About 30 million Africans have migrated out of the continent over the past three decades and have now found new homes in every nook and corner of the world, even as most of them still maintain economic and spiritual links to their homelands. This massive population movement is continuing, with the World Bank claiming that Africa loses at least 20,000 of its university graduates to developed countries every year; while 30,000 Africans with PhDs currently live outside the continent. There are more Ethiopian doctors in Washington, DC. area alone than all the doctors in the whole of Ethiopia; while some claim that there are over 12,000 Nigerian doctors in the USA alone. Today, the United States Bureau of Census claims that more Africans migrated to that country over the past three decades than throughout the four decades of the infamous trans-Atlantic slave trade!
This massive ‘brain drain’ is, however, counter-balanced by the economic development and financial contributions of African emigrants. The aggregate amount of annual inward flows of remittances from migrants ballooned from US$3.2 billion in 1995 to roughly $10.8 billion in 2007, totaling about $93 billion to Africa from 1995-2005, and second only to foreign direct investment as a source of external financing. According to the World Bank, in over nine years, $28 billion was sent through the Western Union to Nigeria alone, while the Bank of Ghana tracked $1.3 billion between 2002 and 2003. These amounts do not include undocumented funds brought in by returning emigrants who undertake a variety of social and economic development projects, albeit uncoordinated, and innumerable long-distance social welfare obligations across Africa.
The celebration of the African diaspora as Africa’s biggest ‘aid donor’ and the changing the debate from ‘brain drain’ to ‘brain circulation’ or ‘brain gain’ which celebrate the development potential of the African diaspora via their remittances to the homeland contrasts with the mooted responses to deafening demands by these migrants for voting rights in their homelands from their various locations. Why deny them voting rights while celebrating their economic development contributions and potential? Earlier this week, President Goodluck Jonathan told about 288 Nigerians in diaspora from about 20 countries who converged in Minna for the 4th National Diaspora Conference that Nigeria’s estimated 10 million diaspora will not be able to participate in the 2011 general election until a particular provision on general elections in the constitution is amended. The theme of the conference was ‘Nigeria at 50: the Role of the Diaspora in National Development.’ The president had similarly said the same thing last month in Toronto, but this time added that time is too short to include them in the voting exercise.
Most Francophone African countries permit some form of voting (‘in person’, ‘proxy’ or ‘mixed’, i.e., personal or proxy) by emigrants in either presidential and legislative/sub-national elections or both, as well as in referendums. All Lusophone countries (Angola, Cape Verde, Guinea-Bisau, and Mozambique) and Equatorial Guinea allow ‘personal’ voting for the diaspora in presidential elections (Cape Verde allows voting for both presidential and legislative elections). Of all former British colonies in Africa, only Botswana (presidential), Ghana (limited presidential and legislative; general voting approved in 2006 is yet to be implemented), Lesotho (legislative by post), Mauritius (legislative/sub-national by proxy), Namibia (presidential and legislative), and South Africa (limited presidential and legislative) allow any form of diaspora voting. Nigeria is one of the few remaining hold-outs.
Nigeria’s experience of diaspora mobilization for extra-territorial franchise reflects the limits, if not emptiness, of the identification of ‘migration’ or ‘diasporic civil society’ as a political force. The creation of state-sponsored ‘offshore’ diaspora organizations, such as the Nigerian Diaspora Organization (NIDO), and the capturing of several of other emigrant organizations by the Nigerian state and politicians have since undermined their credibility and ability to actualize this aspiration. A ‘Bill on Diaspora Voting Rights’ introduced in the National Assembly in 2005 was eventually killed in 2009. It allegedly contradicted sections of the 1999 constitution prohibiting such extra-territorial exercise of the franchise.
Yet, diaspora voting rights can be problematic. The widespread emigrant voting allowed by Francophone countries (most of which cannot boast credible elections in the homeland) has much to do with inherited colonial state tradition than conversion to cosmopolitan or shared citizenship. No African emigration state has effectively tackled many of the ‘push factors’ that sent over 30 million Africans scrambling for the so-called greener pastures outside Africa over the past three decades. In many cases, emigrant citizens who have returned to seek employment, elective or appointive positions in government often confront official skepticisms about their loyalty to the government and the country.