After more than a decade of advocacy, the Nigerian Diaspora Commission became a reality recently when Acting President Yemi Osinbajo assented to the Bill establishing the body. An active participant in the process that led to the realization of the Commission is Collins Nweke*, Belgium-based media and development consultant and an elected communal politician who served in various leadership positions in the Nigerians in Diaspora Organisation Europe for many years.
In this opinion piece, Nweke takes us down the memory lane on how the struggle for the Commission was waged and won. He also examines the institutional structure of the new Commission and makes suggestions on how best to make it achieve the purpose for which it’s established. Moreover, Nweke names one more battle still to be fought in the Diaspora quest for a more active and robust participation in national development.
Talks of a Nigerian Diaspora Commission began more than 10 years ago. Some of us felt then that a full-fledged Ministry for Diaspora Affairs was more deserving but we do not mind making a start with a Commission.
Our friends on the opposite side declared us bunkers and would have nothing of that sort. The Oronsanye Civil Service Report that recommended the scraping of 102 redundant agencies would conveniently arm them with extra arguments. As rebuttal we would remind our opponents that the Civil Service Reforms recommendation was all about plugging waste and operating smart.
If that meant, as we were sure it did, developing or sharpening the instrument to empower a constituency that annually contributes an average of USD 30 Billion to Nigeria oil-dependent economy, so be it.
The highs and lows in the evolution graph of the Diaspora Commission debates over the last decade were shaped by these conflicting thoughts. When an injury heals, its pains go with it. This adage captures the mood of the Diaspora when on 30 June 2017, Acting President finally assented to the Nigerian Diaspora Commission (NIDCOM) Bill.
Diaspora Commission as hard but logical priority choice
In my tenure as Chief Executive of the European arm of Nigeria’s official Diaspora body, Nigerians in Diaspora Organisation (NIDO) from 2004 – 2006 and serving in its Board of Trustees as General Secretary between 2007 and 2009 and Board Chairman from 2011 to 2013, two main activities took centre-stage in my work. These were the agitation for the realization of the Diaspora Commission Bill and making the case for Out-of-Country voting for Nigerians in Diaspora. With the Diaspora Commission now a reality, I am sure you can hear me think: one down, one to go!
As with all policy work, my office quickly identified the strategic partners needed to set the ball rolling on Out-of-Country Voting or Diaspora Voting and Diaspora Bill. A Bill is essentially a legislative matter. It was no brainer therefore that our natural ally for the Diaspora Commission Bill would be the National Assembly, particularly the House of Representatives.
The 2005 National Political Reforms Conference offered no better platform to launch our case for Diaspora Voting. Our Delegates to the national parley wasted no time in taking up the case for Diaspora Voting resting on the preparatory work and initial research provided by the Headquarter of NIDO Europe under my leadership as Chief Executive.
By 2009 the legislative framework for the Diaspora Commission Bill was in place. In tandem we had commenced initial work on a national policy on Diaspora affairs and after meeting several brick walls in its realization, we thought it makes all the sense in the world to choose our fights carefully.
From 2 February 2010 when a public hearing was held in the National Assembly, ably coordinated and hosted by the House Committee on Diaspora Affairs to 30 June 2017 when the Presidency assented to the Bill, a lot of water had passed under the bridge.
An excellent, yet imperfect Act
Do we have a perfect Act establishing the Commission? Certainly not! But perhaps a perfect Act does not exist. Most important thing today is that we have an Act, one that took into consideration certain anomalies that the Diaspora pinpointed from the onset.
Looking at the Bill as assented to by the Presidency and the initial draft presented by the House Committee on Diaspora Affairs, on which early debates were based, there are huge dissimilarities. Ironical isn’t it?
Not really. It tells us a few things. Firstly, the House Committee leadership knew what a sound Diaspora Commission Bill ought to look like and initially delivered one. Secondly it exposes the vulnerability of the same House Committee leadership to undue influence by powerful Diaspora lobby groups.
