Towards the end of 2020, nearly 20,000 economic migrants from West Africa made their journey across the Atlantic to the Canary Islands. This is an eightfold surge from the numbers who arrived in 2019. The routes the migrants take are less than 100 kilometres from the Moroccan coast, anywhere up to 450 kilometres from the Western Saharan coast but about 1,500 kilometres from Senegalese coast. They come in small fishing boats. The crossings are perilous. Hundreds have lost their lives.
With the route to Europe blocked off through the militarisation of the Mediterranean crossing, these migrants are risking their lives to find an alternative. Just as the crossing across the Mediterranean has become a graveyard for thousands of migrants, the Atlantic crossing is increasingly becoming a watery burial site for many migrants.
This reminded me of the Mati Diop’s haunting film Atlantique, where young labourers in Senegal whose wages have been held by the property mogul decide to board a flimsy boat and make the dangerous journey across the ocean to Spain hoping for a better life. They lose their lives but their spirits come to haunt the rich through their girlfriends and their memories.
Young men from Morocco, Senegal, Mali and many other countries along the West African coast are trying to escape the dire, unending poverty. There are no jobs that would bring an income for them. Some of them face a life of precarious low-paid employment without any prospects. There is no economic development that could absorb their labour. The Covid-19 crisis has exacerbated their situation further by decreasing economic growth significantly.
Some of them who eked a living out as stall holders have lost their livelihood. Those who have trained say as electricians do not have any job opportunity to use their skills to earn a living wage. Agriculture is also under strain because drought and the threat of desertification due to climate change haunt the hinterland of these countries. The rising sea levels have also displaced coastal communities. The depletion of fish stocks due to overfishing – largely by European and Chinese vessels – has depleted stocks off the Senegalese coast and has led to sharp cuts in incomes of fisherman and fuelled the wave of migration.
Furthermore, in the hinterland of these countries civil conflicts have become endemic. On the grounds of fighting terrorism and extremism across the Sahel, Western powers over the last decade have intervened militarily to manage national security and governance. The United States has deployed special forces commandos across the continent especially in Sahel to counter Boko Haram, and ISIL. This has enhanced regional instability with a long term impact on public security, trade and economy.
The poverty in Africa has deep historic roots. Since the 16th century, Africa was turned into a warren for slave hunting. The abduction of the youth across the continent to be ferried by tortuous slave ships across the Atlantic and set to work in death camps of plantation slavery left African societies fragmented and depleted of the life-blood of youth to maintain and develop the productive forces of their societies. Western countries accumulated their social wealth through the exploitation of African blood and sweat at one pole and left Africa poor and underdeveloped at the other. Walter Rodney’s arguments of how Europe underdeveloped Africa remains true today.
As slave uprisings and abolitionist movement in the mid-19th century, followed by the American civil war, led to the gradual end of chattel slavery, at the Berlin Conference of 1884, the imperial European powers carved up Africa with arbitrary boundaries to further their trade and exploitation. All resistance by the African continent was crushed with overwhelming military force including air power. Such resistance has been erased in the Western narrative of history, which lauds the opening up of Africa by David Livingstone, and noticed in passing when Gordon was slain in Khartoum followed by the much celebrated massacre of the Mahdi army with machine guns.
White racial supremacy led to the horror of the extermination of ‘inferior races’, notably the Herroros in German South West African territories and the indigenous people of the Congo under Belgian King Leopold’s rubber monopoly. These were reflected across the continent where African life was considered cheap and forced African labour was widespread. There was no civilising mission in the continent. The ‘civilising’ mission was to drag the continent through mud and blood to a capitalist extraction of as much wealth as possible. Christianity spread by well-organised and well-funded missionary societies turned out to be a subtle tool for pacification. Co-option and collaboration by traditional leaders with colonial powers became embedded.
White settlements in South Africa, Rhodesia, Kenya followed, through the dispossession of Africans from their lands in climes favourable for Europeans. Throughout the continent, apartheid was embedded in one form or another. Both World Wars I and II saw regional wars between European powers in Africa and a great loss of African life. The quest of Africans for democracy and trade union rights emerged but was quashed. It was after the WWII, that the liberation struggles across the continent emerged strongly. The decade-long Algerian revolution resulted in the removal of French power at a great cost. The Mau Mau revolt in Kenya against settler domination was defeated with massive military force and methods using torture, disappearances, and concentration camps.
