Nigeria Diaspora Commission – The time is NOW!

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By: Titus Olowokere, Atlanta, GA

Titus Olowokere

“Hon. Abike Dabiri-Erewa, took up the challenge with a passion, blazing the trail of diaspora consciousness, creating astounding awareness on the seriousness and urgency of the interests and peculiarities of Nigerians in Diaspora. On several occasions, she has stressed the need for the Nigerian government to show more commitment to the welfare and management of its citizens in Diaspora. She has visited most places around the world where Nigerians in Diaspora live, held interactive sessions with them, understanding their behavioral characteristics, listening to their meditative declarations and amassing thoughts on how best to harness this vast human resource for the good of the country.”

Overview:

On the heels of the upcoming Nigeria Diaspora week in Abuja (July 22nd – 25th), it is imperative to pause and reflect on the dynamics of the Nigerians in Diaspora, where we are, how far we have come, meticulously extrapolate into the future and march resolutely on the path of the formulation of tangible policy for aggregation, engagement and utilization of this sector of our population.

The fact has reverberated around the world and has been emphatically reiterated in Nigeria, more unequivocally than ever, that Nigerians in the Diasporas, the “scattered seeds”, as it were, the sojourners, the “Nigerians abroad”, that most governments previously ignored and in some cases even denigrated — are increasingly seen as agents of national development. Without prejudice, Nigerians in Diaspora possess immense human, material, intellectual and professional resources. Several Nigerians in Diaspora are extremely skilled and have added immeasurable value to their countries of residence. Lack of a structured institutional framework ha

s inhibited the effective contribution of this important resource to nationaldevelopment. It is therefore necessary to re-visit the necessity for a policy that will mainstream the Nigerian Diaspora in the development agenda.

This article will expound on recognitions of Diaspora Contributions to World Development, review the journey so far with Diaspora mileage in Nigeria, discuss the governmental apparatus of managingDiaspora affairs in other countries, analyze obstacles to the creation of the Nigeria Diaspora Commission, examine what Nigerians in Diaspora really want in the Nigeria Diaspora Commission and conclude with an extrapolation of the tasks ahead and a concerted clarion call

Recognition of Diaspora Contributions to World Development

The contributions of the Diaspora community to global trade, extending the frontiers of technology innovation, anchoring major strides in Healthcare revolutions, as well as value added to good governance in their respective countries of residence, cannot be over-emphasized.

Look at the United States for instance; Nigerians in the Americas today are more than the population of many African countries. Earlier this year, the White House recognized 11 Diaspora inventors and entrepreneurs in US as “Immigrant Innovator Champions of Change”. “Immigrants have long made America more prosperous and innovative,” U.S. Chief Technology Officer Todd Park said in announcing the honors in May 29. “We are proud to recognize these leaders who work every day to grow our economy, advance science and technology, and support their home communities.” An official release by the White House asserted that, “more than 40 percent of the 500 biggest U.S. companies were founded by immigrants or children of immigrants. In 2011, immigrants started 28 percent of all new businesses in the United States, according to the White House”. Even though no Nigerian was named among these Immigrant innovators, severalNigerians are making waves, creating novel break-through and landmarks in leadership, entrepreneurship, public service, and in fact, in almost every sector of the American economy.

In Sept 2012, two US-based Nigerians employed by the American government were honored with presidential awards for outstanding performances. One was recognized with the US Presidential Volunteer Service Awards and Call to Service Award, while the other, a scientist at the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration, NASA, was applauded as one of the top US early scientist recognized by White House. This is the case in many other developed countries with high presence of Nigerians in Diaspora. The question then is ‘How is Nigeria tapping into this rich professional resource’?

A number of countries such as China, India, México and Israel have significantly benefited by capitalizing on their links with their Diaspora. Other countries have also initiated measures and designed policies and legislation to create an enabling environment for the Diaspora to participate fully and contribute to the development of these countries.

The journey so far with Diaspora recognition in Nigeria.

