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We human beings keep on moving from place to place, that is, migrating. Indeed, one could say that history is a chronicle of migrations, so that the very idea that a certain community is the “indigenous” occupant of a certain territory is myth rather than fact. For example, as Richard S. Odingo observed, “The Nilotics, as well as the Bantus living in the various parts of East Africa today, migrated to their present environment within the last 600 to 1000 years.” Thus while my people, the Luo, believe that the land around the Great Lake is their birthright, Prof. Bethuel A. Ogot has shown that they are a very recent arrival from the Nile valley through present-day Sudan and Uganda. As Kenyan philosopher Prof. D.A. Masolo informs us, the Luo say “Dhano chal ombasa: k’ochiek bu otwo to omuoch bu kothe kir-re bu twi kanmoro nono (humans are like the Ombasa, the traveling plant … which spreads when it is mature, and its dry pod bursts open, thus freeing and hurling its ripened seed across territory to new grounds where it sinks and spreads its root).” Similarly, Michella Wrong observes that despite the account of Gikuyu and Mumbi receiving the area around Kirinyaga (Mount Kenya) from Ngai (God) and bequeathing it to their descendants the Agikuyu, “the Kikuyu probably arrived in what is now Kenya after an infinitesimally slow migration that began in around 2000 BC in what are today’s Nigeria and Cameroon”.

Yet migration almost always results in social tensions, as earlier inhabitants of a locale view the newcomers as a threat. Thus at the Kenyan coast we have had the “Wabara warudi kwao (Let upcountry people go back to their homes)”, calls to remove “madoadoa (weeds)” from the Rift Valley, and in the north-east of the country the singling out of “outsiders” for reprisals. In several countries in Africa, people from other parts of the continent have been targets of violence, including Tanzanian traders at Nairobi’s Gikomba Market, and immigrant workers in South Africa. Similarly, news of migrants from Africa on overloaded, under-serviced boats trying to get to the shores of European countries often dominate the news. The so-called European refugee crisis of 2015 saw about one million immigrants set foot in Western Europe, capturing the attention of leading Western media houses for several years before the obsessive preoccupation with COVID-19 partially eclipsed it.

Migration as Western imperialism

Listening to the rhetoric of the likes of Donald Trump and Emmanuel Macron on their resolve to greatly limit immigration to the West, one would think there was no migration before the twenty-first century. During the campaigns for the recent French presidential elections, Macron called for the strengthening of the European Union’s external borders against people illegally entering the bloc’s passport-free area; and Trump’s tireless efforts to build a wall between Mexico and the U.S. is still fresh in many minds. What people like Macron and Trump rarely say is that the power and wealth that their countries enjoy are the direct result of at least two forms of migration, namely, slave trade (Western merchants instigating the forced migration of the peoples of Africa out of the continent and into Western Europe and its satellites) and colonialism (voluntary migration of European oppressors into non-Western territories to forcefully extract labour and natural resources from them).

As Walter Rodney observes in How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, “To discuss trade between Africans and Europeans in the four centuries before colonial rule is virtually to discuss slave trade.” He further writes:

The massive loss to the African labor force was made more critical because it was composed of able-bodied young men and young women. Slave buyers preferred their victims between the ages of fifteen and thirty-five, and preferably in the early twenties; the sex ratio being about two men to one woman. Europeans often accepted younger African children, but rarely any older person. They shipped the most healthy wherever possible, taking the trouble to get those who had already survived an attack of smallpox, and who were therefore immune from further attacks of that disease, which was then one of the world’s great killer diseases.

While many in Africa might think of Western colonialism as an exclusively late nineteenth-century phenomenon, it has much earlier routes. For example, the colonisation of India began with the Portuguese incursion from around 1505, soon after Vasco da Gama set foot there in 1498. The Portuguese were briefly followed by the Dutch, after which the British and the French each made their incursions into the sub-continent in the seventeenth century. Eventually the British gained an upper hand in India, first exploiting it economically through the East India Company from the early eighteenth century, and later using the same company as its political agent until the mid-nineteenth century, before taking direct control of the country.

Besides, the propagandistic Western education systems and their neo-colonial satellites teach that the Italian explorer Christopher Columbus “discovered” the so-called “Americas”. Yet Indigenous peoples had been living there for centuries by the time he arrived in 1492, and the Norse explorer Leif Eriksson and his team had already been there from Western Europe five centuries earlier. Historians are emphatic that Columbus fatally damaged the societies of the indigenous peoples whom he found in the so-called Americas, and whom he called “Indians” in at least three ways: the use of violence and slavery, forced conversion to Western Christianity, and the introduction of a host of new diseases that decimated their populations, thus rendering them much less capable of resisting the Western invaders.