Across the continent, the colonial powers ushered in neo-colonial administrative regimes with national flags but without a fundamental change in the social and productive relations. Where imperialism was challenged by radical African leaders, the assassination of political leaders like Patrice Lubumba and the installing of pro-Western military regimes was favoured. Other revolutionary anti-imperialist leaders who wanted to change their countries to serve their people, such as Amilcar Cabral, Thomas Sankara, Samora Machel, Steve Biko and Chris Hani, were among many who were also assassinated crushing the hopes of the continent.
Even moderate leaders like Nkrumah were toppled. Only right wing conservative leaders accommodating to imperialism survived. Counter-revolution was the extreme manifestation of Western policy during the Cold War. Military dictatorships were fostered unreservedly. Where there were modicums of elective democracy, the elites preferred a one-party state. The encroachments of Soviet Union in a few countries ended up in the cul-de-sac of military dictatorships.
The Francophone countries in West Africa are even today in the monetary grip of the French Treasury which controls their reserves and their currency, limiting their autonomy to decide on investments. The late Portuguese decolonisation after the revolution in 1974 led to proxy wars fomented by the apartheid South African regime and the United States. These devastated Angola and Mozambique for over a decade and left a million dead. The fall of the nationalist regime in South Africa in 1990 after 70 years of Western powers’ support, leading to a non-racial democracy led by Nelson Mandela, did not fundamentally alter the class relations within the country.
Over the last three decades, the imposition of neo-liberal policies from the 1970s onwards, led by the trio of International Monetary Fund, World Bank and World Trade Organisation, reinforced the underdevelopment of most African nations. These Least Developed Countries (LDCs) of the world, locked into a dollarised economic system, became heavily indebted during after the 1973 oil crisis. The IMF swooped across the continent, insisting on structural adjustment in return for any loans. Structural adjustment demanded deregulation of their economies, allowing free movement of capital, imposing domestic austerity, cutting back on public sector investment and exporting primary produce to earn dollars. The Ebola outbreak showed how West African nations had lost their primary health network to protect their people because of these policies.
The ties of the African economy to the metropolitan powers were deepened after decolonisation. Africa’s mineral wealth across the continent was extracted with profits taken out through devious methods. A War on Want report by Mark Curtis in 2016 documented how 101 companies listed on the London Stock Exchange — most of them British — have mining operations in 37 sub-Saharan African countries. They collectively control over $1 trillion worth of Africa’s most valuable resources. Under the guise of the UK helping Africa in its economic development (a mere continuation of the colonial paternal narrative), $134 billion has flowed into the continent each year in the form of loans, foreign investment and aid. However, the British government has aided and abetted the extraction of $192 billion from Africa, mainly in profits by foreign companies, tax dodging and the cost of adapting to climate change.
Such huge sums flowing out of the continent have left it underdeveloped. Not that there is not economic development – there is. Cities and towns have grown but the top one percent are the beneficiaries.
But the surplus produced by African countries is sucked out by imperialist corporations. Economically, it is imperialist relations that determine that African currencies decline in value and their purchasing power. These interventions ensure that the oligarchy which rules across the continent salts away the gains in partnership with the imperialist centres. This self-enriching pact, well analysed by Andy Higginbottom, has kept Africa underdeveloped. Of late, China’s encroachments in Africa have become of concern in the West, but currently the dominant corporations are on the whole Western, with deep colonial roots.
All demands from social movements, dissidents, or political parties are met with repression, dismissal and hostility. Protestors are met with police gunfire and detentions. The oligarchy cements its hold by cultivating religious, ethnic and tribal sectarianism as foreseen by Franz Fanon. Yet people across the continent are yearning for popular democracy and rebellions continually break out against oppression. One day there will have to be a reckoning.
Too often, economic migrants are treated with casual dismissal, meaning they have no rights to migrate into other countries when compared to refugees and asylum seekers. But this is not defensible, because such migrants are also seeking a better life from poverty which is no less deserving than those seeking refuge from war and conflict. Both poverty and conflict have been fuelled through exploitation, toxic trade deals, dodgy debts, land grabs and climate change for which rich countries, including Britain, bear great responsibility.
As a recent report by Global Justice Now for freedom of movement argued so trenchantly, “It cannot be right that the place you are born dictates whether you will live a life of poverty or plenty, of freedom or imprisonment. It cannot be right that while the richest, at least in normal times, move around with ease, the poorest are imprisoned in geographical poverty.” To accept the current situation is to endorse a form of apartheid on a global scale. African migrants are harbingers calling for an end to this apartheid.
First published by Labour Hub on 28th January 2021