The Nigerian government has made some overtures toward the diaspora, but it has not developed a coherent position on such key questions as repatriation, engagement, retirement, and investment. Realizing this potential, the House of Representatives Committee on Diaspora, headed by Honourable Abike Dabiri-Erewa, was set up in 2009 under the then Speaker Dimeji Bankole in the 6th National Assembly. Among the terms of reference of the House Committee on Diaspora Affairs is to “To initiate policies needed to recognize and harness the potentials of Nigerians in Diaspora networks and organizations, assist in the realization of their agenda, and promote institutional changes to help public servants collaborate effectively with Diaspora representatives.”

Hon. Abike Dabiri-Erewa, took up the challenge with a passion, blazing the trail of diaspora consciousness, creating astounding awareness on the seriousness and urgency of the interests and peculiarities of Nigerians in Diaspora. On several occasions, she has stressed the need for the Nigerian government to show more commitment to the welfare and management of its citizens in Diaspora. She has visited most places around the world where Nigerians in Diaspora live, held interactive sessions with them, understanding their behavioral characteristics, listening to their meditative declarations and amassing thoughts on how best to harness this vast human resource for the good of the country. She has visited countries with similar perspectives to their Diaspora Citizens. Earlier this year, Hon. Abike Dabiri-Erewa led the Nigerian delegation to the 11th Pravasi Bharatiya Divas 2013 (India in the Diaspora Convention). The lawmaker, who was the first non-Indian invited todeliver a paper at the Convention, said the occasion was an eye-opener to Nigerians in the Diaspora.

In pursuit of her terms of reference, the House Committee on Diaspora affairs has proposed a Bill for an Act To establish the Nigeria Diaspora Commission, aka NIDCO. The Nigeria Diaspora Commission by design is meant to be a one-stop agency to handle Diaspora matters, which are now on the forefront of strategic national discussions. The Commission will be charged with the responsibility of “coordinating and organizing a system of collaborations of Nigerians in Diaspora for their contributions by identifying, preserving, and mobilizing the human/capital/material resources and expertise to the general development of Nigeria.”

Now, even though this is a laudable step for the House Committee on Diaspora Affairs, as novel and unprecedented as it is, the question remains, though, “Where are we with the Diaspora Commission establishment FOUR YEARS LATER?” My most recent recollection is that this Bill is has passed through all three readings at the House of Representatives level, and is currently waiting approval from the senate. This is the thrust of this article, that by the time this article is published or by the time the Nigeria Diaspora Week takes place in July, this Bill should have passed senate approval. Currently, the Nigerian National Volunteer Service (NNVS) is the main agency responsible for Diaspora Affairs in the office of the Secretary to the Government of the Federation (SFG). The Diaspora Commission, when established, will supposedly subsume the NNVS.

One welcome expectation of the Bill is the proposal to “Establish Diaspora offices of the Commission at various Nigerian Missions”. This is a sine qua non, as it will replace the need to have the superfluous and improvident “NIDO Desk” at the Nigerians Missions aboard. NIDO role is currently ambiguously defined under the present dispensation. This new “Diaspora Office” is more germane to the operations of the Foreign missions, and should compel NIDO to live up to its billing, to focus on reaching the professional grassroots, grow its membership like every other Nigerian organization and jettison this inglorious, often-abused accolade of “Government baby”, “Government Agent” or such perception of NIDO, that are counter-productive to healthy existence of Nigerian organizations in the Diaspora.

Diaspora commission in other countries

Creating a Diaspora Commission, an entity of management of nationals in the Diaspora, is not a Nigerian originality. Many other countries around the world have put structures in place to proactively and effectively harness their Diaspora resources. In fact Nigeria is a ‘late comer’ in this space. Some countries in Africa already have full Ministries of Diaspora. A number of countries have developed comprehensive policy packages. For instance:

–  Our neighboring country, the Republic of Benin developed a National Policy Plan for Beninese abroad, launched in 2001 and supported at the presidential level. It comprises a National Policy Declaration and establishes a new ministry in charge of relations with Beninese abroad.

