The Diaspora is pivotal to the sustainability of the ongoing renaissance of Africa. Topics relating to the Diaspora are dear to us, for the African Diaspora was very integral to the emergence of my country Sierra Leone, and our neighbour Liberia.
Sierra Leone was for centuries known as the Rice Coast, and Bunce Island in my country was for decades a major fort and port for slavers who forcibly took hundreds of thousands of our people to the rice growing areas of Georgia and other states in the South of the United States. John Newton, the slaver-turned-evangelist had his inspiration for composing Christendom's most famous hymn, “Amazing Grace”, on the shores of our land.
It was indeed amazing that the dream of the return of the African Diaspora to the African homeland got to be actualised with grace when neighbouring Liberia, and my own country Sierra Leone, where so many thousands were shipped out to the United States, were to play historic roles in this display of the resilience of humanity.
But it was not only a question of return, it was also about the forging of links between this Diaspora and those within the continent in ways that would enhance free enterprise, trade, education and divine values.
These were the ideas that led to the founding of our capital city Freetown in 1789. Our city grew; the idea thrived for a while, and our brothers and sisters from the Diaspora and their descendants were at the center of growth, education, and innovations throughout the West African Coast.
The Diaspora returnees to the continent and their descendants were pivotal in the founding of Fourah Bay College in Freetown, the oldest western style university in sub Saharan Africa, the establishment of the continent's first secondary schools, and for building a community renowned for its advocacy for equality, justice, political and civil rights.
The Scramble for Africa in the 1880s put enormous strains on the idea and actualisation of return of people of African descent to the continent. That scramble was an inglorious race amongst non-Africans for the resources of Africa. The continent was carved up amongst European powers; political and economic marginalisation, and a divide and rule policy by the colonialists prevented the optimisations of synergies between the Diaspora returnees to Sierra Leone and their compatriots.
But the resilience of the Diaspora returnees hardly waned. They moved all over West Africa, spreading knowledge, establishing centers of worship, founding newspapers, starting thriving businesses and forming alliances all over territories in the Gulf of Guinea to end colonial rule. Too many events have been played out since that time. Africa regained its independence; but our economies stagnated.
Economic exploitation of the continent, mainly by non-Africans, and political repression of the people, mainly by their own very leaders created too many realms of deprivation in the continent. The 21st Century has brought in its wake a new beginning for the cradle of mankind. Within 10-20 years, Africa's annual production value will be between US$1.5 trillion and US$2 trillion.
The region has 80-90 percent of the world's chromium and platinum group metals, 10 percent of its oil reserves of oil and 40 percent of its gold. Our continent also has some of Earth's largest deposits of iron ore, uranium and copper.
Our common fatherland has approximately 600 million hectares of arable land suitable for cultivation, of which 15 percent of this land is developed.
Per capita water resource is 4 600 square meters, and this is more than that in Asia. The African story however, is not only about natural resources. A great revival is taking place in our telecommunications, retail, finance and other sectors.
More Africans are having more disposable incomes, the middle class is expanding, more than 60 million Africans have an income of US$3 000 a year and this is increasing to more than 100 million Africans in a couple of years.
The Africa Development Bank now reports that over 350 million Africans, a third of the continent's population, are in the middle class. There are still many challenges in the continent. We are faced with huge infrastructure deficits and an image in the media, particularly in the West that is fixated on depicting Africa as a continent of conflicts and natural disasters.
This image is definitely not the narrative of Africa today. More than 90 percent of countries in Africa have stable democratic regimes at peace with themselves and their neighbors. There are fewer armed conflicts now in Africa than ever before, and we are taking the lead in ensuring quicker return to stability in countries affected by armed conflict through more robust frameworks designed and implemented by the African Union, ECOWAS, and other regional organisations in the continent.
Democracy, political and economic stability are taking roots in the continent. Our economies are becoming more open, our societies more tolerant, and our budgets more balanced. Our debt burdens have declined and we are reducing rates of inflation all over the continent.
The results are greater growth rates than ever before. Six of the world's ten fastest growing economies are in Africa, one of which is my country Sierra Leone. FDI in the continent have increased more than six-fold since 2007; and more than in almost all other regions of the world, we have better rates of return for enterprises that are establishing new marketing networks, new brands and innovative products.
Africa's doing business rankings, transparency indicators and the number of companies in the race to invest in the continent are increasing.
All over the continent it is becoming easier to register businesses; tax systems are becoming clearer, investment protection laws stronger, and fiscal management more prudent. Whilst there are some remaining challenges, we are, in Sierra Leone, as in many other countries in the continent, moving on to ensuring international best practices in our mineral acts and providing fiscal incentives for enterprises in mining, infrastructure, agribusiness, tourism, value addition and renewable energy.
