Babatunde Olaide-Mesewaku is founder of African Renaissance Foundation, organisers of Badagry Diaspora Festival, and its Door-of-Return ceremony, aimed at returning descendants of Africans, who suffered enslavement in Europe and the Americas. In this interview, he explains why this body of Africans should return to their roots and impact the continent
The Jews have seized on the holocaust saga and have made capital gain out of it. But Africa is afraid of its slave trade past and appears in a hurry to forget and move on. How does Africa benefit from that experience?
The diaspora is not being well featured in African discourse. Yet they yearn to return in their millions to their roots. That is the focus of Badagry Diaspora Festival, to re-ignite a forum for them to look back to Africa with pride. We have a lot to gain by courting them back to Africa.
Africa’s capital wealth resides in these Africa’s Historic Diaspora and African leaders are not doing anything to tap into it. Africa is doing nothing to sharpen this kinship with these Africans in the diaspora; these African Historic Diaspora (descendants of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade) are in-between the cultural essence of their host land and the homeland; they know their root is deep in Africa.
Africa has to start doing something about them. Nigeria could institute a National Policy for Diaspora for the return of those forced out of the homeland like Ghana did with ‘The Right of Abode’ policy to attract such returnees back to contribute. They are skilled in many fields like technology, architecture, science and what have you.
It is a psychological problem. A friend of mine was invited to speak in Germany and the condition was that ‘please, don’t talk about slave trade; we want to leave that behind us. Just tell us how we are going to move forward.’ He said he was shocked. How can we cut ourselves from our past? When you don’t know your past, how can you plan for the future? So, I see it as a psychological problem. If you look at the history of slavery itself, it was perpetrated by Europeans. You see, Africans were compelled through the deadly firepower of guns to sell their own as slaves to Europeans; it was not voluntary at all. The Europeans doubted the quality of Africans. That was why they captured us.
Why is there his desire to hasten from the past by Africa, even the slave trade (400 years) lasted far longer than the holocaust of a mere few years?
It is very unfortunate. You see, sometimes, we are not proud of our history. Look at what is happening today. When I heard recently that history has been removed from the curriculum of secondary school syllabus, I nearly wept. What is happening to us? What is happening to Nigeria? Removing history from the curriculum of upcoming generation? What is the past that they are going to refer to in the future you are building for them? Is there any future without past? There is certainly no future without the past. So, the holocaust is celebrated in every major city in the world. And the Israelis have benefitted from this heritage globally. Anywhere they are, they are given that special recognition because they have suffered, undergone tragedy in the hands of the Nazis of Germany under Adolf Hitler.
Here is Africa, whose loss in terms of duration, magnitude, and scope of the slave trade far outweighs that of the holocaust, is in a hurry to move on! Africa wants to divorce its future from the past. And it is this past is the bedrock to the present socio-economic and political problems bedeviling Africa. So, we are not actually looking back to say, ‘let us dissect the causes of this malady because its impact goes beyond the physical. It is a problem in the psyche of every African; it is a psychological problem. Slave trade drained our development and we still suffer from it till this moment.
Until we go back to look at that past and give it a special recognition in our history so that we teach our children this history and vow that ‘never again will it occur or never will we allow such things to happen to us!’ Let me tell you, it is because of the divorce/disconnection from the past that we are still having the issue of child and sex trafficking, etc. Those who are engaged in this social misnomer in the global world never read about the history of slave trade. They never knew about the tragedy it brought to the people and the experience of the people of the past. If they had read about that history, I am telling you, they would not engage in it. This current global issue of child trafficking is another form of slavery. We have to go back to where we are coming from in terms of our history; it is imperative to Africa, to Nigeria.
You said earlier that some Africans forcefully taken away are yearning to come back to Africa but Africa is not ready to receive them. Why is this so really?
It is very unfortunate. When African Union talks about the diaspora, it does not encompass the historic diaspora, who are ready to contribute to the development of the African continent. What do these people stand to gain when they are integrated into the socioeconomic history of the African continent? It is all about ‘come and contribute to Africa. Come and build here,’ etc. How can they just come and do those things without having a sense of belonging in Africa? They must know what they stand to gain when they return. That is why I said the policy should be to focus on integration; the issue of citizenship should be addressed. This is because most African countries don’t give that opportunity. Nigeria should be at the forefront of this.
I think it bothers on policy, the awareness towards diaspora. We are not talking about the contemporary, economic migrants in the diaspora. We are talking about the historic diaspora, where our capital resides. This is because when you to talk about science, technology, sports, when you talk about human development in all spheres, the African diaspora are there. So, let Africans, especially Nigeria, look towards that direction and give them the chance. Let us open the Door-of-Return to them, a programme and opportunity that will enable those desiring to come back and contribute to Nigeria.
Now that it is obvious that Africa has not done that, has not created a Door-Of-Return for those who were forcibly taken away, how do you quantify this loss in naira or dollar value? What will you say Africa is losing by not making it possible for these people to return mother Africa?
