South Africa: Social Distancing and Social Solidarity
By Heike Becker
The good news first: On Monday, 6 April, the South African government began to roll out an ambitious programme of countrywide screening of the coronavirus infection. Mobile units and a corps of 10,000 health workers began screening and testing in the communities, with an intermediate aim of reaching at least 50,000 people within a week.
On 6 April, South Africa was also halfway through the scheduled 21-day lockdown that came into force on midnight of 26 March. Except for a few locations where residents flaunted the lockdown protocols, most people have been complying with the severe regulations.
South Africa’s 60 million people are only allowed to leave the house to do essential shopping for groceries or medicine, visit the doctor, or collect social grants. No allowance is made for outdoor exercise – an activity that even people in the European countries that are hardest hit by the pandemic still enjoy.
There have been reports of violent abuse that residents of poor neighbourhoods have suffered at the hands of the enforcement services, especially the police. From Day 1 of the lockdown reports, photographs and videos have been circulating of officers beating people. There is even one of officers shooting rubber bullets at people queuing at the entrance of a supermarket.
A group of people whose lives have been particularly affected by the lockdown protocols are the homeless, the approximately 70,000 people who live on the streets of cities across South Africa. They have been collected, more or less voluntarily, and accommodated in temporary facilities, some of them decently run, others dangerous mass encampments, such as the tented camp that the city of Cape Town has set up some 27 km outside the metropole for 4,000 street people. This is happening just as autumn temperatures have dropped over the past weekend to a wet and chilly 15 degrees Celsius.
The severe and cold South African winter is at our doorstep, and speculations are rife that with the peak of the pandemic in South Africa expected in early May, the lockdown may be extended, possibly until the end of June, or even longer. People in the poorest communities have been bravely patient thus far, although many have lost their income, especially those who make a living day-by-day – the domestic workers, the waste-pickers, the informal traders who sell much of the fresh produce in the townships, and many others. There is hunger and the longer the lockdown will last the hungrier the marginalised majority of the world’s most unequal society will get.
The tremendous efforts of South African civil society have continued. There are a remarkable multitude of community initiatives that provide practical support, from soup kitchens and food baskets to hygiene and face mask-making.
Beyond that, an impressive C19 People’s Coalition of over 190 organisations has been built over the past couple of weeks that is running campaigns for social solidarity under the banner “Stay Home. Stay Safe. Demand a Just Response to COVID-19!” The C19 Coalition has put together a wide-ranging programme of action that includes income security for all, specifically the extension of social grants, general easy access to water and sanitation, and food security. The Coalition calls for the appropriation of essential private facilities for public use during the crisis, for free and open communication, and for proper training and resources for community health workers. It also asks that the inequalities within the country’s educational system be considered in the move to remote learning.
With all this, the focus is on grassroots organisation and mobilisation, including the identification of strategies to divert violence, especially domestic violence, in the country’s communities and homes. The C19 programme programmatically articulates: “How each of us responds to the COVID-19 pandemic will determine who we are as a society. The better we respond now, the better we will be after the pandemic…Our response must be just, equitable, and redistributive if we are to meet the needs of all our people. In times of physical distancing, social solidarity is key.”
Heike Becker is an activist and teacher of social and cultural anthropology at UWC in South Africa. Her work and activism explores culture and politics and focuses particularly on popular culture, digital media and social movements in southern Africa. Heike is a regular contributor to roape.net.
Nigeria: The Hunger Virus
By Femi Aborisade
One basic point I must make is that the COVID-19-induced lockdown measures and effects in Nigeria are not uniform. For example, in Oyo State, South West, Nigeria where I live, only night life is curtailed by the imposition of the curfew between 7pm and 6am. So people are allowed to carry on their activities normally outside these hours. However, because of the total lockdown announced by the Federal Government and imposed on Abuja, Lagos and Ogun State, activities in all other states are affected to one degree or another as interstate movements are prohibited.
On a general note, the lockdown has meant unprecedented hardship, hunger and anger. In some cases, ordinary people have been compelled to defy the lockdown as they are compelled to go out in search of work. Some states share raw food and bread but on a limited scale, but frequently to such a limited extent that young people and women have been seen protesting in the streets against these “food rations”. One group of protesters complained that only one loaf of bread worth two hundred Naira (about 45 pence) was given to 650 people living in about 240 houses on a particular street. Young people angrily turned the bread into footballs. In another location in Lagos, the food rations, similarly pathetic in quantity, were distributed, to widows and old women. Community-based health and rights organisations have been unanimous in making demands for government provision of water, food and drugs to ensure a successful lockdown.
