Opinion: Nigeria’s Diaspora Day Nonsense, By Sonala Olumhense

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In 2018, Nigeria’s diaspora remittances rose to U.S.$25 billion, up from $22 billion in 2017.

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These numbers are the highest in sub-Saharan Africa. As Andrew Nevin, the chief economist at PriceWaterCoopers (PwC) Nigeria, explained, this makes Nigerians abroad the country’s biggest export.

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Professor Nevin observed that the 2018 figure represented 6.1 per cent of Nigeria’s Gross Domestic Product and translated to 83 per cent of the federal budget. It is also seven times larger than the net Official Development Assistance received that year, at $3.359 billion.

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The meaning of this? “Nigeria’s biggest export is not oil; it is actually people, because of the remittances coming in,” he said.

The good professor is right. But even he did not recognise how understated he was: the contributions of Nigerians in the diaspora are probably twice or triple the numbers that diaspora remittances can reflect.

Those remittances, by their nature, measure only sums of cash dispatched to Nigeria through direct, traceable links. But by our nature as Africans, the electronic part of us is still in its infancy. We send, but not simply money. We send goods that are not captured under those calculations. We send medications, clothes, toys, food, etc.

And we send money to relatives and friends directly through other relatives and friends. We spend money on relatives and friends through accounts in Nigerian banks.

And we spend money and effort on our alma mater every month: primary, secondary and tertiary institutions. Individually, in groups and in organisations of former students, diaspora Nigerians send money, expertise, books, computers and other equipment throughout the year.

In the years in which I have lived in the United States, I have met professionals in several fields who tell stories of various pieces of equipment they sent to their former schools and even schools they are not affiliated with, as well as hospitals. In a country in which governments abdicate responsibility for education, some of these organisations even build entire school blocks.

I have also read of Nigerians who simply travel to Nigeria, and at their expense and for whatever reason, make equipment and expertise available to teach and treat and help.

And then they would arrange to do it again. And again. I know of a female doctor who sent two pieces of expensive diagnostic equipment to a university several years ago. They disappeared. I know of people who are helping farmers, ancient or modern.

But remember: some of these diaspora contributors who are upholding entire families — and therefore Nigeria — by buying books, paying school fees, rents, hospital bills and the like, are not always university professors or doctors or businessmen, but cleaners and sweepers…even sex workers. Some of them are in the bowels and fires of Libya and Italy and Brazil and India and Malaysia and South Africa. Some of them cannot even visit their parents or children because they lack official documentation where they are.

Of those who can visit Nigeria, most cannot reach their towns and villages because of the bad roads and insecurity. I know my relatives forbid any trip to my village because of the armed robbery and kidnapping, which is why I have not been to my village in nearly 20 years.

What this often means, for most Nigerians in the diaspora, is that they cannot bring — or send — their children on visits. Which also means they cannot encourage friends and associate who are looking for tourist opportunities in Africa to “go to Nigeria,” leading to extensive losses of tourist earnings which then go to such countries as Ghana, Rwanda and South Africa.

But I publish this because yesterday, July 25 was declared “Diaspora Day” in Nigeria. I heard that there were events held. Speeches in which the Nigerian diaspora was very likely praised and patronised by people who hate Nigerians in the diaspora.

Why is the diaspora hated? Because members of the diaspora often speak out against the menace of Nigerian politicians and governments. And politicians and governments hate having the international community hear those voices.

The truth is that Nigerian politicians and governments are often unpatriotic liars and crooks, and deserve to be denounced.

For instance, while they patronised the diaspora yesterday and encouraged members to continue to remit those billions of dollars to keep the nation afloat, none of them will criticise President Muhammadu Buhari for not including several diaspora experts in his cabinet. You do not become a “success” in Nigeria by advocating your country; you are a “success” by supporting the government, no matter how awful it is.

One final point. Despite annual contributions to the Nigerian economy that are far closer to $50 billion than $25 billion in remittances, no Nigerian abroad has a vote in the nation’s elections because politicians fear that voting bloc.

To be sure, every Nigerian leader since 1999 has promised to work to make sure Nigerians abroad can vote, but each has lied. Nobody wants a diaspora vote of no confidence; they simply want the diaspora dollars.

In May 2017, Abike Dabiri-Erewa, President Buhari’s special assistant on foreign affairs and the diaspora, announced that the government had begun a business development initiative targeted at attracting up to $35 billion in annual diaspora remittances.

She said the government would provide necessary information, technical assistance and capacity development to those interested in investing.

What Nigerians in the diaspora need is a level and secure playing field. If the government genuinely wants to encourage investment, it should work at establishing a favourable investment climate that will attract Nigerians home and abroad, as well as foreigners, beginning with security.

It was curious that she did not mention security, insurance or infrastructure, factors that are far more important in attracting investment anywhere than “necessary information, technical assistance and capacity development.”

In February 2019, just before the election, Dabiri-Erewa also announced that Nigerians in the United States were setting up a $3 billion “Diaspora Investment Fund” to support the agriculture, power, mining and transportation sectors.

“They’re planning a $3 billion investment in Nigeria,” she told Bloomberg News in Abuja. “The fund will be driven by Nigerians in America.”

If true, it is not a bad idea. But I had never heard of it, nor of it since then.

And this week, the government announced Diaspora Day, allegedly to recognise the contributions of Nigerians abroad to Nigeria’s development. To that end, a conference in Abuja yesterday discussed “The Power of the Nigerian Diaspora for National Development.”

I have no problem with the Diaspora Day idea. But presently it is patronising and presumptuous. It is contradictory to suggest that Nigerians abroad have some relevance, but refuse to allow them a place in national elections, nor remember any of their excellent members when government appointments are being made.

What Nigerians in the diaspora need is a level and secure playing field. If the government genuinely wants to encourage investment, it should work at establishing a favourable investment climate that will attract Nigerians home and abroad, as well as foreigners, beginning with security. What Nigerian governments have done, particularly since 1999, is to encourage pockets of diaspora support for their political agendas, while deploying lip service to the rest.

But to quote Mr. Nevin again, “Nigeria’s biggest export is not oil; it is actually people.”

Or as Bill Gates told the government in Abuja in March last year, the economic template of the Buhari government is incapable of moving Nigeria forward, and Nigeria can only make progress and achieve the ‘upper middle-income status’ of such countries as Brazil, China and Mexico if the government invests in human capital.

Not politics. Not rhetoric. Not games. Not lip service.

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