“Without migration, we’d all be sitting in Africa”

 

Over the last two decades, Chukwu-Emeka Chikezie has emerged as a champion of Africa’s migrant diaspora.

An imposing, powerful figure now aged 50, Chukwu-Emeka was born in London to a Nigerian father and Sierra Leonean mother and grew up in Freetown, Sierra Leone with his mother where he was known as Philip Chukwu-Emeka Fergusson.

He moved back to the UK as a young adult to further his studies and many years later, after reconnecting with his estranged father, he reverted to use of Chikezie.

Formerly a Senior Economic Advisor to the Mauritian government on the private sector and diaspora and founder of London-based NGO AFFORD (African Foundation for Development), Chukwu-Emeka is a leading light of the UN-sponsored Global Forum on Migration and Development and, amongst many other roles, also director of Up!-Africa Limited.

We talked to him on a recent cold day in London.

But a winter sun warmed our conversation, while overhead jet planes carrying thousands of passengers to and from all the world’s destinations underscored the phenomenon of mass travel and mass migration.

 

Why did you change your name, from Philip to Chukwu-Emeka?
It’s OK (laughing). You can call me Philip if you like! It wasn’t really about adopting a new identity. It was just something I felt I had to do at the time. Today I know who I am. I’m a black Englishman of African descent, a man who was born here and grew up in Sierra Leone. I feel comfortable in both worlds, but today I feel more and more Western. You could say that my story personifies the story of the black diaspora in Britain.


You’ve established a reputation as a far-thinking, progressive activist. What makes you different?

In a nutshell, I believe in the upliftment of Africa and the African diaspora through self-sustained economic and business success. Migrants must be given an opportunity to develop themselves and learn new skills, so that if or when they return home, they go back in a stronger position. In this way all the countries, the sending countries, the transit countries and the receiving countries, have the potential to benefit. It’s what I call hitting a ‘triple-win sweet spot.

 

What in your opinion is the biggest challenge facing Africa today?
The biggest challenge, without a doubt, is good governance. If the African lion is ever going to roar, we need good governments, transparency and strong institutions. And this is where I believe the international trade union movement, with its ability to organise, has a vital role to play.

I’ve worked on and coordinated projects on migration and development in Liberia, Ghana, Mexico, Nigeria and the United States, as well as Sierra Leone, Mauritius and the United Kingdom. I don’t see migration as a ‘threat’ to societies. Migration is a vehicle for lifting people out of poverty.


Yes. But regrettably it seems that all over the world migrants are indeed being portrayed as ‘threats’ to society. Migration is fuelling racism and xenophobia.

We must make sure that migrants do not become victims of the ‘dark side’ of globalisation. Migrants’ rights should be respected and protected. I accept that there are real and understandable fears over migration in receiving countries. Perception is a big challenge, and it feeds xenophobia and racism. Many people are going through economic turmoil.

They look around the world, and the world seems out of control, out of their control. And migrants have become a scapegoat. Empirical evidence and facts are necessary to counter this, but they are not sufficient because this is also about emotions.


What can be done to counter these negative perceptions?

People are uncertain, worried about their jobs. It’s a real issue. But it’s a big mistake to try and stamp out all discussion and label these people as racists. There needs to be much more debate on this. There is no monopoly on xenophobia and racism. It’s not limited to white receiving countries and developed receiving countries.

Just look at South Africa for example and see the backlash against other African migrants there. The core issue is that public perception determines, or even limits, the policy space for politicians and leaders. This only gives more space and power to the extremists to frame the debate and gives their xenophobia more credibility.


So it’s yet another failure by our political leaders?

What’s needed is real bravery and leadership from our politicians. They need to create a genuine political space so that we can have a civilised conversation about migrants and migration and not pander to these anxieties. Once people get into contact, then the whole story changes, it becomes more personal and truthful. But there’s still too much political cowardice and unwillingness to address the issue of migration. To be honest with you, if migration weren’t part of the human experience we’d all be sitting in Africa!