During his famous first voyage in 1492, Columbus landed on an unknown Caribbean island, ordering six individuals from among the indigenous people there to be captured and made to offer free labour. He later sent thousands of peaceful Taino “Indians” from the island of Hispaniola to Spain to be sold as slaves, and many of them died en route. He and his team also forced those Taino left behind to search for gold in mines and to work on plantations. Within 60 years after Columbus landed, only a few hundred of what may have been 250,000 Taino were left on their island. It is therefore tragically ironical that the descendants of those who committed unimaginable atrocities in the so-called Americas now assert unchallenged discretion to grant or deny visas to people from other parts of the world desiring to set foot on those shores. Besides, in 1934, “Columbus Day” was signed into law as a US Federal Holiday to be celebrated every second Monday of October. However, beginning in 1991, in response to sustained protests, dozens of US cities and several states began adopting Indigenous Peoples’ Day rather than Columbus Day to celebrate the history and contributions of the indigenous peoples of the so-called Americas.

Historians are emphatic that Columbus fatally damaged the societies of the indigenous peoples whom he found in the so-called Americas, and whom he called “Indians”.

Similarly, from the end of the eighteenth century to date, the indigenous peoples of Australia and New Zealand have suffered colonisation, genocide and sustained exploitation from Western European invaders. As Xin Ping observes, “Along with expulsion and genocide, smallpox, flu, measles and other infectious diseases struck and killed countless people. Within a century, the indigenous population went from an estimated between 350,000 and 1,000,000 to about 60,000. The Black War against Tasmanian Australians was one of the first recorded genocides in history. Over 140 years of Australian history, there were at least 270 frontier massacres that were part of state-sanctioned and organized attempts to eradicate the First Peoples.”

The West gave the flimsy rationale for both the slave trade and colonialism in the religious, philosophical and anthropological ideas of leading Europeans, such as the 1493 decree by Pope Alexander VI authorising Spain and Portugal to colonize the Americas and subjugate their native peoples. The German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, in his Philosophy of History, declared that what he called “Africa proper”, that is, Africa south of the Sahara, was devoid of reason and therefore without history; and the British philosopher John Stuart Mill worked for the robber East India Company. Besides, in his On Liberty, Mill expressed the view that the subjugation of non-Western peoples in a bid to “civilise” them was justified. There was also the French novelist, diplomat and travel writer, Arthur de Gobineau, who, between 1853 and 1855, wrote four volumes titled Treatise on the Inequality of Human Races, in which he put the “white” race at the top of the racial hierarchy, and stressed the necessity of maintaining its purity by ensuring that “white” people refrain from marrying people from other races. Thus the idea was popularised among Western European imperialists that the lands on which the various peoples of Africa dwelt were virtually owned by no one (terra nullius), and their minds were empty like a slate with no writing on it (tabula rasa).

The myth of one-directional migration from Africa to Europe

According to Marie-Laurence Flahaux and Hein De Haas, contrary to the perception that Africa is characterised by mass migration and displacement caused by poverty, violent conflict and environmental stress, more and more evidence is emerging indicating that most people in Africa migrate for family, work or study as is the case in other regions of the world. They point out that since 2000, several survey or interview-based studies have shown that most migrations by the peoples of Africa are not directed towards Europe, but towards other countries in Africa, and also to the Gulf countries and to the Americas. Nevertheless, the stereotype of poor people from Africa flocking the West to escape hunger and war are based on a racist ideology which should be constantly challenged as part of our decolonisation endeavours.

Many of us in Africa are acquainted with compatriots who, due to lack of work at home, have tried, successfully or otherwise, to migrate to the affluent West. Others of our compatriots with reasonably good jobs at home aspire for migration to the West in the hope of enjoying much more physical comforts facilitated by bigger pay cheques and higher standards of living. They also often hope to save up while there to enable them set up businesses back home, or to put up dazzling houses in their ancestral homes to minimise the interruption of their affluent lives when they make the occasional visits to their countries of origin. Underlying such aspirations is the presumption that the West is the ideal to which former colonies ought to aspire, and that migrating there enables individuals to achieve what their countries are likely to take decades if not centuries to accomplish.

The West gave the flimsy rationale for both the slave trade and colonialism in the religious, philosophical and anthropological ideas of leading Europeans.

Western Europe and its migrant satellites in North America, Australia and New Zealand have been agonising over the issue of migrants for several decades now. They have usually framed the issue in terms of cultural majority-minority relations because a recent migrant community to a territory is, by definition, a minority. Charles Wagley and Marvin Harris succinctly express the plight of cultural minorities in the so-called New World (mainly the Americas, Australia and New Zealand) as follows:

On one basis or another, these groups are singled out by the societies in which they reside and in varying degrees and proportions are subjected to economic exploitation, segregation, and discrimination. These are the people who are disliked and ridiculed because they speak a different tongue, practice a different religion; or because their skin is a different color, their hair a different texture; or simply because their ancestors emigrated from a different country.

In particular, while the dominant Western liberal tradition espouses a vision of a culturally-blind society in which the individual pursues his/her personal interests rather than those of his/her cultural group, many migrants assert their right to cultural group identity. A number of Western philosophers have supported the right to group identity, including the Canadian philosopher Will Kymlicka who defends it in the framework of multicultural citizenship, while his compatriot Charles Taylor (not the Liberian warlord) conceptualises it in terms of the politics of recognition.

