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The first Global African Diaspora summit, held in Sandton on Friday, had a strangely distracted air about it. That was probably because the preoccupation of the host government, at this AU event, was not with the diaspora, but with its campaign to get Home Affairs Minister Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma elected as chairperson of the AU Commission at the next AU summit in Lilongwe, Malawi in July.
Which is a much easier concept to grasp than that of the rather nebulous diaspora.
What is this African diaspora? In the dictionary definition, it comprises those many millions of people living outside the continent who descend from Africans dispersed abroad over the past few centuries.
Most were transported forcibly by slavery but many others were or remain voluntary refugees from political persecution or gross economic mismanagement. They must number tens of millions, mostly in the Caribbean and the Americas.
As a random example, some 14 million of Colombia’s 46 million people claim some African descent, it emerged at the summit, and this is by no means one of the main diaspora concentrations.
The AU, however, has defined the diaspora as: “People of African origin living outside the continent… who are willing to contribute to the development of the continent and the building of the AU.”
That conveniently begs the question of what the diaspora gets out of this building of more formal and concrete bridges between them and the continent, because it pre-defines the diaspora as those already willing to contribute to Africa’s development.
Which would explain why the programme of action which the summit adopted comprises projects largely of benefit to continental Africans. They tap the diaspora’s skills, manpower, money and resources for Africa’s development.
How many people there are in the African diaspora, as defined by the AU, will presumably only emerge as these projects succeed or fail in attracting support.
Probably the most senior representative of the diaspora at the summit was Samuel Hinds, the Prime Minister of Guyana, who seemed quite content that the main benefit of the initiative for those like him would be the satisfaction of identifying with Africa and contributing to its development.
The epitome of an African “diasporan” then must surely be Dr Erieka Bennett, the founder and head of the AU Diaspora African Forum, an AU-authorised and Accra-based NGO that promotes the AU’s diaspora agenda. She is an African-American who returned to Africa and she believes: “You are not an African because you are born in Africa; you are an African when Africa is born in you.” That should be the diaspora motto.
Bennett is also Ghana’s official diaspora ambassador. The country which involuntarily provided so many of the diaspora is now leading the way in trying to lure them back. As Foreign Minister Muhammad Mumuni told the summit, his government had given a “right of abode” in Ghana to any person of African descent from the diaspora.
That includes the right to enter the country without a visa, to remain indefinitely and to work there without the usual work permit.
Mumuni urged other African governments to do the same. And so did Yemane Ghebremeke, the head of Eritrea’s delegation, who called for “robust collaborative efforts” by African governments to give professionals from the diaspora freedom of movement across the continent.
It surely makes sense for Africans from the diaspora to be made to feel at home, if you want them to return bearing skills, money and even a willingness to physically work on development projects such as Peace Corps-type volunteers.
But we shall see. African governments have proven remarkably stubborn in clinging to their visa requirements.
Still, this diaspora initiative is surely a good thing, both as an expression of a better Africa today and as a move towards a better one in the future. For, as President Jacob Zuma explained, the yearning for this initiative has been around for a while but circumstances on the continent were not conducive to it; even previous diaspora gatherings had to be held offshore. By this he seemed to imply that undemocratic governments of the past had discouraged members of their diasporas – probably largely political opponents – to return.
Now there is a much greater embrace of the diaspora, and more to return for. That should create a virtuous circle, increasingly benefiting both Africa and the diaspora.