–  In May of 2004, a cabinet-level department, the Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs (MOIA), was created with a mission to connect the Indian Diaspora community with its motherland by providing information, partnerships and facilitations for all matters related to Overseas Indians.

–  The Government of Grenada on 11th September 2009, same year the House Committee on Diaspora Affairs was created in Nigeria, launched a vibrant initiative to bring the development of a Permanent Grenadian Diaspora Agenda under one Desk, with the creation of the Office of Diaspora Affairs.

–  In the Philippines, government has recognized this potential as early as 30 years ago, creating the Commission on Filipinos Overseas, mandating it to provide services to overseas Filipinos.

–  Colombia launched a new program “ColombiaNos Une” monitored at presidential level and has achieved good results. Colombia also works with the countries that are host to Columbian Diasporas, especially with the United States. A pilot project for a “Consular Registry Card” is being implemented in Washington.

–  The Ethiopian government established the Ethiopian Expatriate Affairs and the Ethiopian Expatriate Support and Coordination Office as part of the country’s capacity-building efforts.

–  Ghana has the Ministry of Tourism and Diasporan Relations

–  Mali created the Ministry of Malians Abroad and African Integration

–  Senegal formed the Ministry for Senegalese Living Abroad

–  Tunisia instituted the Ministry of Social Affairs, Cooperation and Tunisians Abroad

–  Similar structures for guiding Government approach to Diaspora matters are in place in Jamaica, Haiti, Cuba, Sierra Leone, Armenia, Bangladesh, Benin, Dominica, Serbia, Somalia, Syria, Tunisia, Yemen, Chile, China, Mexico and several other countries.

The fact is that the world will not wait for Nigeria on the issue of Diaspora integration. We must step up and catch up with the world on all issues in an increasingly globalized economy. So, the question remains, “Where are we with the establishment of the Nigeria Diaspora Commission FOUR YEARS LATER?”

Obstacles to the creation of the Nigeria Diaspora Commission

In the light of the foregoing and considering the cost-benefits analysis, the institution of the Nigeria Diaspora Commission is a sine qua non for national development. So why has the Diaspora Commission, aka NIDCO, not yet been established? What’s in the way? The NIDCO Bill was almost killed last sometime last year, having been in the legislative mill for a couple of years. It isincomprehensible that some of our lawmakers opposed the Bill, arguing, though erroneously, that the bill should be discarded for “these people are not deserving of such a platform because they are doing more harm than good to the country.” Phew! Megida, Oga, Onyeshi, how far from the incontrovertible facts can that be! There have also been some aboriginal sentiments to keep the status quo, arguing that any changes would jeopardize regional interests and frustrate some political advantages conferred on certain sections of the country. But it turned out to be sheer sentiments and unfounded fears. The material obstacles are the lack of understanding of Diaspora matters, “playing politics”, and resistance from “home-bred” Nigerian professionals, submitting that they have stayed with the system and want to keep the “Nigerians Abroad” at arms length.

Throwing all such obstacles out the window, the unequivocal reality though is that the establishment of the Nigeria Diaspora Commission is a win-win situation for the Nigerians in Diaspora and Nigeria itself. NIDCO will be and should be commissioned to deal with Diaspora matters and harness our human resources that are outside the shores of our country. No one loses anything. It paves way for a lot of Nigerian professionals and business people abroad, who remit over $20 billion annually to Nigeria to contribute to their quota to the development of our country, give back to their roots, bring their expertise, knowledge and sometimes equipment, and have a structured platform to connect with the system. Can it be any better than that? It reminds me of the saying that what we are seeking in “Sokoto” is in fact in the pocket of your “Sokoto”!

What Nigerians in Diaspora really want in the Nigeria Diaspora Commission

No doubt the Commission will live up to its billing to assist in the participation of Diaspora Nigerian professionals and entrepreneurs in economic projects in Nigeria, creating conducive political, economic, cultural, legal and spiritual environment. However, this is not about semantics. This is the time to put grandiloquence aside, keep political sentiments in the cooler, elevate national interest above self, analyze the realities, the challenges of living in the Diaspora and examine specific ways the establishment of the Nigeria Diaspora Commission can be mutually beneficial. So, the question is ‘What do Nigerians in Diaspora really want to see in the Diaspora Commission’?

