15 nov 2011

Diaspora Bill: The Joy and Regrets of Lawmaking

he impending Bill on Nigerian Diaspora Commission is second to the last leg of the race to equip Nigeria with the requisite tool to mine, in a strategically impactful manner, the abundant human and financial capital of its citizens resident abroad. If care is not taken, the Bill can also mean an abrupt end to a genuinely promising journey began about a decade ago. To avert this, Nigeria needs to address some looming dangers that portend negative change for sustainable Nigerian Diaspora politics. That is why the Nigerian Diaspora Bill should not be passed in its present construction. It is a construction that clearly kills, rather than consolidates budding institutional structures. It is a construction that feeds the menace of powerful Diaspora lobby as opposed to entrenching sound democratic ideals. Responsible politics presupposes that a lawmaker with conscience, assuming this word exists in Nigerian political lexicon, can always look back at the laws he favoured and rejoice, rather than regret. TThe absence of politics of conscience is why the politics of Nigeria comes across as incoherent, sometimes! The curious paradox is that sometimes too, this same politics, or an aspect of it, offers isolated case study for policy researchers of good practices in development politics. One of such isolated instances was in September 2007 when the African Union in a Consultative Conference in Paris, France, placed the shine on Nigeria's model of engagement with its Diaspora. The meeting was called on behalf of the African Union by the Government of South Africa as a platform in the run-up to instituting the African Diaspora as a

bona fide Region of the Union. They took active interest in the model implored by the Government of Nigeria in galvanizing its global Diaspora network towards national development under an umbrella called Nigerians in Diaspora Organisation (NIDO). Another instance followed a year later at the European Parliament in a session to examine the relationship between African Nations and their Diaspora. Now in its fourth edition, the Europarliament parley futures in 2010, the Nigerian Diaspora model in supporting the education of the Nigerian Child within the African context.

In both instances - and there are a few more to fill up this page - Nigeria's politics around recognizing and investing in its Diaspora for the good of the nation was hailed as exemplary for Africa. Not because it is the only African economy with romance with its Diaspora; no! Nor was it a forerunner. Indeed countries like Republic of Benin, Lebanon, Mali, Somalia, Ethiopia and Tunisia have full Ministries for the Diaspora in varying shapes and forms.  Nigeria was being studied as a result of the ingenuity of its model, which was mooted in the year 2000 under the Obasanjo administration and supported by successive administrations. It is a model based on the principles of collectivity and consensus in decision-making with strong emphasis on stakeholdership and organic network development. It takes into account, not the overriding interests of a few and favoured Nigerian Diaspora oligarchs. Rather, it attempts to plough the playing field level, so that all that are willing and able can assume positions and play along under a common rule. Of course the elites, constituted in pockets of lobby apparatuses, won't and didn't like it. And they have remained actively committed to tearing down the walls of this building called NIDO even before the sun could dry the bricklayers' tools.

Oladimeji Bankole, Speaker of the House, has since taken the Diaspora engagement vision a level higher by establishing the House Committee on Diaspora Affairs. That was even before Senator Jubril Aminu in the July 2009 Nigerian Diaspora Day called for Diaspora Content in all affairs of the nation, a call that he stepped up in July 2010 when he identified with the Diaspora Commission Bill as long as it does not stifle NIDO as an existing structure. This was long before Ike Ekweremadu, Deputy Senate President, meeting in The Netherlands, with Diaspora leaders in Europe, called on the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations to activate close working relations with the Diaspora. Since becoming Acting President, Goodluck Jonathan has used every foreign outing to indicate his interest in the Nigerian Diaspora Bill; to the extent that what was initially a private Bill is now being converted to an Executive Bill by Mr President.

The establishment of the Nigerian Diaspora Commission, itself a product of initial agitation by Nigerians in Diaspora Organisation but sponsored by the House Committee on Diaspora, is to be the near-climax of visionary politics of Diaspora mobilization. It will herald an era of change. But change can be negative where there is manifest lack of provision to consolidate rather than allow shortsightedness or selfish tendencies, or both, to becloud the common good. This must bother those whose responsibility it is to avert this faith from befalling a politics that has the ingredients of goodness in it.

The initial draft Establishment Bill of the Nigerian Diaspora Commission as put forth by the House Committee on Diaspora recognized the place of NIDO in providing policy coherence in the Diaspora for the work of the proposed Commission. The pre-NIDO era lacked coherence. It was characterized by thousands of community, professional, religious, ethnic and cultural organisations of Nigerians in Diaspora, fighting, like children in a disjointed polygamous family, to dominate the space. As can be expected, the law of the jungle applied.

Two core issues are the enemies here. One relates to the buildup of powerful lobby in the Diaspora, largely undermining the draft Establishment Bill and skillfully manipulating its seemingly naïve authors. Its purpose? To kill NIDO. Why? Because NIDO stands on its way in exerting control over Diaspora affairs. The other issue, closely complimentary to the first, relates to illegal disproportionate representation of Nigerian Diaspora on the Board of the proposed Commission.

To illustrate the scenario, a brief paintbrush of the Nigerian Diaspora political landscape is important. With thousands of Nigerian Diaspora community, cultural, religious, professional, ethnic organisations, Government had no partner to speak with on Diaspora affairs prior to the establishment of NIDO. Dubious Government functionaries of course liked the situation because the chaotic situation afforded them the justification to say that the communities are unorganized or disjointed while they went about "their own things". Other sets of dubious officers who find themselves in an organized Diaspora setting with well functioning Nigerian Community organisations, would rather employ the divide and rule strategy to enable them have their ways. They sow seeds of discord among brethrens and sat back doing "their own things" while the Diaspora kept busy slogging it out with one another.

