'We stayed, you didn't': Post-conflict Africa grapples with tensions of returnees from the diaspora

Although the importance to Africa’s diaspora is largely discussed around remittances, many Africans are also coming back to join the public service.

SOMALIA’S parliament just approved a new parliament, a crucial step on the road to voting on a new constitution and presidential elections scheduled for 2016.

A key role of the new cabinet will be keeping the Somali remittances lifeline flowing, as California-based Merchant Bank , one of the USA’s few banks still providing services to money transfer companies has said it would stop transacting with remittance companies, which cannot legally expatriate funds on a large scale without the assistance of a commercial bank.

The decision comes as tough new anti-money laundering legislation in the US makes banks legally responsible for money laundering activities enabled by its services, even if the bank has no complicity in or knowledge of those activities. 

Last year, a similar crackdown in the UK had 250 money transfer companies put on notice by Barclays, the only major UK bank handling international money transfers. The companies had to find alternative banking arrangements.

Somalia’s lack of a formal banking system and functional government makes it especially dependent on remittances, but even in the rest of Africa, money sent from abroad is an important source of financing.

Data from African Economic Outlook indicates that in 2014, remittances to Africa amounted to $67 billion, larger than official development aid to the continent at $55 billlion, and only marginally smaller than foreign direct investment, which was $80 billion.

Returning to public service

Although the importance to Africa’s diaspora is largely discussed around its financial muscle, many Africans are doing more than just sending money – they are coming back to join the public service.

Educated Africans coming back from abroad make up a significant part of government positions in post-conflict African societies, including Somalia, Rwanda, Liberia and Sierra Leone.

It’s a matter of necessity for these countries – educated, successful people are among the first to leave when war breaks out, and when conflict devastates the nation, their technical expertise is needed in reconstruction.

In the previous Somali cabinet, ten out of 29 ministers were returnees, along with 30 of the 82-member House of Representatives.

In Rwanda, foreign affairs minister Louise Mushikiwabo emigrated to the US in 1986 and worked as a public relations consultant before returning to Rwanda and being appointed to the cabinet; finance minister Claver Gatete worked in Canada as an economist between 1991 and 1997, and education minister Silas Lwakabamba was born and educated in Tanzania, before returning to Rwanda and becoming founding rector of Kigali Institute of Science and Technology.

In Liberia, minister of finance Amara M. Konneh left Liberia in 1993 for the US, where he would spend more than a decade, earning degrees in economics, finance and IT from University of Pennsylvannia and Harvard University along the way.

He returned in 2005 and was one of the key architects of Liberia’s economic recovery strategy as minister for planning and economic affairs, and helped secure the cancellation of Liberia’s $4.6billion international debt.

Similarly, minister of education Etmonia D. Tarpeh has extensive international experience in the US, Philippines, Cameroon and Senegal, and has graduate degrees in education and school administration.

Not always welcome

But the technocrat returnees are not always welcomed with open arms.

Post-conflict societies have to grapple with the tensions between those who stayed and suffered first-hand during the war, and so feel that they “own” the victory more than those who were abroad and relatively insulated when it all happened.

South Africa during Nelson Mandela’s presidency wrestled with this question, and has not completely resolved the friction. Uganda, in the early years of President Yoweri Museveni’s government, also had to handle the rivalry between the two groups.

One recent article from Liberia complained that with the high representation of “returnees” in President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf’s cabinet, the administration seems to have done “more to enrich members of the diaspora than it has done to improve the quality of life for ordinary Liberians,” considering the high educational requirements set for who can work in government, that would be unavailable for ordinary Liberians [who stayed].

In some instances, “diasporeans” tend to have more moderate and reconciliatory positions, whereas those who remained and lived through the trauma of war are likely to be more hardline.

But the reverse can also be true. By leaving the country, hard-liners in the diaspora may instead cling to their extreme positions, because the distance gives them a sense of immunity, and insulates them from the changing realities on the ground.

In February 2012, when Chatham House hosted a consultation between members of the UK-based Somali diaspora and British government officials to discuss the political transition in Somalia, the participants noted that the Somali diaspora were greatly involved in supporting their country but cautioned that not all of the diaspora had relinquished their tribal or clan-based interests.

In fact, some members of the diaspora were “perceived as opportunistic as they donated funds to faction leaders and militia groups in order to buy themselves favours in the hope that they might obtain positions in a future Somali government when the faction leader that they support becomes president or a minister.”

Joining the bandwagon

But even countries without a history of protracted war are starting to coordinate their diaspora resources more effectively, so that they are not just a source of development finance, but also development partners.

Last month, Kenya published its official Diaspora Policy, which among other things, seeks to “harness and maximize the potential of Kenyans abroad to contribute to Kenya’s transformation agenda.”

Nigeria established the Nigerians in the Diaspora Organization (NIDO) and provides office space within its embassy in Washington D.C. for coordination, but the organisation manages its own affairs, including election of executive and board members.

In Ghana, the government tasked the Ministry of Tourism and Diaspora Relations with responsibilities for improving links with the diaspora. The ministry manages the Non-Resident Ghanaian Secretariat (NRG), which is to serve as a point of contact and facilitation of services to the diaspora.

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