Back to Africa: The Rise of the ‘Repats’

Can members of the Black Diaspora find what they are looking for in modern West Africa?

From American presidents to civil rights activists, many have lent support to members of the African diaspora wanting to return to the continent of their heritage.

This centuries old narrative remains popular for African-Americans seeking to uncover their roots today. With Atlantic Slavery having separated them from their communities of origin; many are only able to trace their ancestry as far as the British ruled Gold Coast. This region served as the main embarkation point for the exportation of some 12 million enslaved people over a period of 300 years.

Founded on the land that experienced the most devastating population losses to Slavery, Ghana has led the way in welcoming back the descendants of numerous lost generations. In this regard, Kwame Nkrumah was the first post-colonial leader to advocate for the Black diaspora to return and help re-develop an African nation.

These sentiments eventually resulted in the implementation of the ‘right to abode law’ in 2000 that encouraged African-Americans to apply for full citizenship in Ghana. With the historic exception of Liberia, its remains the only modern state to offer Black Americans the chance to become fully-fledged repatriated citizens.

Apart from its inclusivity, the legislation made clear the government’s recognition of the economic value of promoting Black American repatriation. By tapping into the then 36.4 million strong population and their easier access to education, it was rightly assumed that returning African-Americans would have a lot to offer the Ghanaian economy.

With the United Nations having declared 2015-2024 as the International Decade for People of African Descent, it seems fitting that another African nation is experiencing a similar wave of repatriation.

Over the past few years, the children of migrants to the United Kingdom are returning to Nigeria, and especially to the port city of Lagos. Encouraged by a diverse set of job opportunities and a burgeoning start-up culture; these young ‘repats’ are taking advantage of the entrepreneurial offerings of one of Africa’s most vibrant modern cities. From setting up communications agencies to diaspora networking events, this group is helping to checkmate unhelpful narratives that collate Nigeria with Islamic terrorism, violent frontier lands and political unrest.

But repatriates to Ghana have not managed to fit into their re-adopted home as easily. This is largely down to the poor execution of the ‘right to abode’ law that although progressive in policy, has not been implemented well in practice. With an estimated 3000-5,000 African-Americans living in Accra alone, many have received little to no response from the interior ministry when applying to stay in the country permanently.

The biggest obstacle members of the African diaspora face upon returning to Africa are not immigration rules but the legacy of Atlantic Slavery. And African-Americans returning to Ghana face this problem more so than their British-Nigerian counterparts.

International Slavery Museum | Jennifer Boyer: flickr


Due to centuries of separation, a number of African-American returnees are left seeking an ‘authentic’ African lifestyle that no longer exists. With some choosing to pursue a simpler existence away from Ghanaian cities, and from what they see as the ‘western’ life they have left behind; they are finding themselves increasingly out of step with modern Ghanaians who embrace the commercialism and exchange of globalised life.

Having only spent one or two generations away from their homeland, the scope between expectation and reality for Nigerian ‘repats’ isn’t as vast. Returning for commercial as much as for cultural purposes, they have their eyes wide open to the commercial opportunities to be had in Lagos and embrace it as much as any born and bred Nigerian.

African-Americans in Ghana face a series of realities that bar them from the existence they seek, the first being the onward march of globalisation. Powered by the Internet, more people from around the world are inter-connected than ever before. Frequent and more affordable transport links also means that more West Africans are accessing global products and travelling to see their families abroad. Far from being a preserved pre-colonial idyll, Ghana and its cities are joining the international hubs of global exchange. This denationalised reality can often be disappointing for returnees who seek a simpler life.

Ghana- repatriation
panorama of central Accra, Ghana | Guido Sohne : flickr


Coupled with the legacies of British colonial policy that encouraged rural West African communities to move to cities for work; the pastoral and archetypally ‘African’ way of life that African-Americans imagine bears little resemblance to the lives of modern West Africans when they return. Their desire for this old life also carries little understanding with settled Ghanaians who question why returnees would leave the relative material comfort of the Americas to begin with.

Returning African-Americans should see the Lagos ‘repats’ as something more than just commercial opportunists, as their movement takes inspiration from the most prolific ‘Back to Africa’ movement to have emerged from the United States. Marcus Garvey’s Black Star Line, the shipping initiative that served global black interests, would have approved of this group’s willingness to establish empower and evolve black industries ‘at home’.

The ruptures of Slavery may never be undone. But African governments and returnees can work together to forge a successful repatriation policy by building over the past and its associations of pain. To do this they must use what is on offer today. Due to globalisation this can never again be a pre-colonial agrarian life, but as the ‘repats’ of Lagos have shown, it can be a show of cultural pride through modernity evolution and enterprise.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Best of Africa.

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