Listening to rhetoric on how “foreigners” are “flooding” Western Europe and its satellites, one could easily get the impression that the borders of countries are objective facts that we ought to respect. However, borders of countries change frequently, as was the case with Kismayu which was once part of Kenya but is now part of Somalia, and with Königsberg which was part of Germany but now is part of Russia and has been renamed Kaliningrad. Of greater significance is the fact that the various countries of Africa and other (former) colonial territories continue to be impoverished despite their massive investments in developing their human resource: medical doctors, nurses, engineers, architects, educationists, academics and many others trained through the taxes of their people are using their skills in the affluent West while their countries languish due to a lack of the expertise that they paid to develop.

Most importantly, in our day, the question of migration from the economically-disadvantaged countries of Africa to the affluent West and its satellites touches on the issue of historical injustice. This is due to the fact that the economically-disadvantaged countries are in their present circumstance due to slave trade, colonialism and neo-colonialism for which the West is responsible. However, some in the West are of the view that historical injustices cannot be redressed because to do so would create worse outcomes. For example, the late American ecologist Garrett Hardin argues in his controversial essay “Lifeboat Ethics: The Case against Helping the Poor” that resources in wealthy countries cannot possibly meet the needs of the millions in poor ones, and that trying to help them by allowing immigration and giving them foreign aid would result in the destruction of both: “World food banks move food to the people, hastening the exhaustion of the environment of the poor countries [by allowing their populations to multiply]. Unrestricted immigration, on the other hand, moves people to the food, thus speeding up the destruction of the environment of the rich countries.”

The question of migration from the economically-disadvantaged countries of Africa to the affluent West and its satellites touches on the issue of historical injustice.

However, as the late Kenyan philosopher H. Odera Oruka correctly observed, Hardin’s analysis ignores how poor countries were made poor in the first instance, and also turns a blind eye on the continuing dependence of the wealthy countries on their exploitation of the poor ones: “If indeed all the poor boats sank, eventually the rich boats would also sink. It is known, for example, that up to a quarter of the jobs in the U.S.A. would disappear if that country divested from the Third World”. Furthermore, University of Oxford’s  Prof. Ian Goldin warns that while it is the immigrants who would first suffer if the West closed its doors to them, the measure would also wreak havoc on the affluent economies: “If rich countries were really going to shut the door on immigration, they would need to stop international flights, block their ports, end tourism and brace themselves for a rapid contraction in GDP. Far from seeing unemployment fall, it would rise: companies would fail as they lost staff and management, and demand would fall.” Besides, “Many industries – from agriculture to healthcare to construction to technology to tourism – depend on migrant workers. Hospitals would close as they lost cleaners and heart surgeons alike. Women who depend on foreign nannies to go out to work would suffer.” He goes on to note that “… more than half of the start-ups in Silicon Valley are founded by migrants, as well as many of the most iconic firms – Apple, Google, Yahoo, PayPal.”

In his conclusion to The Wretched of the Earth written about three decades before Oruka wrote, Frantz Fanon, the renowned Algerian freedom fighter, was emphatic that it was Europe which plunged Africa into darkness, and that it was crucial that the peoples of Africa shake off that darkness and leave it behind them: “Leave this Europe where they are never done talking of Man, yet murder men everywhere they find them, at the corner of every one of their own streets, in all the corners of the globe.” Some pages later he wrote: “Let us decide not to imitate Europe; let us combine our muscles and our brains in a new direction. Let us try to create the whole man, whom Europe has been incapable of bringing to triumphant birth.” This is what some scholars such as the late Egyptian economist Samir Amin have referred to as “delinking” – an idea which becomes clearer when we recall V.Y. Mudimbe’s observation that colonialism produces “the domination of physical space, the reformation of natives’ minds, and the integration of local economic histories into the Western perspective”. Amin held the view that the countries of Africa should wait for a moment when Western capitalism is extremely vulnerable due to its own internal contradictions, and take advantage of that moment to break away from its bondage. If more skilled people from Africa were committed to this vision, they would be more determined to weather the challenges of remaining in their homelands, thereby contributing to addressing the haemorrhage of expertise out of the continent.

“More than half of the start-ups in Silicon Valley are founded by migrants, as well as many of the most iconic firms – Apple, Google, Yahoo, PayPal.”

From the foregoing reflections, at least three points are worth reiterating. First, contrary to the impression being created by some Western apologists, migration is part of human experience down through the ages, and thus not exclusive to people from the territories previously colonised by the West. Second, Migration causes tensions in society because of the scramble for material resources and the desire to maintain cultural identities. Third, the effects of migration globally have been aggravated by the atrocities that the West has perpetrated against the rest over the past five hundred years through the slave trade, colonialism and neo-colonialism. Consequently, for the West to try to control migration from former colonial territories to its shores without addressing the factors that cause it, and whose origins it is largely responsible for, is to engage in a delusion at best, or in pathological hypocrisy at worst; for as Prof. Ian Goldin correctly notes, “… depending on how far you go back, we are all immigrants.”

This article is part of a series on migration and displacement in and from Africa, co-produced by the Elephant and the Heinrich Boll Foundation’s African Migration Hub, which is housed at its new Horn of Africa Office in Nairobi.