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Why The AU Is Courting The Diaspora

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Why The AU Is Courting The Diaspora

Africa Freedom Day, which falls on 25 May every year, is always an important date on the continent’s post-independence calendar as it commemorates the founding of the OAU. This year, the day was even more poignant when the AU, the South African government, and the Pan-African Parliament jointly hosted the first ever Global African Diaspora Summit. Belinda Otas attended the event.

THE SENSE OF BELONGING AND PRIDE WAS CLEAR AMONG the over 200 Diasporans invited to South Africa to participate in the inaugural Global African Diaspora Summit. The popular saying “you are not African because you are born in Africa but because Africa is born in you,” aptly summed up the atmosphere of togetherness at the Sandton Convention Centre in Johannesburg.

From the four corners of the world (in over 50 countries, including Jamaica, Guyana, Cuba, and the USA), came the sons and daughters of Africa’s Diaspora who basked in the glory accorded the Sixth Region of the African Union. It was a historic occasion as the recognition of the Diaspora as the Sixth Region did not come without a fight. In fact, at the launch of the AU on 9 July 2002, no such plan was on the cards.

Indeed, when the AU chairperson at the time, President Thabo Mbeki of South Africa, was asked where the Diaspora fit in, he first laughed, then became pensive, and finally dismissed the question by saying the AU’s inaugural summit in Durban was reserved for “heads of state”. He then suggested that those Disaporan Africans wishing to participate in the Union should contact “our ambassadors in Washington DC”; and even easier the black media in the USA should “look it up on the Internet”.

It was quite shocking to see a Pan-Africanist like Thabo Mbeki of all presidents put up such a performance in front of the world media. But, fortunately, amends were made by the Union, and the Diaspora was recognised as the Sixth Region and made an integral part of the Union.

Today the AU defines the Diaspora as “consisting of peoples of African origin living outside the continent, irrespective of their citizenship and nationality and who are willing to contribute to the development of the continent and the building of the African Union.”

This definition takes in all the descendants of people of African origin who left the continent either out of their own volition or as enforced slaves (during both the Arab and transatlantic slavery) now living across the world.

As one participant, Dr Erieka Bennett, originally an African-American and now founder and head of the Ghana-based Diaspora African Forum Mission, explained: “There are two types of Diasporans – those of us taken during slavery and those who leave Africa to work in greener pastures. This is the type of African Diasporans the AU is dealing with at this time.”

So, as many participants asked, if the Sixth Region of the AU is so important to the Union, why has it taken 10 years to hold the first Global African Diaspora Summit? Even more so, when the contribution to Africa by only the “second type” of Diasporan – “those who leave Africa to work in greener pastures” – is counted in billions of dollars a year! That is a lot of money, which if properly channelled into the right sectors, can bring immense benefit to Africa. That is not counting the contribution that the first type of disporan – the descendants of the Africans forcibly taken away during the slavery eras (over 40 million of whom live in the USA alone) – could bring to the table. Countries, such as Israel, have become economic and political successes partly because of the active roles and contributions made by their diasporas. Africa cannot be an exception if its diaspora’s role is properly harnessed.

It is a point acknowledged by Maite Nkoana-Mashabane, South Africa’s foreign minister: “The Summit will help create sustainable partnerships between the African Diaspora and the continent through a realisable ‘programme-of-action’,” she said. “We hope to create sustainable dialogue and partnerships, and strengthen Pan-African solidarity for a better Africa and its Diaspora.” Dr Erieka Bennett believes that more could be done: “I’m very encouraged but the work has just begun. The bottom-line is implementation [of the summit’s outcome], and that’s what we are excited about, “ she said, adding: “We know the problems in Africa. We have done enough studies and research. Our main challenge is implementation. We want to encourage people to go back to their various communities and do what they can to implement the things we have decreed.”

Dr Marcia Stewart, originally from Jamaica but who spends time in South Africa, USA and Ethiopia, said: “It’s very important for us as Africans born outside the continent to be part of the first Global African Diaspora Summit. We have been instrumental in this process that has led the African Union to acknowledge Africans born outside the continent who want to come home and be integrated into the continent, as part of repairing the damage done by the transatlantic slave trade and apartheid.”

