Expertise and investment– grounds for the “year Of return, Ghana 2019”

Expertise and investment– grounds for the “year Of return, Ghana 2019”

Since the abolishment of slavery in 1833, descendants of Africans, who were uprooted from the continent and forced in labour on sugar and cotton plantains, in Europe, North America, the Caribbean and South America have traced their roots back to the continent.

Two African countries, Liberia and Sierra Leone, were actual destinations for ex-slaves from the Americas who wished to come back home to the continent as well as people rescued by the British Navy from slave ships en route to the Americas. 

Today, there are millions of African descendants who have made Europe, North America, the Caribbean and South America their home. Despite that, most of them still seek their roots on the African continent and are becoming more and more aware of their status as members of the African diaspora.

A significant part of the diaspora are also people who emigrated to North America and Europe seeking better lives and education as a result of conflict, poverty, lack of economic activity and political instability. These are emigrants who also do return or seek a return back to their homeland.

Various Governments’ call on the Diaspora

Several presidents of Ghana, from the days of Dr Kwame Nkrumah, a returnee himself who led the fight for independence, have tried to lure the members of the diaspora back to the continent and Ghana. In his maiden independence address, then–Prime Minister Kwame Nkrumah sought to frame Africa’s liberation around the concept of Africans all over the world coming back to Africa.

“Nkrumah saw the American Negro as the vanguard of the African people,” said Henry Louis Gates Jr., Director of the Hutchins Centre for African and African American Research at Harvard, who first travelled to Ghana when he was 20 and fresh out of Harvard, afire with Nkrumah’s spirit. “He wanted to be able to utilize the services and skills of African-Americans as Ghana made the transition from colonialism to independence.”

Even long before the attainment of independence and Gold Coast becoming Ghana, the political leaders of the Gold Coast reached out to the African Diaspora. There are letters from people like Casely Hayford, who was a major political leader in the 1910s and 1920s, to W.E.B DuBois and to Marcus Garvey.

But for a couple of decades now each president of Ghana has introduced a series of aggressive moves to bring their growing population of the diaspora back home. Even though these moves have been well planned, success has been mixed at best.

In 2000, when John Agyekum Kufuor became the President of the country, he appealed to the members of the diaspora to come back home to help develop the country. Also in 2000, the Parliament of Ghana passed a Citizenship Act in 2000 to make provision for dual citizenship, meaning that people of Ghanaian origin who have acquired citizenships abroad can take up Ghanaian citizenship if they so desire.

That same year the country enacted the Immigration Act, which provides for a “Right of Abode” for any “Person of African descent in the Diaspora” to travel to and from the country “without hindrance.”

At the time, Ghana has undertaken the first transfer of power from one civilian government to another with the ruling party also changing. That significant move positioned Ghana as the beacon of democracy on a continent that was ravaged by wars, poverty, economic paralysis, corruption and mismanagement at the highest levels.

The push to bring back Africans in the diaspora yielded some positives. Some Ghanaians in the diaspora did come home and helped the government undertake and establish some critical governmental and economic institutions.

A quick mention can be made about Nana Osei Bonsu, the current CEO of the Private Enterprise Federation (PEF) who came back to Ghana at the urging of President Kufuor. His expertise was leveraged to create the Venture Capital Trust Fund (VCTF), the first public sector-led private equity/venture capital fund in the country.

Also, Rita Marley, the wife of Reggae Legend, Bob Marley, relocated to Ghana and is currently staying in the country. There are also recorded settlements of people from the Caribbean who now reside in Cape Coast in the Central Region and even as far as Techiman, in the newly created Bono East Region.

Then in 2007, the Joseph Project, which was led by the late Jake Obetsebi Lamptey when he was the Minister of Tourism and Diasporan Relations, was launched to mark the 50th year of independence, and to commemorate 200 years since the abolition of slavery and to encourage Africans abroad to return.

Similar to Israel’s policy of reaching out to Jews across Europe and beyond following the Holocaust, the Joseph Project is named for the Biblical Joseph who was sold into slavery in Egypt but would later reunite with his family and rule Egypt. It was seen as a medium to bring together, more closely, people in Ghana and brothers and sisters in the diaspora and establish Ghana as the true gateway to the homeland for Africans in the diaspora.

Since then various presidents have used other means to bring back diasporans back home. President John Dramani Mahama and President Nana Addo Dankwa Akufo-Addo, the current president, have granted citizenship to members of the Caribbean community in the country. The current majority owners of Republic Bank come from Trinidad and Tobago, a Carribean country.

These moves are seen as measures to attract more of such personalities and institutions to help contribute significantly to economic growth and development.

Ghana sets the stage for The Year of Return

In September, 2018, when President Akufo-Addo was in the United States, he proclaimed 2019 as the ‘Year of Return’. Officially titled ‘Year of Return, Ghana 2019’, the proclamation was read at a ceremony at the United States National Press Club in Washington DC to formally launch a program of activities marking the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first enslaved Africans from Jamestown, Accra to Jamestown, Virginia in English North America in 1619.

