Saturday, September 18, 2010

Why Is Dual Citizenship So Difficult?

Since the wave of African independence in the 1950s, members of the African Diaspora seeking a genuine connection to the continent have sought the goal of attaining dual citizenship that is gaining citizenship in an African country while maintaining their citizenship in the country of their birth. For some, this goal has met with success, while others have done all they could but still failed to gain the legal sanction they sought in their country of choice.

Ghana has been considered the most likely to grant dual citizenship because of the generosity of spirit of the late founding President Kwame Nkrumah, who did grant citizenship to a limited number of Diasporans. One of his successors, former President Jerry Rawlings, also sought to make it legal for Diasporans to gain citizenship in Ghana. Unfortunately, the desire by Ghanaian leaders to follow through on his promise has not been present.

The law created to enable members of the overall Diaspora to hold dual citizenship was flipped to focus only on those born in Ghana who left to take residence in another country. In order to even apply for citizenship in Ghana, a Diasporan would have to give up their current citizenship first, but with no guarantee of being granted Ghanaian citizenship. A law of abode is the only consolation for those in the Diasporans seeking dual citizenship in Ghana – an empty gesture for those who have lived as model citizens in the country for decades.

The Government of Benin apologized to the Diaspora for the sale of our ancestors centuries ago. An annual commemoration of the slave trade and the restitution of relationship between Africans and members of the Diaspora was initiated, linking Porto Novo, Benin, to Liverpool, England, and Richmond, Virginia, in the United States. But then Benin’s government pulled back from the process of legalizing dual citizenship. They are now emphasizing the need for Diasporans to develop an understanding and a relationship with Benin with no definition of what that actually means.

In 2003, the African Union, impressed with the passion and interest of members of the Diaspora in establishing linkages, declared that the African Diaspora was the sixth region of Africa. Widespread jubilation among the Diaspora eventually gave way to disappointment when it was discovered that this declaration was another empty promise. There is no specific definition of who the sixth region is nor how the 6th region can attain representation in the counsels of the African Union. The Africa passport being issued by the African Union is intended only for current African citizens, with diplomats receiving them first.

So why is the increasingly intense courtship of the continent by the African Diaspora so often spurned? It seems there are several reasons. In Ghana’s case, as is likely elsewhere as well, ethnic chauvinism leads African officials to disregard the pleadings of those still considered foreigners. There is a recognition that the Diasporans did originate in Africa, but there appears to be little acceptance of us as deserving of permanent legal status. The DNA test used, for example, by African Ancestry to establish blood ties to African ethnic groups and countries, is not accepted by the Ghana government as proof of lineage from Ghana.

Another issue Diasporans may be ignoring is that as people able to travel internationally and buy or rent homes in African countries, often with servants, we are seen as the rich foreigners who want to come and go as we like – as many Africans are unable to do. It seems many African officials don’t want to have to explain why they are extending rights to foreign-born individuals when their poor countrymen can’t exercise all the legal rights they were extended at birth.

A related issue is the ethnic conflict that roils so many African countries – from the genocidal Hutu-Tutsi conflicts in Rwanda and Burundi to the political sparring between Kenyan Kikuyus and Luos. Adding yet another layer of ethnic rivalries to this mix is not widely popular and may be considered political poison for leaders already taxed with establishing equity in contentious ethnic disputes.

At a panel on dual citizenship I moderated the other day, someone mentioned a reason I had not considered before. It was suggested that the example of the Americo-Liberians – the returned slaves in the 1800s – still looms large in the minds of some Africans. The Americo-Liberians established Liberia as a nation, but in the process, they diminished the rights and political influence of indigenous Liberians. The contention is that some fear a wave of wealthier, more educated and internationally influential Diasporans could pose a similar threat. We in the Western Hemisphere, especially the United states and Canada, consider the Americo-Liberia example to be a relic of the past, while in the African view of time, spanning millennia, 150 years ago was like yesterday.

