GUEST COLUMNIST by Dr. Bisi Olawunmi
Diaspora Nigerians, estimated at 15 million, have come into focus in recent years, particularly with the advent of the Muhammadu Buhari presidency on May 29, 2015. This interest got a boost with the appointment of Mrs. Abike Dabiri-Erewa as senior special assistant to the President on Foreign Affairs and Diaspora. Abike brought her journalism background to play by creating high visibility for Diaspora issues and being proactive in instances when Nigerians abroad find themselves in dire straits as in the case of Nigerians stranded in Libya. She was very active in facilitating the evacuation of several hundreds of Nigerians from that beleaguered country. That a Nigeria Diaspora Commission has been established, with Dabiri-Erewa appointed as its executive chairperson, is a testimony to the success of her efforts on Diaspora matters, so far. It is a measure of her innovative and can-do spirit that she is organizing a three-day Nigerian Diaspora Investment Summit (NDIS) starting on 27TH November, 2018 at the Presidential Villa, Abuja to better channel the monetary resource flow into the country by Nigerians resident abroad. This huge financial flow hit the $22 billion mark in 2017, according to the World Bank, making Nigeria the fifth largest recipient of remittances from its citizens abroad, after India, China, the Philippines and Mexico. It is a bold initiative, apparently borne out of a burning desire to derive maximum investment benefit from such financial resource.
However, while not privy to planning details which informed the hosting of this summit, it will be useful if participants give more focus to the socio-cultural disposition that drives remittances, if its re-channelling to formal business investment will meet the apparent lofty expectations of the organizers. Dr. Badewa T. Adejugbe-Wiliams, chairperson, planning committee of NDIS had stated of the remittances from Diaspora Nigerians : ‘’You know our people send monies to their families in Nigeria on a monthly basis usually, but that money goes, it is spent and it is gone’’, implying it is wasted. Wrong. Those remittances provide life support to millions of Nigerians at home, serve as financial safety net and facilitate the education of many young family members. It is important to note that much of the remittances are not investible funds, but are like little drops of water which cumulatively made the mighty ocean of $22 billion of 2017 and the billions of dollars, annually, in past years. Remittances are a demonstration of the sacrifice of Diaspora Nigerians to sustain the family bond because, for many, they have to deprive themselves to send those monies. Many Nigerians in the Diaspora literally work their hearts out in multiple jobs to send money home. Many don’t take holidays. I am familiar with the situation in the United States where I lived for four years in the late 1980s as Washington correspondent of the News Agency of Nigeria (NAN) and have been visiting regularly since then, the most recent in October this year. For instance, to exemplify the workaholic life of Nigerians in the U.S., on Sunday, October 7th, 2018, many guests at the church service marking the 70th birthday of a Nigerian lady in Baltimore, Maryland left from the church service to resume at work. They had their work dresses in their cars ! Many struggle to pay the mortgage on their houses and other sundry bills.
For Nigeria to maximize the investment potential of the few financially buoyant Diaspora Nigerians, two issues must be addressed, frontally or, at least in the interim, be seen to attract commitment to action. These are insecurity and the disorderly way of life here, in spite of propaganda to the contrary. From my interactions with Nigerians in the Diaspora, these are the key disincentives not only to investing in businesses in Nigeria, but even for many of them to visit, not to talk of relocation. There is also the issue of integrity. We have cases of family members duping Diaspora Nigerians of monies sent home to build houses or the proceeds from sale of vehicles sent home. That the remittances continue to flow, in spite of these frustrations, is indicative of the large heart of Nigerians abroad.
The Nigeria Diaspora Investment Summit is apparently based on the assumption that a significant number of Nigerians abroad want to relocate to the country, for you need to relocate, even if for a limited period, to monitor your investment. I do not think empirical data support this notion. What we have is more of nostalgia – an emotional longing particularly among those who grew up in Nigeria – but regret that home is largely no longer hospitable. Their hearts may be in Nigeria, but many are not ready to give up the security and infrastructure comfort of the countries where they live. Perhaps, given the clout accorded the Diaspora Investment Summit with its hosting at the Presidential Villa, President Buhari could seize the opportunity to revive the hope of Diaspora Nigerians in his administration by mustering the will to get relevant agencies of government to action station against insecurity and general lawlessness. It also promises electoral harvest, if he can dare ! !
According to Dabiri-Erewa, the NDIS ‘ ‘ will showcase and explore opportunities in all 36 states in Nigeria’’. This is quite ambitious, perhaps a reflection of federal character ! But the downside is that it will get the commission spread too thin on ground. Rather, focusing on key states/zones with large Diaspora population can offer greater dividends to showcase. Similarly, focusing on countries/states with concentration of Nigerians abroad will be more beneficial. Take, for instance, the U.S. The American Community Survey, 2016 put the number of Nigerian-Americans at 380,785 concentrated in 10 of the 50 states – Texas, Maryland, New York, Georgia, Illinois, New Jersey, Florida, Massachusetts and Pennsylvania. I have been to nine of these states, except Massachusetts, and can attest to the large number of Nigerians there, mostly Yoruba and Igbo. Nigerians are among the most educated immigrants in the U.S.. I once attended the 40th birthday party of a Nigerian lady pharmacist in Tampa, Florida that attracted an elite, all-graduate crowd of about 50 ! So, no doubt, Nigerians in the Diaspora constitute a resource base – financial and manpower – but to meaningfully tap this resource, charity must begin from home. The triple baggage of insecurity, disorderliness and integrity deficit must be addressed. It is wishful thinking to expect Nigerians in Diaspora to come home to help sort out this triple mess. So, the Nigeria Diaspora Commission faces a tough task in mobilizing Nigerians abroad and the outcome of the Nigeria Diaspora Investment Summit should be a pointer in the direction to go. But it needs to conduct surveys to empirically determine its focus and modalities so as not to act on mere hope and assumptions. Hoping that Abike Dabiri-Erewa will rise to the challenge.
Dr. Bisi Olawunmi, former Washington Correspondent of the News Agency of Nigeria and Fellow, Nigerian Guild of Editors is a Development/Public Communication Consultant. Email : firstname.lastname@example.org Phone, sms only: 0803 364 7571.