The Yaoundé government which has been fighting its Diaspora for decades is finally softening its stance as it now sees the Diaspora as a possible development partner. The country’s President, Paul Biya, last week sent a delegation to Europe to try to woo well-off Cameroonians living there to invest back home.
Seeking to involve the Diaspora in the government’s development program is not new. Many African governments are increasingly recognizing the importance of their citizens living abroad or the ‟new African Diaspora” in national and regional development. This mass exodus of experts or brain drain from Cameroon occurred during the economic crisis the country went through starting in the mid-80s and during the brutal political crackdown of the 90s. Recently the conflict in the two English-speaking regions of the country has pushed thousands of Cameroonians out of the country.
The government’s gesture of reaching out to its Diaspora is laudable and justifiable, especially as the country’s Diaspora now has many dollar millionaires who can help the government in its efforts to address the country’s crippling unemployment and economic decline which are blighting the lives of the country’s youths.
Cameroon has a huge Diaspora which can help give the country’s economy a shot in the arm, especially at a time when the global economy is facing some testing challenges, but relations between the Yaoundé government and its Diaspora have not been the best for many years due to the government’s dictatorial tendencies, and this is standing in the way of any real collaboration between both parties.
In most African countries, the Diaspora is considered as a key development factor and many African countries have come up with policy measures which are motivating the Diaspora to play a key role in those countries. Remittances from Africans living abroad are changing things for the better in some African countries and as governments develop a friendly attitude towards their Diasporic communities, many of their citizens are also investing and this is turning out to be a win-win for those countries receiving these investment resources. The economic transformations taking place in African countries due to Diaspora remittances cannot be ignored.
According to the latest data from the World Bank, remittance inflows to Sub-Saharan Africa increased by 6.2% to USD 45 billion in 2021. In the report titled, “Migration and Development Brief 35”, the World Bank explained that the region’s largest recipient was Nigeria (USD 17.6 billion), and the country is experiencing a moderate rebound in remittance flows, in part due to the increasing influence of policies intended to channel inflows through the banking system. The report added that Nigeria continued to dominate remittance inflows into Sub-Saharan Africa given the exceptional size of the Nigerian migrant base.
The Yaoundé government might be waking up late but better late than never. It must work hard to woo its 5-million strong Diaspora comprising top-notch professionals and businesspeople. For long, the Cameroon government has always viewed its Diaspora as its enemy. The country’s Diaspora is totally against the corruption and bad governance which have brought the country down a dangerous economic path which is spreading death and agony among the country’s youths.
The country’s political arena is one of the worst on the continent, with dishonesty being the hallmark of most ruling party politicians. Bad policies, the government’s arrogance and a gloomy political outlook have pushed many Cameroonians out of their country, and it will be hard to win hearts and minds among members of the country’s Diaspora which has come to terms with the fact that things will never change for the better if the same people who have caused the friction are still in power.
However, if the government really wants to woo its Diaspora, it must mend its ways. Sending a delegation to Europe to urge the country’s Diaspora to invest back home is like putting the horse before the cart. Good policies, instead of missions abroad, will bring investors to Cameroon and when things are really working well in the country, the Diaspora will come in to breathe a new life into the collapsing economy.
Many countries in the world have pursued policies which make their countries attractive to their various Diasporic communities. Canada, for example, allows members of its Diaspora to return home after one year abroad with their personal effects without paying any customs duty.
In Tunisia, the country’s Diaspora has been supportive of the government’s development efforts. Members of the country’s Diaspora who are returning home after a long stay abroad could come in with their cars without paying duty. And customs duty is just one of the concessions that many countries around the world are making to bring back their Diaspora, especially members of the Diaspora who have investment projects which could help create jobs for their fellow citizens.
In Mozambique which went through a very destructive civil war, the government has taken measures to make the country’s Diaspora a key component of its development efforts conscious of the fact that the country’s Diaspora can contribute in social, cultural, and economic ways, including remittances, skills, and dialogue – all of which are key to national development.
With this strategy, the government has demonstrated its commitment to longer term engagement to work together with the Diaspora to leverage these contributions. To strengthen the support and engagement of the Mozambican Diaspora in social, economic and cultural development of the country, the government has launched a Strategy for Diaspora Engagement in National Development.
Meanwhile, Ghana, a country which understands the role the Diaspora can play, has a Diaspora Affairs Bureau within the country’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Regional Integration. This is a landmark achievement on the part of the Government of Ghana, which has formalized the engagement of the Ghanaian Diaspora for effective migration management and national development planning.
There are an estimated four million Ghanaians living in the Diaspora. The majority live in neighboring African countries and the largest concentration of Ghanaian migrants outside the region are found in Germany, Italy, Netherlands, the United Kingdom and the United States. The Bureau builds upon the success of the Ministry’s Diaspora Support Unit (DSU), established in 2012 with the support of IOM’s International Development Fund (IDF). The IDF supports IOM Member States in their efforts to strengthen their migration management capacity. The DSU was established as part of a national diaspora engagement project to provide a sustainable link between the Ghanaian Diaspora and various government agencies to achieve development and investment goals.
If the Yaounde government really wants Cameroonians to return home and lend a hand in national development efforts, it must rescind some of those obnoxious policies which have been at the centre of its dispute with its Diaspora. The issue of dual nationality has not been addressed and the country’s Diaspora is waiting for the government to address this issue immediately. Many African countries have already accepted dual nationality as the new reality, and this is helping their citizens who are living abroad to return home and invest without having to submit themselves to the immigration concerns which come with having two or more nationalities.
South Africa, for example, accepted dual nationality once Mandela came to power. Mandela understood that Many South Africans had escaped their country during the dark years of Apartheid and many children had been born in foreign countries during that time, automatically making them citizens of the countries wherein they had been born. South Africans returning to their country with foreign passports can come in with proof that they have South African citizenship without seeking a South African visa, but once in South Africa, the country’s laws will apply without discrimination. This is a country which knows how to bring back its citizens. Cameroon can draw on the experience of this country to address the issue of dual nationality.
There are other concerns which require the government’s attention. It is not easy to wire huge sums of money to Cameroon. The banking system is not reliable and the country’s investment and legal frameworks leave much to be desired. If the government can also invest in road infrastructure and strive to reduce police harassment and corruption, the country will be attractive to rich members of the Diaspora who have worked very hard to earn their money.
The business climate and environment must be friendly if any reasonable person will invest in the country. The government must also learn to cut politics out of other sectors of life. It must also be tolerant of opposing views. Investing in Cameroon remains a very risky venture. However, things can change if the government demonstrates a strong commitment to change some of those policies which are robbing the country of good investments. Sending delegations abroad will never cut it if the same policies remain in place.
By Joachim Arrey, Ph.D