The Federal Government says it has set aside huge sums of money to fight COVID-19. But, in reality, it would appear that little is being used for this purpose. Recently, it was announced that the Federal Government would take US$150 million from the sovereign wealth fund and share it among the different levels of government to fight the virus It did not provide any information about what the money would be used for.
While public offices are shut, workers at Dangote are exempt from the lockdown. The workers are angry that adequate protection is not being made available to them. Aliko Dangote is West Africa’s wealthiest businessman, who runs the Dangote Group that employs thousands across Nigeria who work, principally, in his cement business.
In response to the defiance of the lockdown by hungry and angry poor people, some state governments, such as Ekiti State in the Southwest and Kaduna state in the Northwest, are relaxing the lockdown, and are allowing movement on some days of the week to allow people go to the market to buy foodstuff.
But in situations where people do not earn salaries, there is hardship. Even market women are complaining of little activity. In Nigeria, there are no social security schemes to take care of the unemployed and the elderly. People are saying that in the absence of public support, the hunger virus is no different from COVID-19.
Femi Aborisade is a socialist, writer and lawyer based in Lagos.
Tanzania: Chickens of Capitalist Modernity Coming Home to Roost
By Issa Shivji
The fight against COVID-19 is as much a class struggle as any, perhaps even fiercer. The pandemic is knocking on the doors of the continent. The ravages of five centuries of capitalist barbarity and its sycophant accomplices has left us most vulnerable. In Tanzania, we have been made doubly vulnerable as floods are devastating some regions and rendering people shelter-less. I shudder to think what the consequences will be. But we must continue to hope and struggle as long as we live.
We are going through trying times. Humanity is on trial. This is the time when the worst and the best in us comes out in ways that we could not have imagined in normal times. We are used to saying “the personal is political”. Now with the “social is personal”, the personal takes precedence, the social disappears. “Me first”, “my (family) first” overwhelms the “us”.
These are the times when “keep sane”, “stay sane” become words of affection. Yet what is at stake is our humanity itself. We don’t say “be human”, “stay human” for human is social and social is a distant second. Social is moral. Sanity is rational. And we are all children of Enlightenment rationality.
The chickens of capitalist modernity are coming home to roost.
But all is not bleak; it never is for we are humans and do not have the hide of a buffalo to be unaffected by human suffering. So, health workers are in the front line fighting the pandemic. Cuban doctors travel over the seas to save lives of fellow human beings while putting their own lives in danger. The Chinese send shiploads of medical kits to Italy and Iran in the people’s war (truly a peoples’ war) against COVID-19 (while Trump tightens the screws of sanctions against Iran and the European Union mulls over financial instruments that would secure its loans to a fellow EU member). Humanity is not so bereft of humanness. No, it is not.
Julius Nyerere rhetorically asked in his article “Usawa wa Binadamu” (Human Equality) what it is that makes us all equal when we are so unequal in every respect. His answer: it is our humanness. Nyerere’s equality is human equality (moral). Enlightenment’s equality is legal equality (rational).
Why am I saying all this? I’m saying it because in such times of crisis our Enlightenment values – which inform the age of (capitalist) modernity – starkly reveal themselves in all their nakedness. And they are barbaric to the core!
Will this pandemic teach us that humanity is crying out for a new civilisation, a civilisation whose centre is the human being, a social being with innate humanity, not an individual subject of the capitalist state who oozes out barbarity, greed and selfishness from every pore? People before property maybe sums it all up, though perhaps not sufficiently to drive our souls – nonetheless it is a good approximation to lead us on.
As I read the messages of love and warmth, of hope and solidarity from the continent, I cannot stop reflecting on how capitalist barbarity has destroyed our humanity, yet how our underlying humanness is kicking in and that is what makes life.
In the name of struggle and solidarity, let us shout and scream:
- Cancel all African debts
- Send air loads of testing kits and medical supplies
- And you African rulers, divert funds from your grandiose projects and your filthy salaries and perks to feed our people in quarantine
- Without humongous feeding schemes, lockdown is not possible and without lockdown it will be impossible to control transmission
The Revenge of Nature
By Issa Shivji
For over five centuries
Capital has devastated nature and human nurture.