1. The Diaspora Commission should implement skills transfer schemes and programs directed at professionals such as doctors, engineers, professors and information technology experts. For the educational system, this can be achieved in practical terms, through mandating each of the Nigerian Universities, private or public, to reserve at least two faculty positions for Diaspora Nigerian professors who desire to do their sabbatical in Nigeria thus facilitating interchange of knowledge and sharing of ‘lessons learned’. For the non-academic professions, a competitive working environment should be put in place to attract Nigerian working abroad to fill human resource gaps in the country, including through recruitment services that facilitate and coordinate the recruitment of foreign-based Nigerians.

2. Welfare of Nigerians abroad is a fundamental objective of the Diaspora Commission and should go beyond rethoric. NIDCO should establish a Nigerian Diaspora Emergency Assistance Fund (NIDEAF), managed by the Diaspora Offices in countries that have a significant overseas Nigerianpopulation. This is NOT a Welfare system, but an emergency intervention program to help in providing exigent assistance to distraught, displaced or distressed Nigerians in settings where currently Nigerian Embassies and High Commissions abroad often turn their back. While I was serving as the President of the Nigerian community in the State of Georgia,USA, I have had to step in to rescue from the cold, fellow Nigerians who had became destitute, practically homeless, living on the streets, and helped to rehabilitate them and put them in homes/shelters. Quite a few Nigerians have become ‘socially challenged”, oftentimes due to not-at-fault extenuating circumstances. Such Emergency Assistance Fund will help the most deserving cases including:

a. Boarding and lodging for distressed Nigeriansabroad

b. Provision of emergency medical care to the overseas Nigerians in need

c. Facilitating return air passage to those who are stranded overseas

d. Assisting with expenditure on incidentals andfor airlifting the mortal remains back home where a sponsor is unable or unwilling to do so or the family is unable to meet the cost.

3. Healthcare system in Nigeria is in dire straits, to say the least. The Diaspora Commission should establish collaborative relationship with medical institutions and even medical facilities abroad. Many of them are open to exchange programs and surplus equipment donation. NIDCO should solicit more inbound “HealthMissions”, and work closely with ANPA, the Association of Nigerian Physicians in the Americas representing the professional, political and social interests of the 4000 plus physicians, dentists and allied professionals in the Americas.

4. There is no doubt that the financial capacity of majority of Nigerians in Diaspora to make significant investment is several limited, thanks to family members and ‘friends’ who constantly hound, harass and pester you, for money, even though they live well in Nigeria! In other to facilitate effective diaspora engagement, NIDCO should work with financial institutions and responsible government agencies in identifying specially packaged loans or other low-cost financing options for the eligible proposed diaspora’s projects to come to fruition. In other words, NIDCO should attract small and medium diaspora businesses through loans, credits, and matching funds arrangements.

5. Incentives such as diaspora-friendly tax regimes for the import of personal belongings and capital goods, as well as tax holidays during the initial period of investment are needed.

6. For Nigerians in Diaspora to be fully engaged in the political growth of the country, NIDCO should expedite the legislative representation of Nigerians in Diaspora in the National Assembly in tow with the passing of the Diaspora Voting rights. This is not far-fetched. Abuja is not a State in Nigeria, but has legislative presence in the House as Federal Capital Territory. We should have “Diaspora Territory” as a defined constituency to enable Nigerians in Diaspora to participate in the formulation of laws and constitutional direction of Nigeria. Such elected Representatives from Nigerians in the Diaspora will have the similar geographical spread and numbers as in the Diaspora Commission

a. North America-3

b. Europe-2

c. Canada-1

d. Asia/Australia 2;

e. China-1

f. Africa-1

g. South America 1

7. Exemption of customs duty on all donated materials, especially for national emergencies, should be effected. The absence of this has made it difficult to negotiate donation of medical, science and engineering materials to Nigerian beneficiary entities. There have been cases where such goods have been at the port for months, sometimes abandoned or ‘confiscated’ by ‘unknown authority’.

