As African leaders meet this week at the African Union summit in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, they will consider, among other issues, a proposal by Senegal’s President Abdoulaye Wade, to resettle Haitians who have been displaced by last month’s devastating earthquake.
The proposal, initially greeted with a stunned silence, simply didn’t appear serious. How could a country with a 54 percent poverty rate, provide land for desperate foreigners an ocean away? Even so, Mr. Wade announced this week that 50 Haitians had taken up his offer, and African Union leaders will look into whether there are other ways the continent can reach out and help their brethren in the African diaspora.
"Haitians want to come to Africa,” Wade told reporters at the African Union summit. “Twenty five of them have registered at our consulate in Kingston, Jamaica, and 25 others over the internet.” Wade urged African nations to do more to accept the more than 1 million Haitians whose own homes now lie in ruins. “My proposal is therefore not unrealistic. They have a right to return to Africa, their original land. They were colonized by the Americans. We will find them land.”
While many in the West see Haiti as the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere, a country plagued by corrupt or dictatorial leaders, many Africans see Haiti as the country that set the example for their own liberation.
Haitians threw off French colonial rule in 1804 and declared themselves the first black republic. When, a century and a half later, African colonies took their own steps to independence from Europe, they found inspiration and unity with their Caribbean and American brethren, and called that unity Pan-Africanism. It’s an ideal that sums up the very essence of the African Union, and which defines African leaders of a certain generation, such as Wade.
Pan-Africanism had a powerful pull, but some African-American intellectuals simply couldn’t see their kinship with Africans. Richard Wright, an American novelist who visited Ghana in 1959, wrote about the African-American’s ambivalence toward Africa: “So long had Africa been described as something shameful, barbaric, a land in which one went about naked, a land in which his ancestors had sold their kith and kin as slaves – so long had he heard all this that he wanted to dissociate himself in his mind from all such realities.”
Even so, from the 1960s onward, a trickle of American and Caribbean people of African descent answered the call of newly liberated African states such as Ghana, Nigeria, Senegal, and Ethiopia to settle in Africa, and share their skills, knowledge, and capital.
“There is a psychological part of this in terms of when Senegal says, ‘This is your home, you can always come back,’” says James Shikwati, director of the Interregion Economic Network in Nairobi, Kenya. “If you look at a country like India, it tapped into its diaspora, and their expertise helped transform India into the country it is today. This could be the part that is more important, where the (African Union) is trying to send a symbolic message to Africans and their brethren in the diaspora."
A history of repatriation from Caribbean, US
Africa, though, has been down the road of repatriation before, and not always with the best results.
In Sierra Leone, a country established by the British in 1787 as a homeland for former slaves in the Western Hemisphere, newcomers stuck together and used their education and access to markets to dominate their indigenous countrymen. Similarly, Liberia – a neighboring West African country established for American freed slaves in 1821 – created a huge gap between the relatively powerful newcomers and the impoverished local majority. Revolts were common and bloody. The civil wars in both Sierra Leone and Liberia in the late 1990s were largely divided along these ethnic lines.
“[Senegal's offer] is a romantic idea, but not one likely to win the hearts of the landless Senegalese peasants whose own claims to land will be put on the backburner,” says Richard Cornwell, an independent political analyst based in Tshwane (Pretoria), South Africa. Noting the violent experiences in Sierra Leone and Liberia’s histories, he says, “It’s liable to have knock-on effects that are very undesirable.
The key, says Raymond Louw, editor of the Southern African Report in Johannesburg, is to get beyond fine rhetoric and get down to the essentials of what would help these new migrants – Haitians who have lost everything in the quake, who may know how to farm in lush tropical Haiti, but not in the arid Sahel of Senegal – to actually succeed, and to be accepted by the local community.
“It’s all very well to give land, but ... unless there is followup of training and resources – money to buy equipment and seed and fertilizer – it sets them up for failure,” says Mr. Louw. “It’s a nice gesture, but it needs more than a gesture.”