Now nature is taking its revenge.
Once again capital will shield behind stimulus packages
While the working poor will die out packed like sardines in their slums.
Hope we should not lose, to despair we shall not surrender,
The struggle must continue.
We, the People of the World, will build a New Civilisation
Out of the ruins and rubbles of corona
We shall never again allow capital to ruin our homes and hearth
To build their domes and malls
Never again shall we subdue to its law and order
We shall stand up
Against their might
To fight back
And claim back our right to rebel
Never again revolution will be an episode
We will make it permanent
It will be the daily ablution
Five times a day
To wash away the sins of barbaric capitalism.
Keep safe my friend
Issa Shivji taught for years at the University of Dar es Salaam’s Public Law Department, and has written more than twenty books on Pan-Africanism, political economy, socialism and radical change in Africa. He is a longstanding member of ROAPE.
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Lava Jato: The CIA’s Poisoned Gift to Brazil
Recently leaked conversations show shocking levels of US involvement in Brazil’s Lava Jato corruption case against former president Lula da Silva.
“I’m going to celebrate today.”— Laura Tessler
“A gift from the CIA.”— Deltan Dallagnol
These recently leaked quotes refer to the arrest and jailing of former Brazilian President Lula da Silva in April 2018 that changed the course of the country’s history. It opened the door to far-right candidate Jair Bolsonaro, who came to power with the support of the United States and powerful corporate interests.
Although US involvement in the once heralded anti-corruption investigation operation Lava Jato has been publicly known for some time, leaked conversations between its prosecutors like Tessler and Dallagnol and Judge Sergio Moro have revealed a level of collusion that has shocked even the keenest observers.
A petition filed with the Federal Supreme Court (STF) by the defence of ex-president Lula presents such new evidence that ex-judge Sergio Moro colluded with foreign authorities in conducting the process which led to the arrest of the Workers Party leader, and his subsequent barring from a run for the presidency in 2018.
In the latest leaked Telegram conversations, which are now official court documents, the level of illegal collaboration visible between the Lava Jato task force and the internationally promoted judge is the most flagrant yet, and more valuable for Lula’s defence than chats first published by the Intercept in 2019.
The latest excerpts could result in the politically motivated case against Lula being annulled.
Ex-judge Sergio Moro and head of the Lava Jato task force Deltan Dallagnol have been accused of “treason” for their illegal collusion with United States authorities. In 2017, deputy US attorney general Kenneth Blanco boasted at an Atlantic Council event of informal (illegal) collaboration with Brazilian prosecutors on the Lula case, citing it as a success story. In 2019 the U.S. Department of Justice attempted to pay the Lava Jato task force a $682 million dollar kickback, ostensibly for them to set up a “private foundation to fight corruption”.
On April 5, 2018, the day Lula was arrested by Moro, prosecutor Isabel Grobba revealed the news: “Moro orders Lula to be arrested,” and Deltan Dallagnol replied: “Before MA (Supreme Court Justice Marco Aurélio) screws everything up.” Dallagnol was referring to what Marco Aurélio was then preparing; a Supreme Court vote which would potentially see defendants such as Lula freed from jail pending their second appeal.
Had this passed, it would’ve enabled Lula to run for president at the 2018 election. Polling at that point showed him twenty points ahead of nearest rival, U.S. backed far right candidate Jair Bolsonaro.
After coming to power, Jair Bolsonaro and Sergio Moro — who had been appointed as Bolsonaro’s Justice Minister — made an unprecedented visit to CIA headquarters in Langley, with the backing of Wall Street. The FBI has also massively increased its reach in Brazil since the election and was in direct, legal and illegal collaboration with Lava Jato task force since its inception, with its main liaison and now head of FBI’s international corruption unit, Leslie Backschies, boasting that it had “toppled Presidents in Brazil”.
Cooperation between Brazilian and United States authorities, including the use of FBI hackers to break encrypted files, had become clear long before the arrest of the ex-president. Messages from August 31, 2016, when Dilma Rousseff faced her final impeachment hearing, already prove this.
FBI use of hackers in Brazil dates back to 2012 when they encouraged a group from ‘Anonymous’ to attack Brazilian government and corporate institutions and online infrastructure, in a staged protest against “corruption”. Sérgio Bruno revealed: “Janot (Prosecutor General) was with people from the US Embassy last week and it seems that he commented on this [breaking into files via illegal means], without going into details (sic)”.