No More Scrambles
Africa is the new frontier for economic growth and investment. The return of the Diaspora is once again taking root, and a new race for Africa is on again. It is a race for land, a race for petroleum resources, a race for iron ore, uranium, and for the consumer markets of the continent.
But this time around we should not allow the race to degenerate into a scramble, we should not allow this race to lead to despoliation, authoritarianism and new forms of enslavement. More importantly, we should not allow this race to kill the noble idea of the return of the African Diaspora.
We have two distinct groups of Africans in the African Diaspora outside the continent. There are our people involuntarily moved out of the continent starting 400 to 500 years ago and ending only about 100-plus years ago. A consciousness of return has always been strong amongst this group. It was a consciousness of a return to the state of liberty, a return to the assertion of economic, political and cultural freedom.
This consciousness of return led to the founding of my capital Freetown by freed slaves in 1789; it was this consciousness of return that led to the revolt of my countrymen under the leadership of Sengbeh Pieh, known here as Joseph Cinque during the Amistad affair; it was this consciousness of return and assertion of cultural identity that sustained the Gullah Community here in America, a community with ancestral roots in the rice growing regions of my country; it was this consciousness of a return to freedom, enterprise, and eternal values that sustained the civil rights movement here in America.
It was this consciousness of belonging and associated identity, this memory of a common ancestry, this enduring aspiration for a better destiny, a finer deal and a more perfect engagement with Africa and people of African descent that severally or individually inspired the formation of the African-American Civil Rights Movement of Martin Luther King (Jr) and Rosa Parks, the Congressional Black Caucus, the Constituency for Africa and many of the organisations dedicated to making a better world by making a better Africa.
The other group of Africans in the Diaspora are more recent migrants to Europe, the Americas and in the last few decades to Australia and East Asia, particularly China. Many of these migrants are amongst the most skilled and energetic of our people, and their emigration brought about enormous brain loss and skills gaps in many critical areas of our societies.
They often moved out to seek better opportunities, but most of them have often thought of their emigration as temporary, and that they would one day return to the continent with better skills and greater resources to uplift their families, communities and nations. In essence, we may have, on balance, brain gain, more skills and resources for the African Community.
But for this overall brain gain to register in the lives of the people of our continent, the idea and actualisation of return must be kept alive, must be sustained and must be synergised. We must also note that this consciousness or commitment to return amongst both the voluntary and involuntary Diaspora had always faced enormous challenges.
The physical destination of the return, our continent, has for long been pilloried as a place unworthy; and freedom for our people, whether in Africa or here in America has a long history of being lambasted as an unworthy state for us.
And we have often had to face criticism about the poor state of our economic enterprise and poorer state of our consumer markets. We have remained unbowed; and today an African renaissance is underway.
We are the worthiest place for investment in the world; our consumer markets are growing; and the consciousness of return and the synergies for growth, dignity and freedom that this return could bring about are more robust.
Engaging the Diaspora
Our premier continental organisation, the African Union has established a framework for engagement with the Diaspora.
It has declared the African Diaspora as the “Sixth Region” of Africa, and Article 3(q) of the Protocol on the Amendment to the Constitutive Act “invites and encourages the full participation of the African Diaspora as an important part of our Continent, in the building of the African Union”. The New Partnership for Africa's Development (NEPAD) calls for establishment of a reliable continental database to determine the magnitude of the problem of brain drain and promote co-operation between Africans abroad and those at home.
African governments are fashioning policies for engaging and mobilising both the voluntary and involuntary Diaspora and Sierra Leone, Ghana and Kenya have established units within their respective governments to oversee Diaspora affairs.
Remittances by Africans abroad are second only to foreign direct investment in terms of value of financial transfers and investments in the continent. In 2010, remittances from Sub-Saharan Africa were US$29 billion and the 2011 estimate was US$31b. The 2012 remittances forecast was US$31b and are predicted to increase to US$33b in 2013 while the forecast for 2014 is US$36b.
These remittances provide the much-needed finances for ensuring household security and alleviating poverty, improve access to formal financial sector services, and provide opportunity for family members to embark on self-financed projects and investments.
The African Diaspora, from Ghanaian doctors and nurses in Britain to Ethiopian medics and Sierra Leonean teachers here in the United States, is organising pools of skilled personnel for interventions in the health and education sectors. The African Diaspora has been pivotal in advocating for policies and actions beneficial to African peoples.
During the armed conflict in Sierra Leone in the 1990s, the Diaspora was key in mobilising support for peace and justice in our country.