One clear evidence of this is: the initial draft Establishment Bill as put forward by the House Committee on Diaspora recognized the place of Nigerians in Diaspora Organisation (NIDO) in providing policy coherence for the work of the proposed Commission.
The pre-NIDO era lacked coherence. It was characterized by thousands of community, professional, religious, ethnic and cultural organisations of Nigerians in Diaspora, fighting, like children in a disjointed polygamous family, to dominate the space. As can be expected, the law of the jungle applied. This is because NIDO stands on its way in exerting undue control over Diaspora affairs. The other issue, closely complimentary to this is the disproportionate representation of Nigerian Diaspora on the Governing Board of the Commission. The Diaspora disagreed on quite a lot but an issue that organized Diaspora worldwide saw eye-to-eye on as the enemy to fight to a standstill was the buildup of powerful lobby groups in the Diaspora and Diaspora returnees, largely undermining the draft Establishment Bill and skilfully manipulating its seemingly naïve authors. Its purpose? To kill NIDO.
Thirdly, it revealed that NIDO leadership has the ability and the gusto to take on its own fight and defend the interest of its constituency despite the perceived disarray of its rank and file. Despite the powerful lobby NIDO succeeded in bringing back its status as the lead Diaspora partner in the implementation of the Diaspora Commission and equal representation of the Diaspora on the Governing Board.
A lean or an obese Diaspora Commission?
Going forward, the Diaspora Commission is not a done deal. Indeed the assent of the Presidency to the Bill marks the beginning of the real work. The devil is in the details, as they say. One of such details is the correction of a few obvious details. Number one is the recognition and representation of NIDO Africa in the Bill and ultimately in the Commission. Secondly and related to that is the anomaly of having only 3 Diaspora representatives in a Governing Board of 17 members.
A legislator recently reminded me of the saying that we should be careful what we wish for. After all, he teased me, we simply acceded to your request of equal representation. I knew then that he was joking because he couldn’t possibly confuse a request for fair distribution of seats to blatantly short changing the core constituency of a Bill.
Need anyone be reminded that the full interests and broad perspectives of the Diaspora will be credibly served by an arrangement where at least 8 out of the 17 seats are occupied by the Diaspora?
Furthermore, a look at the proposed staffing of the Commission will convince management experts that Nigeria needs a Master Class on Lean Management Concept. I am not sure that a Commission needs a staff of 141 employees. This certainly needs a review prior to commencement of operations as wastefulness both in manpower and finance must be a thing of the past. Talking of financials, a lean structure will also mean that the total projected cost for the first year of operation of the Commission estimated at nearly N660 million could be reduced significantly.
The 17 Governing Board members are meant to be paid salaries on part-time basis. Nigeria could try a model of sitting allowance whereby the proposed part-time salary arrangement is replaced with payment on the basis of the actual work that you do in terms of Board sittings. If you do not show up for Board meetings, you do not get paid.
Strategic, purposeful leadership is key to success. The Chief Executive of the Diaspora Commission has an obligation to deliver and he or she can rest assured that the Diaspora will not have the business as usual mentality. We are aware that what we may term as good practices in the parts of the world where the Diaspora lives and work, may not necessarily be applicable in the Nigerian context but a core part of it would work if adapted to the Nigerian idiosyncrasies.
That the head of a Commission anywhere in the world works out a First Year Strategic Plan gleaned from the Establishment Act, infused with the conclusions of a basic needs analysis has nothing to do with Nigeria, Japan or Britain but has all to do with purposeful leadership and sound management.
There are signs that if the Diaspora could succeed in sending the emerging Diaspora oligarchs on retreat in terms of stopping them from hijacking the Diaspora Commission through an Establishment Act tilted in their favour, I am certain that the required scrutiny will be brought to bear on whoever emerge heads of the Commission (Chairman & Director-General) as well as the Board.
I guess the clear message is, if you do not plan to deliver on the Diaspora Commission mandate, better reconsider your candidacy for the Governing Board because the Diaspora is willing and supremely capable of taking you to task.