World News Europe will never discourage African migration while it funds the corruption that drives it

Posted by: Berhane Habtemariam

Date: Sunday, 29 October 2023

The idea that Africans aren’t aware of the dangers of migration, or haven’t tried to ‘build up their own countries’ ignores the terrible despair they feel at the state of  their governments

Evelyn Groenink

On the surface it seems darkly consistent for Europe and the UK to respond to calls for slavery apologies with intensifying efforts to create a Fortress Europe and “small-boat-free” seas. The UK’s Rwanda plans, the EU’s barbed wire fences and Frontex coastal patrols around Africa’s north and west, all send the message that Africans belong in Africa. Slavery was wrong, right? So, these slave ships should never have brought them to live with us in the first place and they want us to apologise for that.

African strongmen, therefore, are now paid by the UK (Rwanda) and Europe (Libya, Tunisia, Morocco, Senegal) to keep Africans in Africa, in camps and jails if need be. This was the message, too, for Senegal when aid was tied to Frontex patrolling its shores; it was the message that came with funds and equipment for Libya for migrants to be sent towards torture-riddled detention camps. You may be an oppressor, but let’s pay you.

The former slavers of the west are going to make damn sure that no one makes the trip again.

It really is in these Africans’ best interest, the migrant-halters say. “These people are forced on to rickety boats,” tweets concerned the Dutch European commissioner, Wopke Hoekstra. He paints a picture of misguided Africans, forced into death-trap dinghies by cruel human traffickers, one often repeated in Europe’s mainstream political sphere: It’s wrong and dangerous to try to come here, so don’t. If you do, you will be drowning, starving in the desert, or tortured in detention. It will be your fault for so stupidly listening to the traffickers. Those modern slavers and small-boat gangs are also blamed by the British home secretary, Suella Braverman, the prime minister, Rishi Sunak, and the EU Commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, who went to Tunisia to “migration partner” with the government there.

These politicians are actually not against those who migrate, they say. They just want to help. Help them stay home.

Alongside money for autocrats and patrol boats, help comes in the form of awareness-raising. Western campaigns, distributed via “developmental partners” in Africa, have hammered home the message: the trip is deadly! Illegality is horrific! There is racism here! And the weather!

In 2020, Africans working in Italy’s olive fields, interviewed by Deutsche Welle, said others must not come because the pay is low and the work hard. They agreed with the interviewer that it will be much better if Africans stay and build up their own countries. Not they themselves, though. They were staying in Italy.

When African journalists from the investigative platform ZAM looked at Europe-funded “resettlement projects for returned migrants” in Nigeria, it found many returnees sold off their “starter packs” and left again. They knew that, like the stay-home messages, the build-up-your-own-country argument is, in the current African context, a fallacy.

In more than 20 years in journalism in Africa, I’ve come across many examples of people who tried to build, if not their countries, then at least a life: a family who ran a fishing business in Senegal; a farmer with cows to milk in the DRC; a village with cotton fields in Mozambique; communities who tended a forest in Cameroon. Yet, in Senegal the government sold the fishing licences to foreign trawlers, leaving the village – and later a second, third and fourth one too – without income. The Congolese farmer saw his cows appropriated by a local governor. A mining company, in partnership with the ruling party, came to bulldoze the Mozambique village. The forest in Cameroon was plundered by a European company that got approval, and a dinner, from friendly government politicians. A special forces brigade paid for by Israel burned down the rebellious villages around the forest.

Women wait to buy fish off incoming boats at the fishing port in Mbour, Senegal.
*Women wait to buy fish off boats at the fishing port in Mbour, Senegal, a popular departure site for migrants trying to reach Europe. Photograph: John Wessels/AFP/Getty Images

Oppression by corrupt elites who use the state to extract wealth for themselves was identified as a major driver of poverty, by the International Monetary Fund and in a study by the Nigerian anti-corruption commission. Sadly, corruption commissions have been of little help in the face of kleptocrat power. In spite of their sage reports, often western-funded, many African state structures, ruled by those benefiting from patronage, routinely purge those who want to offer public service to citizens. African journalists have described how civil servants who wanted to administer justice in courts with integrity, or monitor fair elections, have been victimised, rendered superfluous, and attacked. In Malawi, such officials get exiled to “Guantánamo”: an office where you must sit and not be a spoiler.