The task force on dual citizenship established by the Leon H. Sullivan Foundation last year with the UNIA/African Communities League and the African Diaspora Ancestral Commemoration Institute among other organizations and individuals, is taking all obstacles to dual citizenship into account and is addressing this issue legally, diplomatically and culturally. We have proposed levels of citizenship based on the mutual needs and interests of Africans and Diasporans. Contacts have been made with African governments to begin the process of working out legal details of how dual citizenship could be enacted through legislatures across the continent. A process of cultural sensitivity and education has been put together to ensure that the new African citizens understand the societies they wish to enter. All that remains is the good will of African governments. The U.S. government has no problem with dual citizenship, except for issues that must be worked out in the legal process of extending dual citizenship.

No issue raised as an obstacle to dual citizenship cannot be resolved if there is mutual cooperation and commitment. The question is: does Africa want her long-ago cast away children to return with their skills, finances and eagerness to help Africa. We bear no grudges for the past. Does Africa?

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Africa’s Debt Constraint

For the second time in four months, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton last week said that America’s external debt is a national security issue that weakens the nation.

“It undermines our capacity to act in our own interest, and it does constrain us where constraint may be undesirable,” Clinton said.

Quite true. China is a major holder of U.S. Treasury debt, and even though the level officially declined to US$755.4 billion last year (just below Japan), it is believed that a significant amount of the US$170 billion U.S. debt increase to the United Kingdom was financed by China, which means the Chinese directly or indirectly remain our largest debt holder. As Secretary Clinton declined to say directly, this impacts our ability to press China on major international issues of concern.

Of course, African and other developing nations have had to live with such constraints in operating in their own national interests since independence. In many cases, developing countries were required to assume the colonial debt or pay to become free. France, for instance, required Haiti to start its independent existence with a 150 million franc debt back in 1804.

As we celebrate the 50th year of independence of 17 African nations this year, we must keep in mind that the overwhelming majority of Africa became independent during the Cold War era. During this period, their strategic importance to the United States and the rest of the West was based on two things: their vital resources and their willingness to join our side against the Soviet bloc. Consequently, odious regimes were sometimes tolerated and even supported in running up a debt they either likely never intended to repay or ended up not repaying due to their lack of longevity.

When Nelson Mandela took the helm of a majority rule government in South Africa in 1994, he started out having to pay debt accumulated by the apartheid regime to prolong itself for Cold War benefits. That very same government had imprisoned him for nearly 30 years and had threatened to cause an unstoppable social explosion in a major world diamond and gold producer, hence the international support. The South African debt also included paying for the funding of the apartheid regime’s unwise and/or illegal military operations in Namibia and Angola.

Now really, when former Nigerian dictator Sani Abacha borrowed international funds, was there ever any serious belief that he intended to do the right things with that money and pay it back in full and on time? Surely not by any reasonably aware lender. Because of the intransigence of Nigerian leaders and unforgiving lenders, a US$5 billion debt ended up being more than US$32 billion in debt when former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo turned on the light in his office on the first day even though the country had paid back US$16 billion.

Some of the loans reportedly had technical deficiencies, meaning they were bum deals from the start. Some were dollar-based, meaning that they had to be repaid at the U.S. dollar rate rather than based on the value of local currency. Other loans were necessitated by world events over which African governments had no control, such as rapid increases in oil and food prices.

Certainly, there is enough blame to go around for this debt burden, which has been as high as US$15.2 billion annually and remains in the neighborhood of US$14 billion even now. Too many African leaders have shown little commitment to developing sustainable programs to expand their economies and increase the collective wealth of their citizens, which would produce higher tax revenues that could replace donor assistance. There also is insufficient skill among some African governments in handling loans efficiently to avoid penalties and in understanding the many issues involved in debt.

Still, a 2004 World Bank study showed that African countries who qualified for debt relief generally used the break wisely. According to the study, Tanzania used debt savings to eliminate school fees, hire more teachers and build more schools. Burkina Faso reduced the cost of life-saving drugs by a significant amount and increased access to clean water for its citizens. Uganda used its debt relief to facilitate the doubling of school enrollment. So why are so many international financial institutions, major international banks and donors still so reluctant to agree to a sweeping round of debt forgiveness?

The theory of “moral hazard” espoused by many economists speculates that if debt were broadly forgiven, it would motivate countries to default on their remaining debt or deliberately borrow more than they could repay in hopes of another round of debt forgiveness.