The African-American community in the United States – through the Congressional Black Caucus, the Constituency for Africa, Trans-Africa and the Diaspora African Women's Network – has been instrumental in lobbying for American legislation that benefits African countries.
But these remittances and investments, these transfers of skills, the advocacy for the continent need to be greatly structured and deepened to ensure optimal relevance to the social, political and economic renaissance of Africa and the African Diaspora. We may need to map out the African Diaspora and create databases that capture the varying demographics, skills and other relevant statistics for effective designing and implementation of policies relating to the African Diaspora.
We may also want to look into the creation of a Pan-African Diaspora Commission charged with the responsibility of designing continent and Diaspora wide frameworks, engagement policies, programs and projects. The AU has commenced the process; we may therefore need to further engage the Union with a view to publicising and mobilising the necessary financial, human and logistical resources to ensure success.
We may, in view of this, want to create a Volunteer Diaspora Corps, similar to what we have in the Peace Corps, to design organize and implement schemes for Diaspora volunteering, transfer of skills, and experience sharing.
We may also need to revisit our citizenship and residency laws in ways that would optimise Diaspora participation in the political, social and economic revival of the continent. In Sierra Leone for example we have enacted a Dual Citizenship Act that confers citizenship on Sierra Leoneans who may be citizens of another country.
We have conferred citizenship on an African-American, Isaiah Washington, whose DNA showed that his forbearers were from Sierra Leone. We are working on ensuring faster pathways to citizenship for the many hundreds of thousands of DNA Sierra Leoneans whose ancestors were forcibly removed from rice fields of Sierra Leone to the coasts of Georgia and other regions in the United States.
We also need to extend citizenship to Africans in the Diaspora who, as the AU states are “willing to contribute to the development of the continent and the building of the African Union”. We may also need to institute combinations of initiatives that amongst others, lower the costs of transactions between Africa and its Diaspora, and aggregate Diaspora remittances and investments for optimal impact.
This could be done, for example through preferential duty waivers and other concessions for Diaspora businesses; extension of formal banking opportunities and cheaper costs for financial transfers of members of the Diaspora, and the issuance of Diaspora bonds by African Governments.
It is estimated that African Governments could raise billions of dollars annually through Diaspora bonds for development programmes in the continent.
Kenya and Ethiopia have already commenced the issuance of Diaspora bonds.
With growing competition in the African banking sector, we may also want to design policies that encourage commercial banks to expand their business to the Diaspora population by sourcing deposits from them and offering them mortgages and other services.
A few banks have started the process. Expanding and strengthening these initiatives may allow the Diaspora to hold money in local African banks, which gives the banks the ability to mobilise deposits for loans to the private sector for development.
We may also need to encourage the growth of private sector networks as effective means of establishing links to the Diaspora.
These may include investments in capital markets and modern communications technology, the establishment of investment funds, the creation of social media, and generation of literature, games and other cultural products that are informed by the memories and aspirations of our people.
We may need to strengthen cultural and intellectual exchanges between Africa and the Diaspora.
This may include exchange programmes between universities in Africa and historic African-American institutions and the development of distance learning modules; organisation of annual festivals involving the African Diaspora in the continent and the promotion of heritage tourism.
Heritage tourism will be a particularly educative and inspirational experience for people of African descent and all those committed to saying never again the horrors of slavery, convict lease, share-cropping or bonded labor; heritage tourism will spread the word about the resilience of people of African descent, the assertions of our humanity and will to happiness, the magnificence of our creations and the nobility of our collective aspirations.
Heritage tourism is about visits and experiencing of sites in Africa and here in the Americas that are an integral part of the collective African heritage.
The sites may include Gullah creations in Georgia, sacred sites of Africans in Brazil, the Caribbean and here in the United States; they include the chain of forts along West Africa, from Goree Island in Senegal to Bunce Island in Sierra Leone, Elmina Castle in Ghana and similar historic sites in Nigeria.
They include sites of resistance in Southern Africa, the Great Walls of Zimbabwe, the historic buildings of Zanzibar, the game reserves of East Africa, the Churches of Ethiopia, the Mosques of Timbuktu, and more recent creations by people of African descent.
We may need to create tourism companies dedicated to enhancing Pan-African memories and experiences, and to teaching the world about the trials, the resilience and achievements of our people.
Africa is on the move, and people of African descent, wherever they are, must be part of this revival.
Harnessing the African Diaspora in building capacity in Africa is the only way we can sustain our revival. Harnessing the African Diaspora in building capacity in Africa is the only way we can give practical relevance to the narrative of our common ancestry, our historic resilience, and our aspirations for a better world through a better Africa, an Africa that is strong, democratic, prosperous and a greater light on the peoples of the world.