But before that in 2013 the United Nations declared 2015–2024 the International Decade for People of African Descent to “promote respect, protection, and fulfillment of all human rights and fundamental freedoms of people of African descent.” The theme for the ten-year celebration is “People of African descent: recognition, justice and development.”

The ‘Year of Return, Ghana 2019’ has therefore coincided with the biennial Pan African Historical Theatre Festival (Panafest), which is held in Cape Coast, home of Cape Coast Castle and neighboring Elmina Castle—two notable edifices recognized by UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) as World Heritage Sites of the slave era.   

The launch, attended by the cream of African American community, including members of the United States Congress, civil rights groups, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), black clergymen and the business community, was organized by the Ghana Tourism Authority, under the auspices of the Ministry of Tourism, Arts and Culture, the Office of Diasporan Affairs at the Office of the President, the PANAFEST Foundation and the Adinkra Group, an event group based in the US.

The Proclamation recognizes Ghana’s unique position as the location for 75 percent of the slave dungeons built on the west coast of Africa and the current President’s policy making it a national priority to extend a hand of welcome back home to Africans in the diaspora.

As well as taking note of the fact that “Ghana has more African Americans living in the country than any other African country,” the proclamation also expressed happiness about Ghana’s Right of Abode immigration law that grants freedom to persons with this right “to live and to come and go into and from the country without let or hindrance”. 

Another factor influencing the Proclamation is the 115th US Congress Resolution (HR 1242) establishing the 400 Years African American History Commission to commemorate the anniversary.

Speaking at the launch, President Akufo-Addo recalled Ghana’s early Pan African leadership role and pledged that “under my leadership, Ghana will continue to ensure that our hard-won Pan African reputation is not lost. Making Ghana the focus of activities to commemorate the landing of the first enslaved Africans in the English colonies in North America is, therefore, a huge opportunity to entrench Ghana’s leadership.”

“In the year 2019, we open our arms even wider to welcome home our brothers and sisters in what will become a birthright journey home for the global African family,” he said.

The President eulogized the role played by the late Otanka Obetsebi-Lamptey, who, as Tourism Minister in the Kufuor administration, launched the ‘Joseph Project’, symbolizing an arm of brotherhood inviting back home, descendants of Africans who were enslaved and, therefore, find themselves in North, Central and South America.

Mentioning the late minister’s wish to see the ‘Right of Abode’ immigration program become law and his (Jake’s) determination to grant easy visas to Africans in the diaspora, the President declared: “I pledge the determination of my government to grant these wishes.”

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Mission of the new Diaspora Affairs in the wake of events

In an exclusive interview with Akwasi Awua Ababio, the Director of Diaspora Affairs, Office of the President (DAOOP), he noted that the Year of Return seeks to make Ghana the focus for millions of African descendants reacting to their marginalization by tracing their ancestry and identity. By this, he said, Ghana becomes the beacon for African people living on the continent and the diaspora.

“Ghanaians in the Diaspora, serve in building bridges between their country of residence and Ghana by providing market access, sources of expertise, knowledge,” he said, adding that the objective behind establishing the office at the Presidency, emphasizes the importance the government places on the contributions Ghanaians in the Diaspora make to the economy.

Established in February 2017, the Diaspora Affairs office’s mission is to efficiently harness, mobilize, and steer Ghanaian resources in the diaspora for political inclusion, economic and socio-cultural development. “Our mission is achieved through a multi-stakeholder coordination approach, involving government ministries, Ghanaian associations abroad, the private sector, non-profit organizations and international organizations,” he added.

With decades of experience working in the diaspora himself, Mr. Ababio, alongside his colleagues who in total have more than 50 years’ experience in the diaspora, is expected to leverage his expertise to oversee the strategic use of a comprehensive database for diaspora resource mobilization and utilization.

He added that this government has appointed more diasporans to strategic government institutions including regulatory authorities, public companies, ministerial positions, agencies and committees than any other. In business, he noted that hundreds of diasporans are coming back home to set up businesses or take strategic positions in existing businesses and seeking to take these businesses further.

“We are gradually importing the attitudinal changes we have experienced in the diaspora here so that people will change their ways. Most diasporans who have returned are already impacting the small communities in which they live. For those who lived well-organized lives in structured and clean environments, they are doing same here and their neighbours, who are indigenes are following suit,” he said.

Stressing his commitment to the cause, he assured that Ghana fully engages the diaspora and leverages the pool of talents and investment potential for the development of the country while employing policies and comprehensive strategies that will exponentially grow Ghana’s diaspora remittances beyond the currently stated US$3billion.

