Thursday, August 08, 2013

A Brief History of the Struggle for Diaspora Representation and Why We Must Rise Again

From a much-publicized 2005 Jerry Okungu dismissal of diaspora Kenyans as distant relatives who remain irrelevant to the development of Kenya, we are now discussing the merits of diaspora appointments in Presidential offices in 2013. Between 2001 and 2005, there was an unstructured restlessness building up over a growing diaspora that wished to be counted in all matters Kenyan. Then something vibrant, structured and noteworthy happened between 2006 and 2013; the diaspora began to rise up as citizens of Kenya, knocking on political, philanthropic, diplomatic and business doors. Dual citizenship was won, proposals were presented to visiting Ministers, some which inspired new vehicles in the remittances business, smart philanthropy arose, investment groups cropped up, and new think tanks explored the impenetrable jungle of foreign policy influence. But without legislated diaspora representation and engagement with its own government, a lot of these efforts are dead in the water. Even partnerships withprivate sector depend on political goodwill. It is the reason why other countries have seen the wisdom in legislating engagement with their own diasporas. Kenya has seen the light in this regard too, hence the Diaspora Bill. But this piece of legislation is little talked about, its history little understood, and its purpose all together lost to the diaspora. Instead, we’re becoming nonchalant as President after Prime Minister make personal diaspora appointments in political offices. Let’s not get fixated on partisan appointments and deny ourselves an opportunity to address the real issue. The Digital, New Media and Diaspora office should remove the “diaspora” appendage from its title. The office is primarily a government spin zone with little room for independent thought, its Director is paid to advance an agenda that is purely protective of the status quo, and for this reason, this office should never have anything to do with diaspora affairs. Which begs the question, what is the ethos of diaspora affairs that it cannot be addressed by officials hand-picked by politicians? Beside its economic and philanthropic role in the Kenyan society, diaspora is also a watchdog, a thorn in the conscience of government. This is a near-sacrosanct characteristic and role that diaspora organizations should fiercely protect, and one government should appreciate, even as we angle for partnerships. This counterbalance characteristic makes for excellent engagement and vibrant debate that actually expands Kenya’s democratic space and builds institutions. Yet without structures of engagement and representation, this rich essence of the diaspora community is greatly diminished. The Diaspora Bill must be seen through successful enactment and implementation. There are those who find no meaning in history and prefer to work on present concerns without the insight of the past. For them, the relevance of this article ends here. For the rest who like me believe in the Sankofa wisdom of going back to the past to fetch the future, especially when a people have become complacent and compromising in shaping their own destiny, continue reading this brief history of diaspora’s struggle for representation; subjective in its telling, objective in its truth. ------------------------------------------------------------ Back in 2006, the Kenyan Community Abroad (KCA) started the Office and Commission for Kenyans Abroad (OCKA) campaign. As the president of KCA then, I penned the OCKA concept note inspired by a successful lobbying the African diaspora had held for the recognition and representation of Africans in Washington DC. I had observed focused leadership bring together Africans from various countries for a common purpose and succeeded in forming the Africa Office in Washington DC, opening doors for a growing diaspora in the District. The Office on African Affairs was inaugurated with funfair at the Mayor’s office in the US Capital. We could do it too as Kenyans seeking representation in our own home country. The KCA Executive commissioned KCA-France to expand OCKA and work on the effort. As we campaigned, the Kenya government warmed up to the idea of opening an engagement platform with the diaspora, and in 2006 the “Diaspora Technical Team and KEPSA Coordinators” was formed under the Ministry of National Planning. Together with representatives from the KCA Executive, this team came up with a draft session paper titled “Maximizing the Potential and Input of the Kenyan Diaspora in the Political Process, Wealth Creation, Employment Generation, and Poverty Reduction.” It is this session paper that led to the Draft Diaspora Bill of 2007. The 2007 KCA conference brought in the then Minister for National Planning and Development, Hon. Henry Obwocha, to help highlight the push for diaspora representation. We were negotiating for a Diaspora Secretariat or Ministry that would ably deliver on the vast demands of the diaspora agenda. Other diaspora voices proposed a Diaspora Member of Parliament who would ensure the legislation of diaspora interests. But elections happened, and the Diaspora Bill disappeared from the concerns of politicians and technocrats. With a new government, what followed was a sad state of cronyism where the good fight was replaced with the appointment of Diaspora officials accountable to partisan offices in government. In such a case, a Prime Minister or President can appoint anyone to “represent” diaspora without a care for process and integrity in leadership. Not that there's any human being who comes without faults or foibles, but that diaspora too must arise to demand leadership that is capable, vetted, and accountable to the people. The disconnect between government and diaspora’s clamor for representation was also evident in a five-year silence in which no one mentioned the Diaspora Bill. Then suddenly, in 2012, the 2007 Diaspora Bill was re-branded the Draft Diaspora Policy and hurriedly given to diaspora organizations, via the Embassies, for input. It is interesting what governments seeking re-election would do to polish up "achievements" they can take on the campaign trail. But this manner of hurriedly shoving important legislation to diaspora for rubber-stamping was frustrating as very little could really be achieved, and it amounted to taking the primary stakeholders for granted. For example, The Citizenship and Immigration Bill that directly affected diaspora was also a piece of legislation that suddenly demanded diaspora’s input, and only two of us appeared at a last-minute videoconference to give half-baked input on behalf of the diaspora. It remains a problematic law with regard to regaining citizenship. I still reiterate to Kenyan diplomats that diaspora input and presence in key Commissions is important and must not be sought simply to window-dress the process. In May of 2013, diaspora organizations discovered that there existed a government-commissioned “Diaspora Stakeholders’ Taskforce” that did not have diaspora in it; much like having a cup of tea with nothing but water and sugar in it. A hurried workshop was convened for this taskforce, under the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, to prepare the draft Diaspora Policy for submission to the Cabinet. A KCA official based in Kenya was chosen last-minute to attend the workshop on behalf of the diaspora (READ: Kenyan Diaspora Dismisses a Group Claiming to Speak on their Behalf). The consistent pattern in this struggle seems to have been the presence of a diaspora organization that had been there from the beginning. Even at its most weakened state, KCA's past contributions were recognized and its presence called upon. This underlines the importance of building diaspora organizations as key partners in the development agenda. We made effort to have more diaspora officials who live abroad and daily engaged in diaspora affairs attend the workshop. It’s a very important workshop. This proved futile with the tight time-frame and we settled for the one Kenya-based representative. The fact that the Diaspora Bill had been dusted off the shelves at all was a step in the right direction. Evidently, diaspora had good friends at MoFA, and especially Ambassadors who over the years have become knowledgeable and genuinely interested in diaspora affairs. We supported the workshop, amidst legitimate questions from diaspora about the hushed process, and focused on what seemed to be the final stretch of the long campaign for representation. It’s August 2013, and there is yet again a growing silence over the Diaspora Bill since the Diaspora Stakeholders’ Workshop in May. We must not lose sight of the goal: to entrench legislation that will guide diaspora towards fruitful ways of engagement with their homeland, for generations to come. It is the legacy we owe our children born in foreign lands who will grow up and seek the compass pointing home with a stronger passion than we ever did. It is a thing of wonder to observe later generations of other countries’ diasporas engage in the corridors of power with confidence, achieving their goals time and again, gaining international respect and partnerships for their home countries. We can do it too. An urgent return to fully inclusive talks between representatives from diaspora organizations, government, private sector and civil society, is necessary. No destiny of a people should ever be shaped without the full and satisfactory participation of that community. By Mkawasi Mcharo Hall. Washington, DC.

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