Accountability, Africa & her diaspora

Chukwu-Emeka Chikezie
25 September 2005

Protocol is no small matter to most Nigerians. Rising to address a public meeting of Nigerians in London recently at which he was guest speaker, an eminent Nigerian supreme court judge carefully navigated his way through the potential minefield of addressing the other august persons on the high table. Having surmounted that hurdle with diplomatic aplomb, he then proceeded “to do kporapko” and recognise the presence in the audience of the head of his village, also in London on a visit.

It was particularly befitting that this high official of the Nigerian state – a senior member of the judiciary, no less – should indulge in a little kporapko while addressing a group of Nigerians in the diaspora, many of whom organise on precisely the same basis.

Chukwu-Emeka Chikezie works for the London-based non-profit organisation the African Foundation for Development (Afford), which seeks to be a “catalytic agent” of African development by linking African diaspora organisations with governments, businesses, funders, NGOs and civil society organisations in Africa itself.

Chukwu-Emeka Chikezie’s other articles in openDemocracy are:

“African agency vs the aid industry” (July 2005)

“The G8 summit: good for Africans? ” (July 2005)

If you find this material valuable please consider supporting openDemocracy by sending us a donation so that we can continue our work and keep it free for all

Kporapko is a Yoruba term (though the judge in this case was not Yoruba, nor did he have to explain this term to his Nigerian audience) which means either ethnocentricism or nepotism. In other words, it can be as innocuous and appropriate as the judge’s public recognition of a respected person from his village or it can be the more sinister and damaging favouritism that one person shows another from his or her village or ethnic group over more deserving others.

The incident is one small index of complex and fertile are ideas of “accountability” in the African context. Today the authority and legitimacy of public officials in Africa must be negotiated with a rich texture of regional, communal and social associations; rapid progress in communications technology is providing Africans with new opportunities for networking and enterprise; and, perhaps above all, increasing numbers of Africans in the diaspora are reconnecting to their home countries in imaginative new ways involving creative “peer-to-peer” development strategies.

All these transformations are fuelling changes in the ways Africans nurture the relationships of accountability – embodying practices of obligation, respect, responsibility and mutuality – that underpin their connection to each other.

The diaspora effect

Africa’s “new diaspora” frequently organises into associations based on hometown, ethnic, alumni, or equivalent associations. In his 1960 novel No Longer at Ease, the renowned writer Chinua Achebe paints a colourful picture of life in the Umofia Progressive Union, a hometown association of an Igbo village in eastern Nigeria:

“Umofians who leave their home town to find work in towns all over Nigeria regard themselves as sojourners… No matter where they are in Nigeria, they start a local branch of the Umofia Progressive Union.”

Members of Iteso Welfare Association in London, for instance, hail from Uganda’s Teso region (to the country’s north), support each other in their bid to make successful, comfortable, and enjoyable lives for themselves on their sojourn, and – significantly – support development efforts back home in Teso.

Indeed, we now see a growing trend towards Africans in the diaspora combining their efforts to effect positive (and sometimes negative!) change in their regions of origin. Thus while migrants and diaspora individuals and communities still direct the bulk of remittances – money they send home – to individual households, they now channel more collectively.

With the rise and rise of remittance flows over the last few years, Africans in the diaspora are Africa’s biggest aid donors and investors. They are, in effect, Africa’s biggest taxpayers, hit by a double whammy. First, they contribute to the overseas aid budget through their tax contributions to their new home government. Second, they make direct contributions via their individual and collective remittances. The latter far outstrip the former in terms of absolute volumes.

To take a single example: the aid budget of Britain’s department for international development (DFID) for the whole of Africa stands at £864 million, while a Bank of Ghana estimate suggests that remittance flows into that country alone amounted to about £1 billion in 2004. And apart from money siphoned off in transfer fees, remittance money – unlike aid money – gets to its destination intact.

How perverse, then, that African governments are far more accountable and responsive to their bilateral and multilateral aid donors than they are to African taxpayers at home or abroad. I remember being in Sierra Leone in January 1996 during a palace coup which saw the then leader, Captain Valentine Strasser lose power to his deputy, Julius Maada Bio. Only after the new leadership had explained the rationale to the international donor community did they deign to let the Sierra Leonean people into the big secret; for a full twenty-four hours, Sierra Leoneans had only rumours for company.

Migration from Africa and indeed the growing flows of resources back are both symptomatic of state failure in Africa, if not outright collapse. An economic advisor based in Zanzibar once explained to me that “people get by in spite of, not because of, the state.” Structural adjustment, mismanagement, poor leadership, corruption, and the post-communist shake-up of the international system all helped to sour the relationship between the African state and its citizens.

However, the first two decades of independence in sub-Saharan Africa did see significant developmental gains, all now largely wiped out.

The disappearing state

Africans have developed fairly sophisticated strategies for avoiding a state that seems hell-bent on obstructing their lives. Income from informal economic activity and remittances; healthcare and education provided by modern-day missionaries (as well as many new Pentecostal churches and their charismatic pastors); law provided by sharia courts and imams; protection provided by vigilante groups and their magic potions. All this and more happens with little state involvement. Africans weave together the fabric of their lives far from the state’s purview.

The result is that today’s African state is defined more by its absence than by its presence. It lacks legitimacy. It lacks accountability. Compounding these difficulties, it lacks transparency. And increasingly, a state never particularly well endowed in the first place lacks the capacity to remedy the situation. Ironically, rather than the much-publicised brain-drain being the source of problems, it is often the international NGOs who in effect poach civil servants from the government to implement their projects. They are better funded and can offer more attractive conditions of service to underpaid, overworked, and undervalued public servants.

