Last night, I attended the Andrew Young Lecture at the Nigerian Embassy in Washington, D.C., hosted by the Africa Society. The main attraction of the night was Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Linda Thomas-Greenfield. After the obligatory free wine, diplomatic corps schmoozing, and sampling of veggies, samosas, and meatballs from the reception table, the crowd (which I reckon was about 80 persons or so) and I were ushered into the auditorium room to hear preceding remarks by representatives from Chevron(!), the Asia Society, and Ambassador Adebowale Adefuye.
Asst. Secretary Thomas-Greenfield’s speech centered around the Obama administrations policy priorities for Africa. She discussed Obama’s Power Africa initiative, a multi-billion dollar project which aims to improve electricity supply on the continent through support from the public and private sector. She spoke excitedly about the Young African Leaders Initiative or YALI, which will bring a group of 500 (out of over 50,000 applicants!) of young Africans to the United States for a chance to learn leadership development during the Summer. Thomas-Greenfield declared this summer to be “The Summer of Africa” in Washington D.C., the culmination of which will be Obama’s African Leaders Summit in August.
Most of Thomas- Greenfield’s speech were the normal talking points that one would expect about U.S. priorities in Africa. We got youth employment, democracy and elections, security and terrorism, and human rights. The normal song and dance. but no mention of the wave of anti-gay legislation sweeping the continent.
Things got interesting during the time for questions.
A Nigerian gentleman in the audience stood up and gruffly challenged Thomas-Greenfield. “Why did you not mention the power of the diaspora in your speech? Why have you not approached us? ” He was right, she hadn’t mentioned the diaspora at all.
Thomas-Greenfield shot back with an answer I did not expect. She said, that the diaspora was not doing enough to pressure and influence lawmakers in DC. “You want us to come to you…you need to come…write to your congressmen! We need the African diaspora to make policy demands on us. Organize yourselves into pressure groups like others have done.”
After Q+A was over, I approached Thomas-Greenfield to clarify what she meant. She said, “People want to set up meetings with us and ask us what we in the administration can do for them when its the congress that has the money!” She said the diaspora needed to organize like other lobbies and use their votes to voice the changes they wished to see in U.S. policy towards Africa. “If you vote, tell your congressmen what priorities are important.”
A lot of rhetoric in the last few years about the African diaspora in the development and policy community tends to suggest that Africans in the diaspora are the secret magical key to unlocking Africa’s development potential. From diaspora remittances to educated Africans returning from the West to Africa to start businesses, we have heard plenty of narratives about the sacred African diaspora. But to have a ranking official candidly challenging the diaspora to be more active for Africa within the U.S. government is a splash of cold water in the face.
Are African lobbies challenging immigration policy? Can we point to African diaspora groups that had a hand in crafting the Power Africa or YALI initiatives? Are there campaigns to lobby congress on policies towards conflict zones? Are there political awareness initiatives that can help the diaspora be more educated about U.S. congressional hearings on Africa? Does the diaspora have priority points when it comes to policy?
I had plenty of conversations about the diaspora after the evening was over. Many of my friends agreed that the African diaspora in the U.S. is indeed not organized, at least to the same degree as other pressure groups. Some on Twitter said that the diaspora should focus on lobbying governments back in their home countries. Others said that the wide range of issues affecting 50+ countries make organizing inherently difficult.
One friend of mine said, “You know, Africans can be complacent once they get to this country. They are not used to asking their government for anything and getting something in return. They are not used to approaching government.”
Whatever the case may be, we in the diaspora can always do more. And maybe when it comes to political organizing here in the U.S. we have been dropping the ball.