation in Africa, which was specifically created as an independent Ministry to promote technical cooperation and economic integration among African countries but was later brought under the supervisory authority of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

What is noteworthy about the mandate of DTCA is that the promotion of technical cooperation and economic integration is expected to be achieved ‘by attracting African experts to enhance Africa’s development through the creation of an enabling environment and opportunity for Nigerian professionals and indeed, those of African descent, to invest their immense intellect, expertise and skills into the economies of Africa,’ to borrow the words of the DTCA in its concept note on ”Think Nigeria Diaspora Symposium.”
As further explicated by Dr. Theodore Sefia and in the concept note, ‘the Think Nigeria Diaspora Symposium is expected to propose recommendations for more effectively engaging Nigerian professionals in the Diaspora to facilitate institutional effectiveness, efficiency and adoption of best practices by proffering concrete applicable strategies on how to galvanise the Nigerian Diaspora for socio-economic transformation of Nigeria.’

In this same vein, and for the same objectives, the National Assembly promulgated the Law establishing the NiDCOM in 2017. And more than three months ago, the NiDCOM, under its Chief Executive, conceived of the need to empanel a research committee to investigate how best to engage all Nigerians in the Diaspora with the ultimate objective of national economic development.

Thus, we do have the DTCA and the NiDCOM focusing on the same NIDOs. The DTCA is under the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The NiDCOM is, stricto sensu, not under it. Besides, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is not on record to be happy with an autonomous NiDCOM. If we consider the main objectives of economic development, and particularly the quest for technological breakthrough in Nigeria, the NiDCOM can be under the Ministry of the Economy or Science and Technology. If we do consider the aspect of operational protection of stranded Nigerians, the NiDCOM essentially falls within the framework of citizen diplomacy, and therefore can be under the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

However, there is the need to always differentiate between international relations and international life. International relations is about government-to-government relations while international life involves the activities of non-government officials, that is, beyond the officialdom. Relationships between the Government and the NIDOs does not fall under international relations but under international life, and therefore, NIDO affairs fall squarely under the purview of the NiDCOM.

Consequently, when thinking of how ‘to facilitate dialogue with all levels of the Diaspora on Nigeria’s institutional realignment drive for sustainable development,’ which is the first cardinal point of enquiry of the DCTA’s symposium on Engaging the Nigerian Diaspora for inclusive development, there will be need to underscore the factor of collaboration to the detriment of destructive competition.

In this regard, I hold the strong belief that the mandate of the NiDCOM cannot with ease be achieved if, structurally, it is placed under the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for two reasons that are not far-fetched. First, on the very day of the symposium, which was a Zoom meeting, the Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, His Excellency Zubairu Dada, who was to give the keynote address and declare the meeting open, was late for 21minutes. Even when he arrived, he said he would read his speech as given. He did not apologise for his lateness. In fact, the reading of his speech did not show any seriousness of purpose. And perhaps more disturbingly, he left the meeting after the delivery of his speech and photo session. The business of Nigerians in Diaspora cannot be managed on the altar of this type of political chicanery or on a lighter mood. To promote harmonious working relationship with the NIDOs cannot but require finding more time for them. It must go beyond ordinary speech giving and pontificating. Nigerians in the Diaspora generally work in a very disciplined environment where time is time and business is truly business.

A second reason is the mania of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in the management of its parastals in general. The specific case of the Nigerian Institute of International Affairs is a pointer. The Foreign Ministry completely bastardised the Institute in collaboration with the misinformation by General Ike Nwachukwu-led Governing Council, but joyfully acceded to without verification by the Foreign Ministry. Thus, the NiDCOM should be encouraged and empowered the more to do what it has been doing well in the advancement of the interest of the NIDOs and enhancing their contributions to the development of Nigeria.

Without scintilla of doubt, Honourable Dabiri-Erewa has been playing active parts in various Diaspora matters. She is not simply recognised as the Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of the NiDCOM, but more interestingly, as ‘Mama Diaspora’ in the mania of ‘Mama Bakassi’, Florence Ita Giwa. In Nigeria, whenever a public official publicly demonstrates special passion or commitment to a given national issue, it is the tradition of the people to always give such a person a nickname. It is within this context that the notion of ‘Mama Diaspora’ should be understood. The essence of the foregoing is to underscore the point that the NiDCOM is better placed to handle Diaspora matters than the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, especially in terms of commitment and seriousness of purpose.

Another important issue is the question of remittances without investments. As observed in the goodwill message by the Chairperson of the House Committee on Diaspora Matters, Honourable Tolulope Akande Sadipe, there were 1.24 million migrants from Nigeria in 2017 according to UN official records, while in 2019, the World Bank has it that formal remittances to Africa reached US $86bn. Of this amount, 70% was accounted for by Egypt, Nigeria, and Morocco.

