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  Vol. 10,  No. 1

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January 2003  


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Left-right, are Professor J.F. Ade-Ajayi, U.S. Consul General Robyn Hinson-Jones, and Executive Director of the  Center for Black African Arts and Culture (CBAAC), Dr. Duro Oni.
CBAAC Distinguished Lecture Series 2002: U.S. Ambassador Howard F. Jeter, being received by the Director-General of the National Theater Professor Femi Osofisan. Left-right, are Professor J.F. Ade-Ajayi, U.S. Consul General Robyn Hinson-Jones, and Executive Director of the Center for Black African Arts and Culture (CBAAC), Dr. Duro Oni.
 

Reaching Out to the African Diaspora: The Need for Vision

As guest speaker to the Center for Black African Arts and Culture (CBAAC) Distinguished Lecture Series, U.S. Ambassador Howard F. Jeter traces the different phases of the African Diaspora, Nigeria's leadership responsibilities in Africa and the next phase of the Diaspora. Below are excerpts delivered at the Nigerian Institute Of International Affairs on November 26, 2002. Full text can be viewed at http://abuja.usembassy.gov


The African Diaspora was born from tragedy. The Trans-Atlantic slave has served as an unwanted parent we all loathe to claim but the fact of its existence cannot be either erased or denied. Africans were taken from these shores against their will under the most inhumane conditions. Millions died in passage. But many more survived their ordeal to reach the New World. Unfortunately, the masters of the New World were so well versed in the inequities of the Old World that they perfected the one called human bondage — slavery.

From the 1500s to the 1800s, millions of Africans were brought to the New World and called slaves. But they weren’t slaves despite all that befell them. They remained human beings. In their humanness, they retained as much as they could of the various African cultures they represented. They also adapted themselves and their ways to the ways of the New World, their blood, brawn and brains contributing to the development of that New World. Through it all, the Africans in America survived, and that in itself was a monumental achievement. But survival was not the hallmark of their existence. The first thought of a bondsman may be survival but his very next thought is Freedom. Thus, the first phase of the African Diaspora can be distilled into two words: survival and freedom.

The struggle was long and progress gradual. Blacks in the Americas fought in every way to preserve their human dignity and prove their social mettle. Some sought freedom by taking the midnight ride on the Underground Railroad; others actively waged war against all odds and manner of depravation. The Maroons in Jamaica and in Brazil are well known examples of this. In the United States thousands risked and lost their lives in this quest for freedom, which really culminated in the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s.

The Civil Rights Movement helped usher in the second phase of the African diaspora. Those who came to the New World during the first phase were the luckless sons and daughters of Africa compelled into bondage. Those who would come during the second phase came willingly. Disproportionately, these immigrants were the sons and daughters of the most educated and affluent segments of African society — the doctors, the lawyers, the university professors who freely immigrated — and still immigrate — to the United States. During the first phase, Africans were brought to the Americas to labor for someone else’s dreams. In the second phase, Africans came to fulfill their own. Sadly, many went to America because they felt their dreams could not be fulfilled at home.

The American Civil Rights Movement coincided with the push for independence in Africa. This was more than historic accident.

The similarities in the political and psychological urgings of Black America and pre-independence Africa were real and profound. Africans and Black Americans knowing that they were equal to any other human being, sought to be treated, as human beings.

Thus, the second phase of the Diaspora can be reduced to the following: the quest for equality and the concomitant respect and dignity that equality bestows. Much has taken place during the second phase. Racial discrimination is now illegal. Bigotry is abhorrent in most quarters and must now hide in the shadows. Black people have advanced in all fields. One is now the United States Secretary of State; the other is the President’s National Security Advisor. During the past decade, African-Americans have held some of the most powerful political positions in the United States. Black owned businesses have multiplied. The middle class has grown and higher education is more accessible to more Blacks. The African-American community is expected to reach 45 million by 2020, and today has a collective purchasing power of about 450 million dollars per annum.

The second wave of African immigrants were able to step into and take advantage of this opening door to racial equality. The fact that I am speaking to you this morning is testimony to that.

Nigerians now represent one of the largest groups in the African Diaspora and one of its most well organized entities. While estimates vary, there are between 650,000 to 1 million Nigerians residing in the U.S. About 100,000 Nigerians live in the Houston, Texas vicinity alone.

Nigerian Americans have organized themselves along professional, ethnic, and regional lines. A UNDP study compiled in the last decade notes that over 2,100 Nigerian doctors were practicing in the United States in the mid-1990s; not surprisingly, there is an Association of Nigerian Physicians in the Americas. Igbo and Yoruba associations also flourish in the United States, and Nigerian community organizations are popping up in every state with a large Nigerian population base - such as the Nigerian Association of South Florida.

Progress has been made but more is needed. To achieve that progress, the Diaspora must exit the second phase and enter its third phase. To a very large extent, the second phase was one of individual advancement made possible by the achievement of legal equality. A lot of individual and collective sacrifices were made to achieve that. The third phase must differ from the second by its emphasis on organized and institutional cooperation between Africa and the Diaspora.