He pointed out that the office has reviewed the old Diaspora Engagement Policy, and transformed it into a comprehensive document which is currently being reviewed by stakeholders such as diasporan associations in the UK, USA, Europe and other parts of the world, missions and trade unions. The policy document, he said, was aimed at encouraging Ghanaians in the diaspora to bring their technical skills, money and investment opportunities back home to complement growth and development.

“The policy document covers all aspects and concerns by diasporans and will become the guiding principle and the policy that every government will work with relative to diasporans affiliated to Ghana. This document will harness the potential out there as willed, therefore, take this nation forward,” he added.

Stressing government’s recognition of the contributions of Ghanaians in the diaspora, he pointed out that having this policy document is a major shift in the approach to the members of the diaspora. “This time, we are changing a lot of things. Almost every initiative we are undertaking this year in respect of the Year of Return is going to be institutionalized and held either yearly or every two years. For instance, the Homecoming Festival will be held every two years even after 2019.”

Since the launch of the Year of Return, Mr. Ababio added that his office has received well over 100 proposals from individuals and corporate organisations to organize events around the Year of Return. “This means there is a bigger impact we are looking at here when it comes to tourism and business development. Since the announcement by the president, hotels have seen significant bookings with a lot of people coming to Ghana,” he averred.

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Impact of The 2019 Homecoming Summit

In July, the Diaspora Affairs office organised Diaspora Celebration and Homecoming Summit to lure investors who will help the state realise the Ghana Beyond Aid vision. Mr. Ababio shared his optimism about the enormous impact the celebration and summit would have on the country’s GDP.

With more than US$3billion remitted to Ghana annually from around the world, Mr. Ababio noted that government intends to reduce the cost of remittances by some 9 percent in the coming years so as to attract more remittances from abroad to fuel economic growth.

The global average cost of sending US$200 remained high, at around 7percent in the first quarter of 2019, according to the World Bank’s Remittance Prices Worldwide database. Reducing remittance costs to 3 percent by 2030 is a global target under Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 10.7.

He explained that government is working with the African Development Bank and the World Bank to craft measures to make the cost of remittances cheaper for Ghanaians abroad. “When the figure comes down we believe it will encourage more remittances. We want it to come down by 8 to 9 percent. The World Bank, however, have a rate they are working with,” Mr. Awuah-Ababio stated.

The four-day event recognized and celebrated the immense contributions to nation building by the Ghanaian Diaspora. It also highlighted past contributions but focused on present contributions as well, whiles furthering the advocacy for political, economic, and all other systems and policies that would facilitate future contributions by the diaspora.

“This event addressed how economically, we could take advantage of people from the diaspora. A gentleman who attended the meeting approached me afterwards to discuss how to establish a medical facility in Ghana. His dad worked decades as a medical doctor in Europe. This is an example of someone taking advantage.

“When we talk about the diaspora, we are talking about people who can help us move Ghana Beyond Aid. Just look at how much they remit annually. We even have young people who do not remit money but have ideas that can help transform the economy based on their experiences living outside Ghana,” he stressed.

He assured that Ghana has prepared the grounds well enough for the diaspora to come in and make the most of the opportunities here. “We know the diaspora can be helpful because we cannot continue to depend on aid. This year’s PANAFEST comes with an investment forum to attract investors,” he revealed.

Strategic Partnerships to champion the course

The Diaspora Affairs office has formed crucial partnership with other state institutions, regional, district and local assembly institutions, Ghanaian associations abroad, international organisations and NGOs to promote the interest of Ghanaians in the diaspora, explore more meaningful ways the diaspora could contribute to Ghana’s socio-economic development and creating awareness about the negative effects of irregular migration.

Mr. Ababio explained that there is a steering committee that coordinates all activities in relation to the diaspora. This steering committee has him as head or chairperson and well represented by the private sector, tour, and tourism representation, CSOs, diasporans and others.

“This committee brings people into meetings for purposes of organising events and summits. Then there is an operational committee which has all government representatives including ministries of Foreign Affairs, Interior, Tourism, Finance and others. This is for purposes of engagement and organisation,” he detailed.

Due to the extensive nature of operations which take planning to the local level, assemblymen and women and chiefs are all engaged. “During PANAFEST, we got the active participation of the Chief of Assin Manso. In Cape Coast, the Chief is a key consultant in making sure PANAFEST was a success,” he noted.

World’s traffic soon to be directed to Ghana

Apart from the huge numbers who will be coming through the various entry point, the countless activities will generate significant jobs and revenues for the people of Ghana. “For example, the global pageant, Miss Heritage, was switched to Ghana as host country due to the Year of Return activities. What we want to do is direct the world’s traffic to Ghana so that our black family will have the rebirth and reconnection with the motherland,” he concluded.

In the upcoming months, various events shall be holding to continue The Year of Return celebration and so everyone can join in the festivities after carefully identifying which of the events suit their time.