On the same day, Brazilian prosecutor Roberson Pozzobon also mentions the task force’s cooperation with FBI hackers: “We asked to see if the FBI has the expertise to break (into encrypted files)”.
The following year, Janot toured the world promoting Operation Lava Jato at investor events, both in the United States, and at the World Economic Forum in Davos, describing the now-disgraced anti-corruption operation as “pro-market”, a political position it was not supposed to have. Cooperation with Swiss and Swedish authorities is also evident from the leaked conversations.
A recent announcement has stated that Lava Jato, or Car Wash, as it was relentlessly promoted in the English-speaking media, will be shut down completely later this year, having helped wreck Brazil’s economy and eviscerate its democracy.
Editorial note: The following is an edited version of the article originally published by Brasil Wire. It has been amended to provide context for the recent developments in the Lava Jato corruption case. You can find all of Brasil Wire’s articles on operation Lava Jato here.
Is Balkanisation the Solution to Somalia’s Governance Woes?
Thirty years after the civil war of 1991, Somalia has still not been able to develop a functional governance structure that delivers services to the people. Federalism has also not delivered political stability. Is it time for Somalia to break up into independent clan-based states?
When former prime minister Mohamed Abdullahi Farmaajo was elected president of the Federal Government of Somalia in 2017, many lauded his victory. Unlike his predecessors, Farmaajo was viewed as a leader who would unite the country because he had a nationalistic mindset and was someone who was not influenced by clan interests. Many believed that, unlike his predecessor, Hassan Sheikh, whose tenure was marred by corruption allegations and in-fighting, he would bring together a country that has remained fragmented along clan lines and endured internal conflicts for decades. He was also perceived to be someone who would address corruption that has been endemic in every Somali government since the days of President Siad Barre.
Sadly, Farmaajo’s tenure did not result in significant transformation of Somali governance structures or politics. On the contrary, his open hostility towards leaders of federal states – notably Jubbaland, where he is said to have interfered in elections by imposing his own candidate – and claims that corruption in his government had increased, not decreased, left many wondering if he had perhaps been over-rated. Now opposition groups have said that they will not recognise him as the head of state as he has failed to organise the much anticipated one-person-one-vote election that was due this month, which would have either extended or ended his term. This apparent power vacuum has caused some jitters in the international community, whose backing Farmaajo has enjoyed.
However, it would be naïve to assume that Farmaajo’s exit is a critical destabilising factor in Somalia, because, frankly, the president in present-day Somalia is merely a figurehead; he does not wield real power. The government in Mogadishu has had little control over the rest of the country, where clan-based fiefdoms and federal states do pretty much what they want, with little reference go Mogadishu. National security is largely in the hands of the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) forces, not the Somalia National Army.
The concept of a state that delivers services to citizens has also remained a mirage for most Somalis who are governed either by customary law known as xeer or the Sharia. Some have even argued that with its strict codes and hold over populations through systems of “tax collection” or “protection fees” combined with service delivery, Al Shabaab actually offers a semblance of “governance” in the areas it controls – even if these taxes are collected through extortion or threats of violence.
In much of Somalia, services, such as health and education, are largely provided by foreign faith-based foundations, non-governmental organisations or the private sector, not the state. Many hospitals and schools are funded by foreign (mostly Arab) governments or religious institutions. This means that the state remains largely absent in people’s lives. And because NGOs and foundations can only do so much, much of the country remains unserviced, with the result that Somalia continues to remain one of the most underdeveloped countries in the world, with high levels of illiteracy (estimates indicate that the literacy rate is as low as 20 per cent). State institutions, such as the Central Bank and revenue collection authorities, are also either non-existent or dysfunctional.
Efforts by the United Nations and the international community to bring a semblance of governance by supporting governments that are heavily funded by Western and Arab countries have not helped to establish the institutions necessary for the government to run efficiently. On the contrary, some might argue that that foreign aid has been counter-productive as it has entrenched corruption in government (as much of the aid is stolen by corrupt officials) and slowed down Somalia’s recovery.
