How Ghana went above and beyond for Year of Return 2019

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Ghana is to launch a multi-million dollar fund aimed at attracting investment from members of the African diaspora in the United States and around the world – a follow-up to the “Year of Return 2019” in which the nation reached out to the diaspora on the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first African slaves in the United States.

In a news conference earlier this month, Ken Ofori-Atta, the country’s Minister of Finance, announced the “African Sankofa Savings Account”, which he said would enable both high- and low-income earners from the diaspora to invest in “tourism infrastructure, agriculture value addition, real estates, music, culture, retirement homes, etc”.

The minister’s announcement came in the wake of President Nana Akufo-Addo’s launch in December of a new initiative named “Beyond the Return, The Diaspora Dividend”.

President Akufo-Addo said the rationale of “Beyond the Return” is to “engage Africans in the diaspora and all persons of African descent more positively in areas such as trade and investment co-operation, and skills and knowledge development.

“Let us all remember that the destiny of all black people, no matter where they are in the world, is bound up with Africa,” the President added. “We must help make Africa the place for investment, progress and prosperity, and not [a place] from where our youth flee in the hope of accessing the mirage of a better life in Europe or the Americas.”

But what was the Year of Return, how did it relate to Ghana’s history of slavery and what did it bring to the nation’s economy and citizenry?

Remembering The Transatlantic Slave Trade

Beginning in the late 15th century, Portuguese ships transported captured Africans to the United States, where they were sold or exchanged for valuable goods like cotton, coffee or tea. Some 30,000 slaves from Ghana were sent to the Americas.

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Living conditions for slaves who were transported were brutal – they were chained and forced into the ships’ confined holds without enough food and water. Sick or dying slaves were tossed overboard.

Once in the Americas, most slaves were sent to cotton and sugar cane plantations where they lived and worked, facing regular punishment and abuse – including being shackled, subjected to sexual exploitation by their owners and branded with branding irons as if they were cattle, to show who owned them. Other slaves were forced to work in mines, as dockworkers or in slave owners’ households.

Portuguese merchants controlled most of the transatlantic slave trade for 150 years, then the Dutch came to lead it by the 1600s. A century later, English and French merchants accounted for roughly half of the slaves transported.

The slave trade flourished for nearly 400 years with an estimated 12 million to 12.8 million Africans shipped across the Atlantic during the period. Accurate figures for the number of Africans and their descendants who were enslaved are unknown, although estimates put the total near 40 million people.

What was the Year Of Return?

President Akufo-Addo has said that 75 percent of the slave dungeons built on the west coast of Africa, and through which slaves were transported, were located in Ghana.

He designated 2019 as the Year of Return to mark 400 years since the first enslaved Africans arrived in the settlement of Jamestown, in what was at the time the English colony of Virginia, in 1619. (The United States was not constituted until 1766, when Virginia joined 12 other English colonies in declaring independence.)

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The Year of Return initiative included a massive marketing campaign targeting African Americans and the diaspora by advertising Ghana as a tourism destination with trans-Atlantic trade appeal.

President Akufo-Addo has said the initiative attracted an additional 200,000 visitors during the year. He was quoted in Ghana Business News as saying that it also generated more than U.S. $1,5 billion for the economy.

The year-long enterprise included an investment conference targeting diaspora Ghanaians and encouraged African-Americans to seek Ghanaian citizenship.

Among other activities was the Full Circle Festival, which saw the involvement of several globally-renowned figures. Celebrities who visited Ghana included Naomi Campbell, the English model, actor and businesswoman, Idris Elba, the actor, writer and producer, Michael Jai White, the American actor, director and martial artist, and Rosario Dawson, the American actor and singer. American rapper, songwriter and television personality Cardi B also joined in the festivities, donning a bodysuit adorned with Ghana’s national colours during a performance.

Citizens and Tourists

There has been some controversy over statistics surrounding the Year of Return’s success.

The Ghana Tourism Authority projected that a total of 500,000 diasporans would visit the nation over the course of the year, 350,000 of whom would arrive from North America. while the rest would be comprised of visitors from South America, the Caribbean and Europe. But by mid-December, the authority was reported as saying that 750,000 visitors had already been received, and the total was likely to reach a million.

But the Ghanaian entrepreneur Bright Simons has disputed the authority’s data. While lauding the success of the initiative, he cast doubt on the figures, suggesting there was “zero commitment to using actual, widely available, statistical data.” Even if the total visitors numbered a million, he said, it was only a marginal increase over the figure for 2018, and he questioned another government estimate that the initiative generated $1.9 billion in extra tourist spending,

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Following Simon’s analysis, the Deputy Minister for Tourism, Arts and Culture, Dr Ziblim Iddi Barri, said the estimate of $1.9 billion probably reflected the contribution of the entire tourism sector, but that the Year of Return dwarfed the ministry’s other tourism programmes by a hefty margin.

Ghana issued 800,000 visas over the course of 2019 and in December announced that, due to the high demand, all nationalities would be eligible to receive a visa on arrival for the ensuring month, reported Kwabena Agyare Yeboah in African Arguments.

Moreover, figures from the Ghana Immigration Service indicated that the percentage of Americans arriving in Ghana reached their highest-ever rate between January and September 2019, increasing by 26 percent. Visitors from the United Kingdom, Germany, South Africa and Liberia grew by 24 percent, 22 percent, 10 percent and 14 percent respectively.

What Comes Next?

The undoubted success of the Year of Return has sparked discussions over whether the initiative should continue indefinitely.

“The Tourism Minister and her team are sitting down to see if [it]… can become a permanent feature of our tourism landscape,” President Akufo-Addo said earlier this month.

“The Year of Return turned out to be a much greater phenomenon than I anticipated. I didn’t realize that when I first raised up the issue, it was going to turn out to be this huge.”

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