“Migration is fabulous. Migration is what drives humanity; it is the core of globalisation,” says Abdramane Sylla. But then he would say that, wouldn’t he? He is the minister for overseas Malians, charged with keeping the west African country connected to its huge diaspora, from the street-cleaners running the green trucks of the Propreté de Paris to the sous chefs and patisserie chefs in the best restaurants in France.
For all his enthusiasm for the role, 54-year-old Sylla also has the painful task of informing relatives when Malians have died abroad, including those who have drowned in the Mediterranean trying to reach Europe. “I have heard far too many mothers crying this year,’’ he says.
Dotted around the world – mainly across Africa but also France and Spain – the Malian diaspora numbers at least four million, according to the minister; Mali’s remaining population is only about 13 million. As one of the poorest countries in the world its economy is dependent on diaspora remittances, which far exceed what is donated in western aid.
But how does Sylla, a Soviet-trained international-relations graduate, reconcile his enthusiasm for migration with the pain of migrants’ bereaved mothers? “Emigration is a tradition in Malian regions where there is not enough rain. If your village gets rain for two months of the year you are not going to sit around for the other 10.”
However, the solution is multifaceted, he adds. “Some countries still need labour in certain sectors. They should be honest about that. Last year, Morocco declared an amnesty and trained thousands of migrants. Development aid to Mali could be focused on irrigating the two million hectares of potentially fertile farmland we have.”
Sylla’s ministry also wants to make it far easier for the diaspora to invest in the country and eventually consider bringing their skills back home. “Europe must stop allowing the subject of migration to provide rhetorical oxygen for xenophobes. If we work together, labour can travel when and where it is needed and investment can be focused where it is required.”
Decades of brain drain have left Africa in need of skills but change is afoot: in South Africa more than 360,000 professionals have returned home since 2008. Ahead of the trend was Homecoming Revolution, established in 2003 as an online platform for returning South African professionals to share stories. It has evolved into a “brain-gain company” used by businesses to lure talent back to countries across Africa. It offers advice about relocation and matches expats with potential employers back home.
Angel Jones, CEO, foresees a “mass wave” of repatriation: “Many want to live a life where the work they do has a tangible impact on their surroundings.” She cites the example of a recent returnee, faced with South Africa’s recent blight of power outages. “He realised it was the best time to come home and launch his renewable-energy business.”
Time to say goodbye
Type: Presidential and parliamentary
Date: 18 February
Candidates: Yoweri Museveni, president for 30 years, wants to stay and will almost certainly win; ditto his National Resistance party. Forum for Democratic Change leader Kizza Besigye will be the opposition, though fratricidal intrigue is provided by the candidacy of Museveni’s former PM Amama Mbabazi.
Issues: : Uganda’s politics is suffering from the autocratic foolishness caused by overstaying leaders: Besigye and Mbabazi have been pestered, harassed and arrested.
Monocle comment: It is long past time that Museveni was wished all the best for his retirement.