The despair engulfing citizens in such countries was described in ZAM’s stories on migration, an overwhelming majority of people randomly interviewed in Zimbabwe, Cameroon, Uganda, Kenya and Nigeria said they would leave if they had the chance, even knowing about smugglers, jail in Libya, desert brothels or endless muddy refugee camps. What other choice is there? Voting them out keeps proving impossible, as shown again in recent elections in Nigeria, Uganda and Zimbabwe.

“Our leaders don’t allow you the space to breathe,” says Elizabeth BanyiTabi, a Cameroonian journalist. She doesn’t like the anglophone rebels who have taken up arms against the French-speaking ruling elite, but understands what drives them, as does her Mozambican colleague Estacio Valoi when he reports on al-Shabaab recruiting youth from the barren gemstone fields that were once villages. “Everything has been stolen from them and they don’t know what else to do,” he says.

The development aid argument – advocated by western leaders as a tool to discourage emigration from Africa – is a fallacy. The DRC gets $3.5bn (£2.9bn) a year and has vast mineral wealth, yet remains one of the world’s poorest countries. Aid pays for state jobs in the patronage system while mineral proceeds rarely reach state coffers. “Our people don’t rise up in revolt,” says the Congolese investigative journalist Eric Mwamba. “They are just too hungry to do that.”

In its new Africa Strategy document, the Dutch foreign ministry says that its aid “frees 32 million people from structural malnutrition, increases the income and productivity of 8 million small-scale farmers, and ensures 8m hectares of land are sustainably managed for food production.” Where, then? How? Under which kleptocrat ruling party governors? Every project investigated by African journalists seemed to have been appropriated by local landowners or elite politicians.

*A crowd of African men at a protest hold up images of Vladimir Putin.

Do those in the business of aid and trade believe such phrases? Tsiguereda Walelign, an adviser to the Green Left in Brussels, doesn’t. “In our discussions about where to invest what, the values that you want to share with your development partner don’t come into it at all,” she says. “It’s all about who gets the contract.” The Dutch admit this, too, albeit under the veil of “sustainability. On page 28 of its strategy document, the government says it aims to “safeguard access for the Netherlands and the EU to critical raw materials”, while simultaneously “help(s) African countries increase their share in sustainable value chains with the EU.”

The west wants the contracts, and therefore autocrats are our “partners”. The reason why the Dutch, the European Commission and the UK are doubling down on partnerships with African governments and their “abundant natural resources” is, of course, Vladimir Putin.

Whether its Russia’s disinformation war, to which African urban youth are deemed vulnerable, Russia’s increasing competition for resources, or state capture, the fear of Putin in Africa is so deep that the poor west is compelled to kiss the behinds of Paul Kagame, Paul Biya and Yoweri Museveni. That “equal partnerships” with oppressive rulers could mean a complete loss of the confidence that Africa’s restless citizens still have in the west seems less of a concern. But it should be.

For now, western professed equality of all appeals to those not enjoying democracy in Africa. But people are not blind to seeing how much of the money the west invests there ends up in the pockets of the very leaders who drive them away. Or how politicians house plunder in Swiss banks, buy London houses, go to health clinics in Germany, and take French Riviera holidays while their subjects drown in the Mediterranean.

Solidarity with the oppressed in Africa is not an easy strategy. Many countries do not have opposition movements that could take over governance if the despots departed. It would be a good first step, though, if leaders would venture out and start to listen to, for example, the courageous pioneers who trained me in African investigative journalism; the civil servants vegetating in Guantánamo; the artists whose work is often so illuminating, activists like the one on a Tunisian beach who held a sign that read “don’t reward my father’s jailer”. Or the Cameroonian democratic leader who, when asked whether his president might “defect to Putin” if he lost the support of the west asked: “But why doesn’t the west support us?”

Amid all the musings about slavery reparations, Europe has not yet listened to African people.

Maybe we could start with that.

  • Evelyn Groenink is the investigations editor at ZAM and a member of the journalism collective the Network of African Investigative Reporters and Editors (Naire)

Dr. Fikrejesus Amahazion at the XXIX International Rosa Luxemburg Conference in Berlin on January

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