You can’t quantify that, I tell you! And I posit that until Africa as a continent reconnects with the diaspora, our development will still be in quagmire. It is not only the contemporary, economic migrant diaspora that I am talking about. It is like this: you are the father and two of your children are not with you. They are outside your environment. You don’t even have any connection with them. As a father, you are not a complete person because you still have your children somewhere. Your children do not even bother to know what is happening to you. So, until there is a bridge between the two of you, you are an incomplete parent. So, Africa as a continent is incomplete until it bridges the gap between her and the historic diaspora.
You mentioned a kind of wealth that is resident with this historic diaspora that is not available to Africa at the moment. Could you explain a bit more about this?
You see, these people can be very contributive to the direct capital investment in Africa. It can be part of technological transfer. So, there are so many aspects of that wealth that Africa and Nigeria are losing. This is because, as I told you, talk of sports, technology, trade and commerce, you see that these diaspora know it all. That is what Israel is using today. That is the socio-economic and political capital of Israel as a country. This is because they have their diaspora all over the world and they control critical sectors of the global economy. That is the position in which many Africa diaspora are presently. We have these diaspora excelling in science, commerce, economy, sports, technology, and in so many aspects of life.
How do you bring them back with the poor infrastructure, corruption and all that? These are disincentives, don’t you think?
Yes. I am doing a paper on diaspora return. You see, the return is spiritual beyond physical and there are three categories of these diaspora and I refer to them as ‘Spirito-Africans.’ The first category refers to those that are in the diaspora.
They know that they are from Africa but because of centuries or generations of disconnection from their roots specifically, these people cannot trace where they came from in Africa. The only thing that they know in their psyche is that they are from Africa. So, the first category refers to those that will not come back but will continue to propagate, energize and do everything to promote African value and African essence.
The second group refers to those that will certainly have something to do with Africa. They will always nurse the thought of returning. It is always in their mind. They wake up every morning thinking of it. This is because they know that they do not belong to the countries of birth where they currently reside. They know that they have a culture, which is not present in their host land or their country of birth. Because of the urge to come back, we call it the spiritual aspect of reconnection; they will have something to do with Africa.
Let me give you an example. See Oprah Winfrey, for instance; her project, Leadership Academy in is South Africa. Look at the Bob Marley family; they are back in Ghana. The entire family numbering about 37 left Jamaica and returned to Africa. Secondly, they are permanently settled in Ghana. They don’t mind the travail, the lack of infrastructure. That is why I said it is a spiritual thing. There are so many of them that have returned. Go to Ethiopia; you will see them in their numbers. In neighbouring Benin Republic here, they are in their numbers.
The third category is the one that will have to return. I have a lot of them but it is still a hypothesis. The third category refers to those whose spirits will never leave or die outside the shores of Africa. They will have to come back no matter the level of infrastructural decay, no matter the complaints.
Their reconnection is purely spiritual because there is a constant pressure on their souls to return. So, they will have to return. You see, the second category under which Oprah Winfrey falls, all they needed is a comprehensive diaspora policy. You will see that they will start coming when there is a comprehensive diaspora policy. This is because this group will invest emotionally in Africa.
So, they need enabling policy that creates that enabling environment to enhance, advance their emotional investment in Africa, especially when you view it against the background of the racism that still exists in America, where the police indiscriminately shoot young, black people dead. I tell you, they know that that is not their home. They cannot be in Africa and things like that will happen to them. It may happen but not on a racial basis. It won’t be out of racial outburst.
Let us look at what you do: Badagry Diaspora Festival and then Badagry as a place. Why it has remained the way it is? Why are historic places like Badagry, Bonny, Calabar, where slave trade happened still abandoned and largely undeveloped?
It is a marvel to me too that the historic towns, the ancient cities in Africa, let me limit my scope to Nigeria and Badagry, have not been given due recognition and development. It is very unfortunate. To me, I see that community, Badagry, as a national monument, which is where the first elementary school started. To me, I want to see the Federal Government taking up that school complex and making it a national school, the pride of the nation. Here, the British Colonial Government took rooms from Badagry. That was in 1842 when the British government settled on the soil of Badagry. That was the first anywhere in Nigeria and that singular action ignited the process that later metamorphosed into what we now know as Nigeria.
The first storey building with architectural evolution of Nigeria actually took its roots in Badagry. We still have this architectural piece standing in its original place. This is the pride of the nation. This is the pride of Nigeria. But nobody is looking at it. The first place, where Christianity, which is a global religious, started in Nigeria was in Badagry in 1843. The first Christmas celebration took place that same year in Badagry. That place just has one awkward epitaph to tell the story of this epoch.
Unfortunately, these are monuments that should be the pride of any nation. That is why the entire Badagry community needs urgent Federal Government’s attention. There is an adage in Yoruba that says ‘a river that disconnects itself from its source will dry up!’ It is an insult on Nigeria.
And that Badagry Museum is so appalling…
The thing is very unfortunate and if you want to look at the personality that commissioned that museum, you will be surprised that the museum has been left to deteriorate and degeneration to such level. That museum was commissioned by the former Governor of Lagos State, Ashiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu. It is withering. Nothing is being done about it. Look at the building; it is already dilapidation. It is in a ramshackle state.
However, from the information we have, the present Governor of Lagos State, Akinwunmi Ambode, is said to be looking into it, and may commence renovation activities in the museum.