Opponents of a more decisive, coordinating role for NIDO in the Nigerian Diaspora Commission pathetically argue that NIDO is one of the numerous Nigerian Diaspora organisations and should not take upper hand against the rest. This argument is highly porous. NIDO came into being in the first place to provide the coherence that is lacking amongst the diverse Nigerian Diaspora organisations. A more adult argument should be that NIDO must be organized, such that the numerous Nigerian Diaspora organisations have a stake in it, as that appears not to be the case the last time I checked. 

It is responsible governance for Nigerians in Diaspora Organisation (NIDO) to provide coordination as envisaged in the original draft of the Diaspora Commission Bill, for the plethora -indeed thousands - of Nigerian community, religious, professional, social and cultural organisations, in the Diaspora. It was visionary leadership that brought about the creation of NIDO and Government support that it has continued to enjoy since its creation. The idea behind the creation was, and still remains, to provide the coherence which is now so urgently needed by the proposed Commission, in galvanizing Nigerians in Diaspora. There is no doubt that NIDO needs to be restructured to enable it play its role as envisaged, in a more efficient and decisive manner. However, the beauty and sense of the idea behind its creation is never in question. NIDO must be obliged to work out veritable tools of active engagement with the thousands of Nigerian community, religious, professional, social and cultural organisations, in the Diaspora; such that there is a stake for all in the body.

It must be said that NIDO cannot be given carte blanche on Diaspora matters. Indeed the Commission should consider inclusion of sets of performance benchmark and indicators for NIDO as condition for continuing to provide the Nigerian Diaspora coordination role. It will be chaotic to allow for a system - as it is shortsightedly being proposed  ? for the thousands of Nigerian Diaspora organisations and of course non-federated individuals, to be pitched against one another, without the benefit of a coordinating body, for representation on the Board of the Commission. The proposed Commission must be structured such that it enhances NIDO, rather than effectively killing it. We must be conscious of the fact that diminishing the role of NIDO in galvanizing the Diaspora as the Bill proposes - rather than strengthening it - is tantamount to killing the organisation.

The goal of the emerging Diaspora oligarchs is to kill NIDO. These are pockets of established and emerging mini-groups and powerful individuals who are fast constituting major lobby elements.  They have tried unsuccessfully, within the NIDO structures, to assert undemocratic control over the Nigerian Diaspora in the past. Once out of the NIDO scene, they tend to vow to pull the organisation down as it no longer serves their controlling needs. At the same time, NIDO in more ways than one has failed to meet the expectations of its founding fathers. Recent leaders made genuine efforts to bring the organisation closer to its dreams with projects like the Global Database of Nigerians in Diaspora and the Diaspora Investment Fund. These must be consolidated, away from a path of self-destruction.  

The other nagging issue in the draft Nigerian Diaspora Bill that requires urgent amends by the Senate is the disproportionate allocation of Commission Board seats. That it was possible in the first place for the balance to be tilted in favour of Nigerians in the Americas, away from the initial equitable seat allocation by the authors of the original draft Bill, attests to the menace being constituted by the emerging Diaspora oligarchs. This is a bad sign that must be nipped at the bud by the Senate.  

There must be equal representation between Nigerians in the Americas and Nigerians in Europe on the Board of the Nigerian Diaspora Commission. In setting up the official structure, NIDO, by the Government of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, provision was allowed for 4 broad constituencies ? the Americas, Europe, Australasia and Africa. It is well known that the constituencies, particularly the Americas and Europe are further broken down into units of manageable Chapters, for Europe, and Zones for the Americas. Australasia - covering the Pacific countries and Asia - and Africa are still developing. The Americas was allocated 5 representatives, Europe 2, Asia 3 and Africa 1. This is an inexcusable aberration in the draft Diaspora Commission Bill for the Americas to be carved up along the lines of USA, Canada, et cetera for the convenient purpose of justifying more seat allocations on the Board of the Commission.

Europe may be tempted to adopt the logic of conveniently carving up its constituency along the line of UK (a separate Island), Mainland Europe and the distinct former Soviet Union, now known as the Commonwealth of Independent States, because of its huge size and other distinctive elements. But Europe resisted that temptation, settling instead for a more equitable structure as has been established. The Americas should do same.  As of today, no reliable data exists, of the population of Nigerians in neither the Americas nor Europe. Not from the National Planning Commission of Nigeria nor from the Embassies and Consulates. There was this claim by a questionably objectionable Technical Committee, that figures of the Nigerian Diaspora population were derived from a staff of the United Nations office in Nigeria during a Technical Committee meeting. This smacks of the 1884 Scramble for and Partition of Africa at the Berlin Conference of European powers. Happening in 2010 makes it striking. This must be strongly resisted.

It is only logical that where doubts exist, as they now do, about the size of the Diaspora, Equal Representation is the fair formula for determining seat allocation. This may differ for Australasia and Africa, if their leadership agrees. This is for the simple reason that Nigerian Diaspora activities have not fully and officially taken off in these constituencies. It should ultimately be one of the early deliverables of the Commission, when it becomes operational, to conduct a census of the Nigerian Diaspora to determine the population. Only when that has happened and reliable data exists, can seat allocation based on population be the subject of any real debate. Anything short of this will be unfair and illegal and therefore legally contestable.

The Senate, particularly its leadership, has a unique chance to ensure that a smart and fair Nigerian Diaspora Bill is passed,   ensuring that the menace of the emerging Diaspora oligarchs is curbed and guaranteeing policy continuity in the Diaspora politics.

 

* The author, Collins Nweke is Founder of Global Village Belgium, brand owners of Nigeria Human Capital. He was Executive Secretary and later the General Secretary of the Board of Nigerians in Diaspora Organisation Europe. He currently serves as Green Party Councillor for Social Affairs in Ostend City Council, Belgium.

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