On Sunday July 25, Nigeria celebrated its 15th National Diaspora Day under the theme: “Diaspora Integration for National Peace and Development”. Former President Olusegun Obasanjo’s administration launched this event in 2006 in recognition of the diaspora’s contribution to national development. The 2021 virtual celebration in the form of a webinar was organised by the Nigerians in Diaspora Commission (NIDCOM), an organisation the provides a platform to engage Nigerians in the diaspora in policies, projects and participation in the socio-economic, cultural and political development of the country.
In her opening remarks, Chairperson of NIDCOM, Abike Dabiri-Erewa noted the inextricable link between peace and development. Her remarks were pertinent in light of the ongoing security quagmire in Nigeria, ranging from Boko Haram terrorism to the Niger-Delta crisis, the farmer-herder conflict and kidnappings by “bandits”. Dabiri-Erewa called on the Nigerian National Assembly to promulgate the much anticipated law that would grant voting rights to Nigerians in the diaspora and urged the latter to be good ambassadors for their homeland in their host countries and share good practices with Nigerians at home. She concluded by debunking the negative stereotypes associated with Nigeria, noting the erroneous global opinion of Nigerians as fraudsters and drug dealers.
Director-General of the World Trade Organisation (WTO), Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala who joined the webinar from Geneva said that she missed Nigerian food, and the hustle and bustle of Lagos and Abuja. She commended Nigerians in the diaspora for their contribution to national development, particularly through their remittances which have been critical in sustaining the country’s economy and in the socio-economic upliftment of households in terms of food, housing, education and small and medium-sized enterprises, to name but a few. Given the current economic and security challenges confronting Nigeria, Okonjo-Iweala urged Nigerians in the diaspora to do more towards the socio-economic development of their homeland. She noted that she had leveraged her position to explore how Nigeria can take advantage of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) to attract investment, condemn vaccine nationalism and encourage vaccine production on the continent, as well as urge key manufacturers to remove trade restrictions and invest in Nigeria and Africa.
Deputy Secretary-General of the United Nations (UN), Amina Mohammed who is also a Nigerian argued that the Nigerian diaspora has a critical role to play towards the attainment of peace and development in their homeland as their experience, networks and resources can help debunk anti-Nigerian sentiments and they are well placed to project positive narratives of Africa, sensitise people on human rights issues and mobilise investment. Like Okonjo-Iweala, she illustrated that diasporic remittances had been pivotal in reducing poverty and fulfilling the socio-economic needs of Nigerian households. She added that the diaspora would be instrumental in Nigeria’s economic recovery from the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
The invited diasporic organisations, including the Nigerians in Diaspora Organisation (NIDO) worldwide, the Association of Nigerian American Professionals in Nigeria (ANAPIN), the Central Association of Nigerians in the United Kingdom (CANUK), the Association of Nigerian Physicians in Americas (ANPA) and the Nigerian and Canadian Business Network (NCBN) participated in a panel discussion, with each setting out their contribution to peace and development in Nigeria and the challenges they encounter.
Two key initiatives were unveiled at the meeting – the National Diaspora Policy and the National Diaspora Merit Award. The 2021 National Diaspora Policy’s vision is “to effectively promote and harness the capacity and resources of Nigerians in the Diaspora for the growth and the development of the nation”; while its mission is “to empower Nigerians in the Diaspora as change agents for the development of Nigeria through promoting a framework for them to maximize their potentials in capital, knowledge, and networks”; and its goal is “constructive engagement of Nigerians in the Diaspora for sustainable national development”. The National Diaspora Merit Award, which was announced at the meeting, is an annual event that will begin in 2022 to celebrate Nigerians in the diaspora that have distinguished themselves in fields such as agriculture; information and communication technology; science, technology, and innovation; youth and sports; education; arts and tourism and entertainment.
Against the backdrop of anti-Nigerian sentiments, NIDCOM’s efforts in organising the event and launching the 2021 National Diaspora Policy, and an annual National Diaspora Merit Award should be commended. However, in order to avoid the impression that this initiative is merely a public diplomacy stunt, a more nuanced perspective of Nigerians in the diaspora could be projected in future meetings. While Nigeria can pride itself on having several Okonjo-Iwealas, there are equally several Hushpuppis. In other words, in order to debunk negative stereotypes, we should not fall into the trap of denialism and ignore or downplay the criminal activities of some unscrupulous Nigerians in the diaspora who are partly responsible for the country’s image crisis.
Aside from the fact that the Nigerian government needs to create a business-friendly environment, if it is serious about attracting more diasporic remittances (which totalled around $25 billion in 2018) and foreign direct investment, NIDCOM should address the plight of Nigerians abroad who often do not feel at home in Nigerian embassies and complain about poor services at consulate offices, and the maltreatment, including extra-judicial killings of Nigerians across the world. This is not to suggest that the Nigerian government often assumes the role of a spectator while its citizens are dehumanised, jailed and killed. Indeed, Abike-Dabiri strongly condemned the 2019 xenophobic attacks in South Africa. However, more proactive rather than reactive measures should be considered to arrest pervasive anti-Nigerian sentiments abroad. Addressing the plight of the Nigerian diaspora in this regard could be the fillip required to strengthen state-diaspora engagement.
Oluwaseun Tella is Director, The Future of Diplomacy at the University of Johannesburg’s Institute for the Future of Knowledge, South Africa.
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