However, as good as the remittances might have been, the issue is that ‘seven out of ten (70%) Nigerians send money to friends or family in Nigeria, rather than hold savings, deposits or any form of investment. Two in five (21%) Nigerians hold stocks and shares in Nigeria…’ (vide Commonwealth Diaspora Investor Survey Country Report 2018). More important, it is observed that a majority of Nigerians in Diaspora want to invest, but many problems militate against such intention. In the words of Honourable Sadipe, ‘despite a majority of respondents expressing an interest in investing in Nigeria, some still hold no form of saving or investment in the country. A range of issues presented as barriers have affected investment from Nigerians in the Diaspora, which must be addressed if this gap is to be closed.’ This observation raises the issue of the way forward and the challenge of structural re-alignment.

The Challenge of Structural Re-alignment
In her paper on ”Administrative Structure for Diaspora Engagement, Honourable Abike Dabiri-Erewa, traced the genesis of Diaspora contributions to national development to 1920 when Nigerians began to travel abroad for schooling. The contributions were noteworthy at the time of the struggle for independence and thereafter. She identified three main challenges to Diaspora engagement: lack of data with which to plan and strategise; lack of appropriate office accommodation for members of staff; and paucity of operational funds. In spite of this, as Mama Diaspora put it, ‘though these challenges are daunting, the Commission is forging ahead to ensure that its Mandate is fulfilled and implemented for the Nigerians in the Diaspora to be a catalyst for the accelerated development of our dear country, Nigeria.’

From the foregoing, there is no disputing the fact that Nigerians in Diaspora are considered important and strategic instrument of national development in a contemporary world of globalisation. However, their good use for national growth and development is still challenged by many factors. For instance, Dr. Bashir Obasekola, in his paper entitled, ‘The Role of Diaspora Organisations in Promoting Diaspora Engagement,’ adopted a two-pronged interrogative framework to explicate some of the challenges: how to strengthen partnership and coordinating capacity of Diaspora organisations, on the one hand, and how to strengthen and stimulate the role that the Diaspora organisations are already playing in promoting development in Nigeria.
In responding to these tasks, Dr. Obasekola identified several areas of existing and possible engagements: investment and entrepreneurship; rural and community development programme with emphasis on education and training; medical programmes and health services; lobbying for Nigeria and image promotion, advocacy for good governance and building strategic partnerships among Diaspora organisations.

And perhaps more importantly, he posited that collaborative approaches between countries of residence and origin and the inclusion of Diaspora members should be strengthened; land allocation for medical infrastructure, sabbatical for qualified professionals, promotion of High School interchange programs. Thus, the identified roles and need for collaborative approaches are challenges that require meticulous attention for the purposes of structural alignment.

From the perspective of Prince Ade Omole, Chairman of the Nigeria Diaspora Voting Council, who spoke on ‘Enfranchising the Diaspora for Sustainable Development, ‘Nigeria accounts for over a third of migrant remittance flows to Sub-Saharan Africa. In 2017, remittances from the United States of America into Nigeria amounted to $6.19 billion. This represented 9% of the total remittance outflows from the country (US) during the same period. The United States accounts for 22.6% of total emigrants from Nigeria in the Diaspora.’
In spite of this, Prince Omole further notes, ‘Nigerians in other countries have never taken part in the democratic process…’ He argued in favour of the need to enfranchise Nigerians in the Diaspora because of its many advantages: sustainable development, poverty eradication, limitation of the costs of immigration, mitigation of brain drain, and enhancement of the Gross Domestic Product.

Professor Bola A. Akinterinwa had no qualms with the many advantages of enfranchising Nigerians in the Diaspora but observed that Nigeria’s domestic environment is not only inclement, but that the external environment, though good, is not good enough to serve the purpose of promoting national unity of purpose, which is required for an effective Diaspora engagement and nation-building. Interrogatively put, he asked why are Nigerians doing well always abroad but they are not able to do so at home?

In his eyes, there must be a structural re-alignment for actualising whatever Diaspora engagement we may want to contemplate upon. In other words, there is the need for a Nigerianocentric re-alignment and a quadrilateralised organogram or a four-layered vertical structure of authority in which the NiDCOM will be at the crescendo: NiDCOM, Federation of all NIDOs, Regional NIDOs and National NIDOs abroad. The Federation of NIDOs, when created, should be officially invited to submit their viewpoints on critical challenges, especially through video-conferencing.

The federation of NIDOs should be institutionalised and made to report to the Government of Nigeria through the NiDCOM and not the Ministry of Foreign Affairs because Diaspora matters fall under international life and not under international relations. And perhaps most importantly, the need to create a Nigerian Diaspora Town in the mania of the 1977 FESTAC Village is a desideratum to serve as a depository for and epicentre of scientific, doctoral dissertations, peer reviews and articulation of development strategies.