8. To ensure a balance in the management of the affairs of Nigerians in Diaspora,NIDCO should encourage state governments to have Directorates of Diaspora with emphasis on engaging the Nigerians inDiaspora from their own States, the same way that Nigerian Missions abroad would have a ‘Diaspora Office.

9. That Nigerians in Diaspora remit about $20 billion annually is no longer news. Channeling remittances into productive investments is the challenge. Certain measures can be considered to this end. One such way is to generate development opportunities: NIDCO should encourage banks and other financial institutions to provide remittance investment and housing opportunities. Disseminating information to the diaspora on savings and investment options for remittances. Too many times, “dependable” family members and friends, under unstructured arrangements have been sad experiences

10. A Diaspora Housing scheme should be pursued by NIDCO

NB: In the same breathe, the Nigeria Diaspora commission should interact on level ground with all organized Nigerian communities in Diaspora, have egalitarian relationship with all registered organizations of Nigerians in Diaspora on the equitableplatform, with the same recognition and support, and NOT give any preferential treatment or ‘godfatherism” to NIDO. Several other Nigerian Organizations in Diaspora have more effectively served the interests of Nigeria Diaspora, promoted sense of belonging, practiced the ideals of ‘Nigerianism’, put service above self and not allow themselves to be motivated by prospects of contracts, political jostling or promises of land allocations in Abuja. “NIDO Desk” scrapped, and need to be replaced with the “Diaspora Office” in all Nigerian Missions abroad to adequately reflect the spread, genuineness and diverse coverage of the activities of the Nigeria Diaspora Commission

Conclusion

There is no question that both Nigeria and its diaspora will endure into future generations. NOW is the time for the passage of the Diaspora Commission Bill. Now is the time for Nigeria to create programs that reach out to our nationals living abroad, and harness their potentials for the benefit of the Nigerian economy. It is time to focus on developing stronger economic links with the Diaspora population, and encourage the return of young experts and the amelioration of further brain drain.

The choice before the Nigerian parliament is either to keep the country perpetually in the club of the underdeveloped world or tapinto the overflowing potentials of Nigerians living abroad and make the country a major player in global affairs. The first step in this direction is passing the Nigeria Diaspora Commission Bill to provide the platform for harnessingthis great human capital in foreign lands. Yes, we can. There is no other choice. If our elected officers in the National Assembly truly have the interest of Nigerians at heart, if the Honorable members of the House will honor their commission, then it is the path of honor, for our respected lawmakers to pass the Diaspora Commission Bill…..Now!

As National Assembly pushes ahead on the bill for the establishment of a Diaspora Commission, Nigerians living abroad must get involved in the passage of the bill. One of the ways to make a difference is to speak to

members of the national assembly who are representing their constituencies in Nigeria. No we cannot give up on the National Assembly. Let us recall the words of one of our elder statesmen to “see hope in the great potentials that Nigerians have, when they are empowered, motivated and well led.” Let us “ see hope in the blending of the experience of the old with the energy and dynamism of the young…. We must therefore keep hope alive, and continue to bear with one another, as we move, all of us, to the great future that beckons us. There lies our hope for Nigeria. We are at the beginning of a new morning for our nation. The future looks very bright indeed. Clearly I see hope” in the passing of the Nigerians in Diaspora Bill. Now is the time!

 

About the Author

— Titus Olowokere is the Executive Vice President / CEO of the US-Nigeria Trade Council, President Emeritus of the Alliance of Nigerian Organizations in Georgia (ANOG) and Director of Administration of NICORE, an organization that facilitates the economic development of Nigerians and their communities in the United States of America. He writes from Atlanta, Georgia, United States of America. He can be reached at tolowok@usnigeria.org

1 COMMENT

  1. I personally see this as a very good news!
    It is no secrete that Nigerian professionals in spite of all the assumed comfort and freedom enjoyed abroad sincerely miss not being home to build up and develop our home land Nigeria!

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