African-Americans love to invest in Ghana but there are challenges and opportunities we should talk about

BY Nii Ntreh March 15, 2024 10:42 AM EDT
Kohain Halevi (center of photo) is a Ghanaian-American who is at the heart of Ghanaian-Diasporan relations. Photo Credit: ABC News

The sojourn from the end of the last decade of thousands of African-Americans to resettle in Africa has re-ignited the conversation about what should be the scope and depth of the relationship between the descendants of American slaves and Africa. One could argue that the subject itself goes back to the 1800s and the efforts of the American Colonization Society (ACS) in the founding of what is now the Republic of Liberia.

Still, very few can compare to Marcus Garvey’s activism at the dawn of the 20th century. His emphasis on ethnic affinity between Africans and Black people in the diaspora continues to inspire a sense of Pan-Africanism for millions of people. He divided opinion back then and even now but it would be unfair to isolate Garvey’s motivations for criticisms. The ACS was founded by Quakers who, despite their best intentions, had given up on the idea of integrating Black people into early American society.

Whatever their motivations are now, African-Americans are relocating to Africa in discernible numbers. This phenomenon is playing out in many countries south of the Sahara, however, Ghana seems to be the most preferred destination. And that is understandable. Ghana’s history as the first country south of the Sahara to gain independence and the legendary status of first president Kwame Nkrumah amount to invaluable brand recognition. That Ghana was the place chosen by the likes of W.E.B. DuBois, George Padmore and other famous revolutionaries of African descent to retire, adds to the national advertorial content. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr first visited Africa when he went to Ghana. Nina Simone and Maya Angelou made Ghana their home at one time, and you would not believe it but Angelou met Malcolm X for the first time ever in Accra.

Even after the world emerged from the uncertain times of the Cold War and the global liberal spirit began to take form, it was Ghana that signaled it was going to roll out the red carpet for Africans in the diaspora. The Pan-African Festival pf Arts and Culture, or PANAFEST, was initiated in 1992 as a celebration of Pan-African history and creativity and it continues to occupy an esteemed place in the country’s tourism agenda.

In 2000, the Ghanaian parliament passed the Citizenship Act which grants citizenship to foreigners who are able to prove their Ghanaian descent. This may not seem like a huge deal for African-Americans but in the same spirit as the Citizenship Act, an Immigration Act was passed, and it was in the same year too. This second Act spelled more significant promise for Africans in the diaspora. Under this law, Ghana awards a “right of abode” to a person of African descent in the diaspora and they can freely relocate to the country. In order to boost their connection to Ghana, many African-Americans took genetic tests. The more interesting thing about this development was the ripple effect it had for other countries in Africa when some African-Americans found out that their ancestors hailed from Nigeria, Senegal, Cameroon, etc. Over the last two decades, huge numbers of Black Americans and Caribbean nationals have embarked on the quest to find out from which part of Africa their ancestors were abducted and shipped to the “New World”.

The aggregate of historical precedents, legislation and tourism policies has become Ghana’s strongest bet to woo Black Americans. In 2019, the country successfully positioned itself as the natural place for the commemoration of 400 years since the Transatlantic Slave Trade began. For what was called The Year of Return, tens of thousands of people flew into the country throughout the year to celebrate, fraternize and consequently look for opportunities to give back. The Ghanaian government reported that the Year of Return fetched nearly $2 billion, a huge return for a $70 billion economy.

It is also now being reported that about 1,500 African-Americans have taken Ghanaian citizenship in the last five years. More than 5,000, however, have relocated to the country. The number looks likely to grow even though Ghana is facing one of its worst economic crises in decades. For all its troubles, Ghana prioritizes the right of abode for returnees to an extent that has at times become problematic for natives.

Early this, folks in Asebu, a small village near the Ghanaian coast, made the news when they protested the donation of a 5,000-acre plot to returnees from the Caribbean, the US and Canada, and the effects the donation is having on rural farming and land ownership. The donation had been made by a local chieftain who was quoted saying “If we don’t tie them (returnees) down with anything concrete, they will visit the castles, weep a little, and then the next moment they are on the plane back to the U.S.” The piece of land is for what has been called the Pan-African Village and has been endorsed by Ghana’s president, Nana Akufo-Addo. The idea is that returnees will repatriate capital from wherever their countries and invest in Ghana.

But apart from the problem of whose land it is to give away, other things we learned from the Asebu saga have left many people disturbed. A returnee in their 70s was reported saying “Nobody’s ever lived here before (the land he was given). It was idle land but I braved it.” This posturing is all too familiar for those concerned with how other autochthonous populations have been displaced with similar arguments.

Another returnee, a 69-year-old from Atlanta, was quoted saying: “In Ghana, people are humble. They don’t need much to live. Food is the most important to a lot of people. They don’t even need a fork, they use their hands. They have no problems sleeping flat on the ground. I mean, it sounds like poverty, but when you think about it, how much do we really need to survive?”

The fact that we are referring to retirees in these already disturbing anecdotes is also of concern. The Ghanaian government does not disclose the age distribution of those who are settling in the country although there are other stories of younger people returning. Still, there’s not an express targeting of younger African-Americans. The median age of Ghana’s population is 20 and that is a characteristic that could benefit a lot from the energy that may come from other active contributors who are resettling.

Perhaps, out of goodwill, Ghana does not tie resettling rights to investments, in the way that a lot of countries can give you a passport if you swear allegiance in terms of dollars. The goodwill is historic and rests on good foundation because it has been the case since Nkrumah. But these are different times and it is likely that that future governments may reconsider the current dispensation. There is an opportunity that could be mutually beneficial for the categories of returning Africans and the natives whose health, education and protections depend on much needed public funds.

Nonetheless, the success of Ghana’s policy to attract the African diaspora has been emulated by other countries. West African neighbors Nigeria and Senegal have either announced or embarked on similar strategies that seek to welcome the longing that is clearly felt by many African-Americans. In 2020, Senegal renamed the Europe Square of its famous Goree Island, calling it the Freedom and Human Dignity Square, while the rest of the world protested anti-Black racism after George Floyd’s death. The Goree Island was a stop on the Transatlantic slave trade route.

Nigeria is no stranger to attracting people from the African diaspora. The country still recollects with pride its hosting of FESTAC in 1977, for instance. In 2017, the then Nigerian government launched The Door of Return (a homage to Ghana’s Door of No Return at slave-holding Elmina Castle). Looking back, Nigerians would argue that The Door of Return was supposed to have played out like Ghana’s Year of Return. But this only underlines the very unique case that is Ghana with regard to the returnee political economy.

This is by no means a pity party for Nigeria. It is by far the continent’s largest orange economy, owing to a huge music and motion picture market. The number of Nigerians who hold places of influence across the world is also a significant aspect of delivering opportunities in Nigeria for Africans in the diaspora.

Ultimately, the Ghana model holds lessons for the rest of the continent. Tourism offices across the continent should be considering both the factors of boon and bane for Ghana. There is clearly an interest on the side of African-Americans and this may not always play out in the action of resettlement. But that should not limit the room for a relationship that can blossom when handled properly.