But if an amateur like myself can offer a solution based on the current practices of the Millennium Challenge Account and other international aid programs, why not negotiate debt forgiveness based on a debtor’s public-private plan to use the monies saved to benefit its citizens. If the money is tied to agreed-upon benchmarks and timetables and paid out in tranches, what would be the genuine risk to lenders, who collectively give aid with one hand and take back more in debt repayment with the other?

The harm of not doing so for the African debtor nations is this: for every US$1 African countries receive in grants, they pay US$13 in interest on debt. What if China forced us to repay our debt to them under the kind of terms under which Africa is forced to repay its debt?

That puts this matter in a very different light, doesn’t it?

Monday, September 6, 2010

The Forgotten Madagascar Crisis

If you ask most Africa watchers what is the most urgent crisis on the continent, you’ll likely get answers ranging from Sudan to Somalia or even Congo. It is not likely that Madagascar will rise to the top of the list even though there is a perfect storm of calamity there due to the March 2009 military-backed coup.

Efforts to negotiate a political solution have thus far failed, but the regime of former Antananarivo mayor Andre Rajoelina has alienated the international community and the country’s political community. Donor nations, including the United States, have cut off all but humanitarian assistance, which is particularly damaging to Madagascar since the country’s budget was dependent for more than half its revenue from donors. The cutoff of foreign aid has caused health clinics to shut down. A quarter of the country’s health clinics have shut down, and the distribution of essential drugs has collapsed.

More than half the country’s children are considered malnourished. UNICEF resumed funding of centers with severe acute malnutrition in June, but other donors are unlikely to resume their total foreign aid funding.

The economy also has been heavily impaired by the reaction to the coup. The United States suspended Madagascar from the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) trade process. Madagascar had been one of AGOA’s success stories, earning US$600 million annually and accounting for 60% of the country’s exports. The closure of factories servicing the U.S. market has caused 50,000 to lose their jobs, exacerbating an already problematic economic picture.

Another level of damage has been largely unseen by the outside world, except for environmental groups monitoring the devastation of Madagascar’s biodiversity. “Paradise Lost?” a U.S. Agency for International Development report states that Madagascar’s unique biodiversity could be lost, possible forever, and will harm not only Madagascar, but also the world at large. The report, written by the International Resources Group, estimates that the country’s flora and fauna, 80% of which is found nowhere else on earth, is seeing the loss of rare lemurs and tortoises. These animals are either being captured for export and for food at rates seen as ensuring their extinction.

“Slash and burn” agriculture is being practiced by poor farmers oppose a significant threat to Madagascar’s forests, but the report says the forests likely can’t be protected without addressing “fundamental economic issues that maintain rural people in abject poverty.” Over the 25 years covered by the report, Madagascar has seen its forest shrink from 11 million hectares to 9 million hectares and its population grow from 11 million to 20 million.

“Environmental preservation is hostage to economic development, and economic development is hostage to good governance,” the IRG report states.

Systemic corruption has become part of the normal landscape, benefitting transient leaders but not the population as a whole. It is this corruption that the deadlock is maintaining and which donors point to as their rationale for ending all but emergency aid to Madagascar.

The prospects for a resolution of the current political crisis may have waned because Rajoelina seems to have overestimated his leverage. He set this past August as the month in which a constitutional referendum would be held with the presidential election in November. However, the main opposition parties refused to take part in the elections, which have now been reset, with presidential election in the middle of the year and the constitutional referendum on November 17. Even those dates are in doubt, though, because the main opposition parties still refuse to participate in any election not organized by all major parties. Thus far, the
interim government has reached agreement only with minor political parties.

Meanwhile, a Madagasque court has sentenced former President Marc Ravalomanana and two others to life imprisonment with hard labor for the part they played in the deaths of about 30 protesters before he was forced from office last year. This is Ravalomanana’s third conviction by the country’s courts, which are considered not to be independent. The convictions are seen as preventing his return to the country to run for office. But they also represent yet another sign that dialogue on resolving the political crisis is going nowhere.

In scanning the continent, we must not forget the spots not at the top of the news because they have their significance as well. This crisis is having a long-term environmental, economic and humanitarian impact that will be difficult, if not impossible, to overcome without a more attentive response.