Weighing The Politics, Economics Of Diaspora Voting
LEADERSHIP SUNDAY's TORDUE SALEM dissects the simmering political debate on the importance of institutionalising Diaspora voting in Nigeria, and how that privilege can spur the growth of the economy and open up more development vistas
On July 26, 2006, the Minister of Finance, Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, the then Minister of Foreign Affairs, announced to the world that remittances to Nigeria from its citizens in the Diaspora had grossed $4 billion. A few weeks later, she got her luggage and left the country, without telling unveiling what was done with that princely sum. Not even a word came from her successor at the Finance Ministry, Nenadi Usman. Mrs. Usman now sits pretty in the Senate and Dr. Okonjo-Iweala is back on the finance saddle.
By 2006, things had gone belly up, and Nigerians in the Diaspora began to kick and yell so loud that prospects of foreign investments began to go crashing. The sum announced by Mrs. Okonjo-Iweala, besides it not been accounted for, is paltry, compared to remittances by smaller countries.
Nepal, a smaller country, grossed a world-wide remittance of $240billion (official figure). Nepal's population according to this year's census, is 30 million people, as against that of Nigeria, which is 140 million people according to the last national census.
At a well-attended conference they organized in the country in 2007, Diaspora Nigerians sought a say on how their hard-earned finances shipped over for development purposes, but embezzled by government officials could be put to better use. That was when the need for Diaspora unit in Nigeria began to take form.
In 2009, Hon. Abike Dabiri (ACN/Ikorodu) with 17 others produced a Bill to establish a Diaspora Commission that would handle remittances from abroad. The Bill is now on the threshold of presidential assent.
Titled Nigerians in Diaspora (Establishment) Commission Bill, 2009, this piece of legislation, seeks to establish a Diaspora Commission, "To provide for the engagement of Nigerians in Diaspora in the policies, projects, and participation in the development of Nigeria for the purpose of utilizing the human, capital and material resources of Nigerians in the Diaspora, towards the overall socio-economic, cultural and political development of Nigeria".
The Commission, which is underway, would have a governing board, a Chairman who shall be a Chief Executive Officer of the Commission, "and possess not less than 15 years experience in public service".
Though section 2(1) (e) of the Bill states that the appointment of its top functionaries should be done by the President, it places the decision for the appointment of members of its board on the shoulders of Diaspora Nigerians.
It states: "Notwithstanding the provisions of section 2 of this Bill, the appointment under section 2(1)(e) shall be on the recommendations made by the respective continental Nigerians in the Diaspora Organisation(NIDO), professional groups and socio-cultural groups".
The Commission will also have representative each from the "Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Nigerian Embassies, Consulates and Missions qualified in that regard for not less than 10 years and not below the rank of Director in Civil Service" The desirability of this Commission was underscored by contributions to its report in the House of Representatives last year. Lawmakers had taken turns to dissect its clauses and had arrived at the conclusion that it was the best way to go, if resourceful Nigerians toiling abroad must be effectively involved in the Nigerian building project.
Diaspora Commissions, Funds or Committees abound elsewhere. In India for instance, their Diaspora Committee has been efficiently at work, as that country continues to develop fast with the active support of its human capital resident in the United States and several other parts of the world.
Pakistan, a developing country, is not left out. On Wednesday, April 16, 2008, it was reported that Diaspora remittances to State Bank of Pakistan (the Country's Central Bank), for just 9 months in the same year hit US$4.720 billion.
From July-March 2006-2007, alone the Diaspora contribution to the state's development was valued at US$3.930billion. In the month of March, 2008 alone, the country gained developmental support from Diaspora funding to the tune of US$602.2million, which was said to be highest monthly Diaspora remittances ever, to the State Bank of Pakistan.
In 2007, according to an African Development Bank, (AfDB) study, remittances from African Diaspora stood between 14 and 17 billion dollars yearly.
Though Diaspora remittances to Nigeria have dipped in the last couple of years, not less than US$50 billion sits at present with the Federal Government. Nigeria is the tenth most populous country in the world, and the most populous African nation, with a territory of 923.7 thousand square kilometres, with 25 percent of the continent's population.
Besides being the most populous country in Africa, Nigeria has 505 indigenous languages, as quoted in Yusuf Bala Usman's "The Misrepresentation of Nigeria: Facts and Figures".
The Case For Diaspora Voting:
Making a case for every good thing is difficult in Nigeria. The Diaspora voting campaign has also fallen on hard rocks. On October 21, 2011, the House of Representatives rejected an amendment to the Electoral Act, 2010 that seeks to grant Nigerians abroad the right to vote while residing abroad. The Deputy Leader of the House, and the leader of the opposition to the Bill, Hon. Leo Ogor, pressed for the rejection of the piece of legislation on the basis that it will gulp the nations 'meagre resources'.
But the sponsor of the Bill, Hon. Abike Dabiri, attributed the rejection of the Bill to a misunderstanding on the part of her colleagues.
She disagreed that Nigeria was incapable of financing the Diaspora voting project, a feat she said has been achieved already by smaller nations.
"I will disagree with my colleagues who said (on the floor) that Nigeria cannot do it, when smaller countries like Laos, Chad, Gabon and Ghana are doing it; it is now in the public domain; who says we cannot do it? She queried. The lawmaker however forgot to include that, a smaller and weaker country like the Republic of Cameroon has since provided for
Diaspora voting. Members of the Cameroonian Diaspora even voted in the October 21, 2011 Presidential polls.
In 2010, efforts to make the Nigerian parliament buy into the project, hit the wall, as the constitution review committee rejected flatly to include the matter on the list of items to include in the new constitution. The Diaspora Committee chaired by the House of Representatives Committee on Diaspora Affairs, headed by Abike Dabiri decided to dust up the
idea again and bring it to the attention of the National Assembly, but unfortunately it has failed to get approval.
There is however, a painful disconnect here. While the National Assembly continues to reject the idea of Diaspora voting, the Federal Government is feeding plump on remittances from Nigerians abroad.
The danger inherent in continuing with this senseless rejection of an idea whose time is long overdue is that, long term and whole-hearted contributions from the Diaspora may in the long run elude us. It might even get worse with the delay in the establishment of a Diaspora Commission by the Federal Government.
Taking money from a source, and denying that source the right to choose who must be the custodian of their money is not only an act of short-changing the goose, but it has an ominous political backlash.