However, as is often the case to get a glimpse of the future you must study the lessons of the past, which include those that caused progress and that brought pain. A stark lesson from the Diaspora’s first historical phase is the Liberian settlement sponsored by the American Colonization Society. In the first half of the 19th century, the Society, promoted immigration of Black Americans to Africa. Financed to a considerable degree by rich slaveholders, this project was ostensibly intended to provide free Blacks a land where they could truly be free and to prove they were capable of self-governance. The underlying purpose was to export as many freed Blacks as possible from America. The slave holders feared the growing numbers of freedmen would cause those still enslaved to think too much about freedom. Unfortunately, the Blacks who ventured to Liberia carried with them the worst lessons from the ante-bellum South. They treated the Africans they met the way the slaveholding South had treated them. Because their quest for freedom was limited only to their own small group, that flawed dream became a nightmare of domination to the Africans they encountered. The seeds sown over the next 150 years have reaped the Civil War that still desolates Liberia today. What happened there has been a shame; a tragedy that continues to haunt hundreds of thousands of poor, innocent people. We all must help them awake to a new and better tomorrow.

Let the lessons of Liberia be clearly understood. Freedom cannot be divisible. Freedom bestowed to one group only is the unleashing of oppression on all others. Second, inhumanity is no less oppressive when it is intra-racial. Third, unity and cooperation require a focus on commonalties between people and not on what might divide them. Thus, if we are deceived into concentrating on our differences and not common interests, then enmity and rivalry will trespass where hope and cooperation should prevail. Fortunately, there are two significant positive lessons from the second Diaspora phase. We have already noted the coincidence of the Civil Rights Movement and the Independence Movement in Africa. The two movements served to reinforce each other. Africans supported the African-American quest for civil rights while African-Americans canvassed for the independence of African States. Because both movements appealed to the human conscience, its universal desire for freedom, well meaning people of all races actively supported these causes. People transcended their differences to cooperate with and support each other because of the mutual yearning for freedom.

This unity was repeated again in the 70’s and 80’s in the fight against apartheid. Not only were the Front Line States active; manning the interior lines were other African states, the African Diaspora but also conscientious non-Africans around the world over. Again, people put aside their differences to rally around a noble cause. The challenge of the third phase is not to unite on an ad-hoc basis around a specific cause as has happened in the past. The challenge is to create institutional links that join Africa and the Diaspora in addressing the chronic problems that have deeply affected either or both of them.

This nexus must be built on the realization that the social and political status of Africa and its Diaspora remain closely intertwined. Many of the economic and social challenges facing one, also face the other. Vestigial discrimination continues to plague them both. The one cannot maximize its place in the world without the support and cooperation of the others. In short, the third phase of the Diaspora should be heralded as: the push for economic and political progress through institution cooperation. It means defining a common vision - the commonality among us - and working together, consistently, conscientiously, and carefully to achieve it. Now, I may not see this happen, but I deeply believe that my children will.

Africa must develop a collective strategy for engaging the Diaspora. There is a wealth of financial, technical and intellectual expertise in the Diaspora. Africa needs to exploit these human and material resources to help tackle the challenges of development, environmental degradation, food security, energy supply, HIV/AIDS, and equitable economic growth.

Africa must work with the Diaspora to develop a unified strategy. Right now the strongest link between Africa and the Diaspora is cultural. Thousands of African Americans annually visit the continent to gain a sense of their roots; many Africans go to America because they feel at home - they can blend in. This is laudable but not wholly sufficient. More people need to visit Africa, not to identify with their past, but to map out their future.

The biennial African/African-American Summit is a forerunner in this process but, by itself, is inadequate. More institutional connections are in order. For example, few African Americans know about NEPAD. Why should that be? Has there been meaningful outreach to engage the Diaspora in this process? Should there be Observer Status for organizations from the Diaspora in the AU? How is NEPAD or AU ready to help organizations in the Diaspora? Is Africa using the African-American community as a primary political constituency in the United States? The answer is a resounding “NO.” Are African-Americans really encouraged to do business with Africa — I don’t think so. These are just a few of the questions that must be asked and answered in mapping out this strategy.

As the largest country in Africa and with a sizeable community in the Americas, Nigeria has a special role to play in this enterprise. Nigeria must provide the leadership on the continent. While that is not easy; it also is not enough. Yes, the job gets harder. Nigeria must spur the Nigerian Diaspora to organize and use their collective numbers, technical expertise, institutions, growing political leverage and wealth to work not only for Nigeria but the whole of Africa.

To achieve this, Nigeria must develop a credible strategy for progress in many of the areas that led these expatriates to leave Nigeria in the first place. Namely, the strategy must address rational economic development that grants them the chance to pursue their chosen field and engage in political life without undue hindrance and in an atmosphere of tolerance and physical security. They must be given space to develop and expand their entrepreneurial talents. Even though many people might not chose to return home, they will never contribute their energies to this effort unless it offers to create the type of country they would like to return to.

Tapping into the African Diaspora is a critical imperative. If Nigeria falls short on this account, so does Africa. If Africa staggers, its shortcomings will reverberate throughout and weaken the Diaspora.

Because of its size, population and resources, Nigeria has an immense responsibility that extends well beyond its own borders. This responsibility encompasses continental leadership as well as in the vanguard of developing the strategic framework for the next phase of the Diaspora. This is an interesting, profound enterprise. But Nigeria and Africa have the talent to do it. Now, it is time to show that Nigeria and Africa have the will. Much work awaits us; it has to be done. ¤






 

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