It’s fast becoming commonplace to say Africa is experiencing a renaissance. Many of its countries, once bywords for hopeless basket cases, have made a sharp turn away from skid row onto Prosperity Avenue, their booming economies, growing populations and returning diasporans celebrated. But should the last be a cause for celebration? For a long while, Africa’s diaspora have been a trump card afro-optimists have wielded against the pessimists despairing about the future of the continent. Rather than a symptom of a ‘brain drain’, they saw in this large pool of skilled professionals the brightest and best of Africa, who fled the detritus of the failed states of the 70s, 80s, and 90s, and became the vanguard that would transform said basket cases into shining examples of functioning market democracies. So it’s somewhat contrary popular perception to find that the current stability and prosperity in Africa’s nations has had little to with the diaspora. China’s rise as an alternative market for commodities (the bread and butter of most African economies), the exhaustion of warlords and liberation movements at the end of the cold war, and the telecommunications revolution that has broken the stranglehold of many rent extracting and corrupt elites – these are the more immediate causes of the transformation of Africa’s fortunes. So why the faith in a group of people who by and large fled the continent when it was most in need, and returned when it least needs them? Where exactly has the diaspora shown itself to be a glorious knight in shining armor? Are we investing a little too much in this myth about ourselves and too little in the future – most crucially, in the skills and capacity of Africans on the ground?
Recently there seems to be an exodus of Africans abroad ready to go home. Is this however a trend that we should be encouraging? Is the Diaspora really the continent’s saving grace, or is it actually the most fickle group of the African population, ready to move back when the going gets good and just as ready to leave when it gets tough again? Is there anything fundamentally different about Africa today that will make diasporans more committed to a continent and countries they voted with their feet to leave?
Of course, there are those who say that Africans who left in the 70s, 80s and 90s had no choice really – fleeing was the only way they could make use of their education, and crucially, it is their remittances that have supported numerous families and businesses while the state failed. In the case of Africa’s older diaspora – those captured or fleeing due to war and enslavement – the lack of choice in migration was literal.
Nevertheless, the trend towards increased prosperity and global re-engagement with the continent has made the Diaspora crucial to debates about its future. It is true that the remittances sent from various countries across the world continue to dwarf the aid contributions, and in some places, foreign direct investment to African countries. In Europe and the United States in particular, people of African descent are increasingly well-educated and highly qualified in a variety of skilled sectors. Yet is it really true that the Diaspora will provide that alternative base of skills that African companies and countries need?
A recent article about a Diasporan Nigerian minister in the Nigerian newspaper NEXT unleashed a spectacular attack on the former director of a multilateral institution, claiming she was a mediocrity in her former role and the status of being from the diaspora elevated her to a position she had not earned in the nation’s politics. The merits and demerits of the accusations aside, it’s a given that for many professionals of African descent, frustrated by the glass ceilings in the economies of the west, Africa offers a new table of opportunities. Is the Diaspora just a bunch of mediocre professionals being parachuted into roles they would not stand a chance of securing abroad? And is the common assumption that Diasporans are in some way more rule-bound, ordered or efficient really justified? Is the critical mass of diasporan Africans going ‘home’ to Africa going to be the thing that tips the scales towards making poorly run African states into modern powerhouses?
In recent years, a renewed confidence in African ideas and innovation has been felt in the world, this can be seen, for example, in the emergence of political institutions like The Elders, the pioneering use of mobile phone banking and the development of crowd sourcing technology. Increasingly, the Africans making their mark globally are those born and bred on the continent – Wangari Maathai, Ory Okolloh, Teju Cole, Chimamanda Adichie, Tidjane Thiam and Binyavanga Wainana, to name a few. If the most dynamic ideas and people are coming out of Africa, what really does Diaspora have to with it?
Dele Meiji Fatunla is the editor of Diaspora Debate.