Lebanese Émigré Enclaves in Africa Await Presidential Visit
By: Amal Khalil
Published Wednesday, February 6, 2013
Lebanese President Michel Suleiman announced that he will be paying an official visit – the first of its kind – to several West African countries where thousands Lebanese live and work. Despite the large Lebanese presence in Africa, many countries still lack a Lebanese ambassador.
For decades now, the Lebanese state has left its large expat population in West Africa to fend for themselves, offering little official support for a community that was established as far back as the 1950s.
Many are asking whether the president’s visit will finally put an end to years of neglect and address the mounting problems Lebanese citizens face in these countries, or will it be merely ceremonial, draining millions of dollars from the national treasury, with nothing to show for in the end.
Suleiman’s mid-March tour of West Africa is set to include stops in four countries where Lebanese expats are concentrated: Senegal, Nigeria, Ghana, and the Ivory Coast.
Ismail Bahsoun, a member of the Lebanese Chamber of Commerce and Industry in the Ivory Coast, recalls that the last president to visit the region was Elias Hrawi (1989 to 1998) and it was merely a stop on the way to Latin America.
The visit that many longtime expats remember most is that of Shia leader Imam Musa al-Sadr, who in 1967 spent five months canvassing the various Lebanese émigré communities in West Africa and its surroundings.
On visits to Senegal, the Ivory Coast, Ghana, Nigeria, and Sierra Leone, Sadr was received like a government official, given the fact that he was the first Lebanese political personality to visit the region.
In the course of the time Sadr spend there, many contentious issues were addressed and resolved, such as helping to release Lebanese prisoners in Ghana and expediting visa and residency requirements in the Ivory Coast.
Sadr’s first trip was so successful that he went back again in 1972 and again in 1978. In his last visit, he laid the cornerstone for the construction of an Islamic center, which today includes a mosque, cultural center, and a community school.
Bahsoun explains that successive Lebanese governments saw Africa as a cash cow, given that expats regularly send large amounts of money back to Lebanon.
How are the Lebanese emigrant communities preparing for Suleiman’s visit so that they can get the most out of it?
On an official level, Lebanon’s diplomatic missions have begun planning for meetings with the local authorities in the four countries. But will the president get to hear the litany of concerns and demands among the Lebanese living there?
In the Ivory Coast, for example, the approximately 50,000 strong Lebanese community controls half of the country’s economy, thus requiring an official cooperation and development agreement between the two countries, according to Bahsoun.
Another common demand of expats is that the Lebanese government help expedite the transport of their deceased back home. This process costs about $12,000, according to Bahsoun, an amount far beyond the means of many living in West Africa.
At the top of the Lebanese community’s concerns, however, is the improvement of air travel between Beirut and West Africa. During his 2004 trip to the region, Speaker of Parliament Nabih Berri took the general manager of Middle East Airlines, the national carrier, with him to address this issue.
Finally, an urgent matter that should be obvious to Suleiman is the need to beef up Lebanon’s diplomatic missions in many of these countries, some of which don’t even have an ambassador or any kind of government representative based there.
This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.