What single thing could African countries do to improve the conditions of their own African migrants?

Right now there are literally millions of people moving around the world. But it’s easier for an Australian to get a job in Africa than an African. All the companies that I speak to tell me it’s harder for them to move their African employees around the continent than non-Africans. I find this astonishing. We need to enhance co-operation among African countries on labour mobility.

It would make a significantly improvement in the lives of African migrants. Contrary to myth, most African migrants aren’t going North. African migration is predominantly a South-South phenomenon. The majority of African migrants migrate within their own region and don’t leave the continent.


The late great Trinidadian Marxist philosopher and writer C.L.R. James once told me that ‘Africa has got rid of its colonisers, now it needs to get rid of its leaders’. What are your views on personal responsibility?

Well there are some real positive examples out there. Look at Mauritius. Look at Botswana. Look at the direction Ghana is taking. When Mauritius got independence (in 1968), it was generally considered a basket case, but its diversified economy and political stability has helped it weather the financial crisis better than most of the world’s economies.

So many African countries have been struck by the so-called resource curse. But Botswana, for example, has got diamonds, and they haven’t squandered the wealth brought by diamonds through corruption. They’ve built strong and stable institutions. There’s been a more equitable distribution of wealth. The key for me is good governance. Perhaps then we’ll hear the African lion roar.
 

Some interesting stats
Statistics and information on migrants, “documented” and “undocumented”, are notoriously difficult to accumulate, substantiate and interpret.
What, for example, constitutes the African diaspora in the UK?ContinentalAfricans who arrived after World War Two? Or is it all people of African ancestry, including those of Afro-Caribbean and mixed-race background?
The definition is a minefield of controversy and differing opinion.
According to the most recent British census (2011), there are just over 2million self-described Black people in the country, split approximately  50/50 between those  who describe themselves as Afro-Caribbean and those who say they are of African origin.
What can’t be disputed is that the UK, and especially its capital London,has a diverse multi-ethnic population in which every country in Africa isrepresented.
The earliest Black inhabitants of England were noted in Roman times, over2,000 years ago. It is also known that during the 17th century, Queen    Elizabeth 1 enacted laws designed to expel all Black subjects.
Broadly speaking, there have been four contemporary passages of African  migration to the UK.
Post World War Two, and until the first phase of African independence in the early 1960s, came professionals, students, intellectuals and future  post-colonial leaders.
The late 1960s and the 1970s saw post-colonial political and economic    exiles, many returning with their British-born children who held British passports.
The 1980s, Africa’s so-called “Lost Decade”, saw mostly economic migrantscoming to the UK.
Spurred by conflicts in Rwanda and Somalia, for example, the 1990s saw a wave of refugees and political exiles coming to the UK.
Today, the largest communities of Africans in the UK come from Nigeria,  South Africa, Ghana, Somalia, Zimbabwe, Ethiopia and Eritrea.
Yet contrary to popular opinion, most African migrants remain in Africa  itself. African migration is essentially a South-South phenomenon; the   only African region that has a net outflow of migrants is North Africa.
Nearly 80 percent of West African migrants, for example, migrate within  West Africa. And overall, according to World Bank statistics, 63 percent of sub-Saharan migrants stay in Africa.
Around the world, the African diaspora makes a huge contribution to the  continent’s economy.
In 2010, the World Bank estimated the African diaspora remitted US$40    billion back home.
And a recent survey of 10,000 Black and Ethnic Minority households in theUK by the Department for International Development (DFID) said that 34   per cent of the Black-British or Black-African households polled sent an average of £910 (around US$1,400) back to Africa each year.
Even beyond Africa, remittances constitute the second largest flow of    resources to developing countries, after foreign direct investment.
This money, earned by hard-working migrants, is significantly more than  capital market investment and foreign aid.