The fear of non-implementation of the Summit’s outcome bothered many participants. As Abike Dabiri, chairperson of Nigeria’s Diaspora Committee, put it: “It has been a historic and very fulfilling day, but the most important thing is: what happens after the summit? We must continue to engage economically and politically and there must be unity of purpose. This cannot be another talk shop.”

Like many Africans both at home and abroad, Dabiri believes that the current global economic environment has provided an opportune time for African leaders to attract diasporans to come back home and invest. It is a view shared by Dr Bennett: “The kind of returns you can make on investments in Africa, you cannot make it anywhere else in the world. Everybody is here in Africa investing except us, the Diaspora, and that’s one of the things I’m really working on, championing, and helping our Diaspora to see the potentials in Africa. There are vast opportunities here. The Chinese, Lebanese and Indians are all here doing business in Africa – everyone but us; and that is one thing I think we need to wake up to.”

Going forward, Dr Bennett hoped that the Summit would lead to a sustained building of bridges between Africa and the Diaspora, and that it would not just be a nine-day wonder.

As if to grant her wishes, the Summit resolved to commit Africa and the Diaspora to cooperate in the political, economic, and social areas as contained in an elaborate “programme of action” adopted at the end of the Summit.

The “programme of action” included: (1) the AU establishing more formal relations with the Caribbean and Latin American nations; (2) Using financial instruments to facilitate the mobilisation of capital that would strengthen links between Africa and the Diaspora; (3) Exploring the possibility of creating a Developing Fund and/or African Diaspora Investment Fund to address development challenges confronting Africans on the continent and those in the Diaspora. It is an impressive “programme of action”, and would be even more remarkable if it were actually implemented as promised at the summit.

Pan-African Parliament

Around the same time as the Global Diaspora Summit, the Pan-African Parliament (PAP) held its annual meeting (the 7th Ordinary Session of the Second Parliament), which was planned to coincide with the Global Diaspora Summit. In fact, the PAP held its own summit-within-a-summit, in the form of an African Diaspora Parliamentarians Summit a day before the Global Diaspora Summit opened.

As Zwelethu Madasa, the clerk of the PAP, explained: “We felt it was important to involve the global parliamentarians who are the representatives of the people at home and in the Diaspora, to make sure that we begin to stress the parliamentary dimension of African Union matters. In this process, the integration is people-centred.”

The PAP’s Diaspora Summit issued a statement welcoming the AU’s decision to “reach out to all the children in the Diaspora … and agree that it is the mandate of our governments to make the necessary policies to ensure that all peoples of African descent participate in the development processes of the continent.”

The statement promised that “the PAP and the African Parliamentarians in the Diaspora are determined to closely monitor the implementation of the policies pertaining to the Diaspora.” To do so, they decided to “establish an annual parliamentary meeting for PAP MPs and African MPs in the Diaspora as a forum to debate in a democratic way, the issues affecting the relations between our peoples.”

The parliamentarians’ meeting also issued a 20-point recommendation, for the AU to act on, including asking for “DNA testing [to be] undertaken to establish the origins of Africans in the Diaspora”. They also wanted the AU to  “document the African Diaspora experience and its impact on African development initiatives”.

At the end of the 7th Ordinary Session, the PAP elected the Nigerian MP, Bethel N. Amadi, as the new president of the PAP. He succeeded Idriss Ndele Moussa whose term ended in May.

Closing the Session, Amadi applauded the outgoing president and the Bureau of the PAP for their work in the amendment of the PAP Protocol. He assured the House that the new Bureau would work hard to see the transformation of PAP into a legislative body. “There is no honeymoon for the Bureau, our work starts now,” Amadi said, promising that the “PAP will be a strong pillar of support to the national and regional parliaments in Africa.”

The PAP was set up in 2004 and charged with implementing the decisions of the AU, promote democracy and good governance, and bring to the fore issues that affect Africa. It has 10 permanent committees, five regional caucuses, a women’s caucus, and one ad hoc committee.

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