Somehow it seems as if Africans are constructing their own state – one they can identify with, that is accountable to them, and to which they owe strong allegiance. People often joke that a Nigerian civil servant or politician who would think nothing of pillaging the state coffers would never dream of misappropriating a single kobo of his or her hometown association’s resources. The opprobrium, the sanctions, the shame, are all too much to even contemplate such an abomination.

I suspect that if the post-colonial nation-state that our progressive independence leaders dreamed of is to survive then it will have to become much more relevant and meaningful to more Africans. Otherwise, the appeal of the kporapko state may be irresistible, in spite of the contradictions that it implies.

But the African state’s slide into anarchy and chaos for some, mediocrity and morass for others, and patronage and protection for a select few is not the inevitable outcome of fictions of colonial map-drawing. It is not time yet to give up our power to imagine new communities in favour of ethnic enclaves.

Identities are complex and multifaceted. So, Africans do kporapko at many levels, particularly when in the diaspora. While the village or ethnic group is an everyday identity, national sporting fixtures and independence-day celebrations are particular moments to celebrate association with and allegiance to the nation-state. And when only the Cameroonians have made it to the latter rounds of the soccer world cup, suddenly Africans say “we’re all Cameroonians now” and rally round.

A new, transnational project?

Today, the African leadership has begun to tackle the “national project” with renewed vigour. The New Partnership for Africa’s Development (Nepad) is pragmatic pan-Africanism. At the nation-state level, African leaders are groping towards a new social contract with their citizens. Interestingly, they are beginning to see this as a transnational nation-building project.

Ghana’s President John Kufuor, for instance, describes Ghanaians abroad as his government’s most important overseas development partners. After his election in 2001, he initiated a Ghana Homecoming Summit to encourage Ghanaians abroad to invest in and support the country’s development. Lack of follow-through stymied this path-breaking, innovative initiative. Many Ghanaians whose expectations rose perhaps to unrealistic levels now feel deflated and distrustful of “talk shop” summits. What they want to see is action.

The Ghanaian government has penned in a significant role for the Ghanaian diaspora in achieving the goals spelled out in the Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper (PRSP). Thus, you could say that engagement with its diaspora is at the heart of Ghana’s development strategy.

But here Ghana’s own version of kporapko stands in the way, somewhat, of the government’s grand vision. For the PRSP rather assumes that all Ghanaians abroad are signed up to develop this construct called Ghana. Most actually focus on specific locations within Ghana. Groups from the southern Ashanti region, for instance, typically channel their efforts via the chief’s stool to which they bear allegiance. This sets up a potentially tricky constitutional conundrum.

This article forms part of the “Peer Power: Reinventing Accountability” debate.

AccountAbility, openDemocracy’s partner in this debate, will hold a major event, “Accountability 21: Reinventing Accountability for the 21st Century” on 3-5 October in London.

Also in this debate:

Bill Thompson, “The Democratic Republic of Cyberspace?”

Simon Zadek, “Reinventing Accountability for the 21st Century”

John Lloyd, “The responsibility of the harlot”

Becky Hogge & Geoff Mulgan, “Open source nation”

Sarah Lindon, “Talking Democratically”

Ben Rogers, “Courtroom shake-up”

If you find this material valuable please consider supporting openDemocracy by sending us a donation so that we can continue our work and keep it free for all

Chiefs, through their diaspora networks, can often mobilise considerable resources for local development. But these chiefs have loyal subjects, not active citizens. Meanwhile, the constitution delegates authority to the district assembly to provide for all Ghanaian citizens resident in the locality, often with only meagre resources. Subjects find it hard to question the chief and hold him accountable for resources he may have raised among the diaspora abroad. Courtiers find such questions impertinent and frown upon them. Citizens can, in theory, hold the district chief executive to account. Resolving who has the legitimacy in the people’s eyes to effect development at the local level is the unfinished business of decolonisation.

It is clear that Africans in the diaspora are keen to engage more actively and effectively in development and to hold African leaders more directly to account. Some Africans in the diaspora have argued strongly for the right to vote at home. Nigeria’s President Olusegun Obasanjo set up a national commission to recommend improvements to the country’s governance. The commission recommended that Nigeria’s legislators amend the constitution to allow overseas voting.

This move could help to transform Nigerian politics, hopefully for the better, although Africans in the diaspora are neither a panacea for all Africa’s ills nor paragons of virtue. The Nigerian high commissioner to Britain, Christopher Kolade, complains that too many Nigerians in his patch are ill-informed. The right to vote may motivate more Nigerians (and other Africans) to keep themselves abreast of developments in the country (though it is not clear that such a right has encouraged voters in the United States or parts of Europe to better inform themselves).

Certainly, multiple communications technologies – websites, blogs, newspapers online, chatrooms, live radio feeds, mobile-phone voice and text messaging, Africa-focused satellite channels – all exist now to keep the avid African in the diaspora informed about developments back “home”.

In the end, though, whether these developments are good, bad, or indifferent will depend on two things. First, whether Africans in the diaspora can work to shift the balance of power to their counterparts on the frontline in Africa.

Second, African diaspora groups will need to be very clear about what sort of society they are seeking to build. Having a kporapko focus is fine if people understand that development of individual households or villages is necessary but not sufficient. As Nelson Mandela once pointed out, security for a few means insecurity for all.

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