Foreign governments have also been blamed for destabilising Somalia. The US-backed Ethiopian invasion of Somalia in 2006, which succeeded in ousting the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) – which had successfully brought about a semblance of governance in Somalia through a coalition of Muslim clerics and businessmen – spawned radical groups like Al Shabaab, which have wreaked havoc in Somalia ever since. Kenya’s misguided “incursion” into Somalia in 2011, had a similar effect: Al Shabaab unleashed its terror on Kenyan soil, and Kenya lost its standing as a neutral country that does not intervene militarily in neighbouring countries. Certain Arab countries, notably Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, have also been accused of interfering in Somalia’s elections by sponsoring favoured candidates.
All of Somalia’s governments since 2004, when a transitional government was established, have thus failed to re-build state institutions that were destroyed during the civil war or to deliver services to the Somali people. In its entire eight-year tenure, from October 2004 to August 2012, the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) did not have the capacity to become a fully functioning government, with a fully-fledged revenue collecting authority and robust ministries. Ministers had no portfolios and ministries had skeletal staff. The national army was weak and under-funded, and since 2007, the government has relied almost exclusively on African Union soldiers for security, though some donors, notably Turkey, have attempted to revive the Somalia National Army.
Somalia’s first post-transition government was elected in 2012 under a United Nations-brokered constitution. Hassan Sheikh was elected as president with much enthusiasm and in the belief that things would be different under a government that had the goodwill of the people. In his first year in office, President Hassan Sheikh was named by TIME magazine as one of the world’s 100 most influential people. Somalia expert Ken Menkhaus called his election “a seismic event” that “electrified Somalis and both surprised and relieved the international community”. However, it would not be long before his government would also be marred by corruption allegations.
What governance model should Somalia adopt?
There has been some debate about which type of governance model is most suitable for a country that is not just divided along clan/regional lines, but where lack of functioning secular institutions threaten nation-building.
Federalism, that is, regional autonomy within a single political system, has been proposed by the international community as the most suitable system for Somalia as it caters for deep clan divisions by allocating the major clans semi-autonomous regional territories. The 4.5 formula for government representation proposed by the constitution based on the four largest clans (Darod, Hawiye, Dir and Rahanweyne) and 0.5 positions for minorities does acknowledge the reality of a clan-based society, but as Somalia’s recent history has shown, clan can be, and has been, manipulated for personal gain by politicians. As dominant clans seek to gain power in a federated Somalia, there is also the danger that the new federal states will mimic the corruption and dysfunction that has prevailed at the centre, which will lead to more competition for territories among rival clans and, therefore, to more conflict.
Several experts have also proposed a building block approach, whereby the country is divided into six local administrative structures that would eventually resemble a patchwork of semi-autonomous territories defined in whole or in part by clan affiliation.. In one such proposal, the Isaaq clan would dominate Somaliland in the northwest; the Majerteen in present-day Puntland would dominate the northeast; the heterogeneous Jubbaland and Gedo regions bordering Kenya would have a mixture of clans (though there are now fears that the Ogaden, who are politically influential along the Kenya border, would eventually control the region); a Hawiye-dominated polity would dominate central Somalia; the Digil-Mirifle would centre around Bay and Bakol; and Mogadishu would remain a cosmopolitan administrative centre.
Somaliland offers important lessons on the governance models that could work in a strife-torn society divided along clan lines and where radical Islamist factions have taken root. Since it declared independence from Somalia in 1991, Somaliland has remained relatively peaceful and has had its own government and institutions that have worked quite well and brought a semblance of normality in this troubled region.
After Siad Barre ordered an attack on Hargeisa following opposition to his rule there, Somaliland decided to forge its own path and disassociate from the dysfunction that marked both the latter part of Barre’s regime and the warlordism that replaced it during the civil war. It then adopted a unique hybrid system of governance, which incorporates elements of traditional customary law, Sharia law and modern secular institutions, including a parliament, a judiciary, an army and a police force. The Guurti, the upper house of Somaliland’s legislature, comprises traditional clan elders, religious leaders and ordinary citizens from various professions who are selected by their respective clans. The Guurti wields enormous decision-making powers and is considered one of the stabilising factors in Somaliland’s inclusive governance model. Michael Walls, the author of A Somali Nation-State: History, Culture and Somaliland’s Political Transition, has described Somaliland’s governance model as “the first indigenous modern African form of government” that fuses traditional forms of organisation with those of representative democracy.
However, Somaliland’s governance model is far from perfect: the consensual clan-based politics has hindered issue-based politics, eroded individual rights and led to the perception that some clans, such as the dominant Isaaq clan, are favoured over others. Tensions across its eastern border with Puntland also threaten its future stability.
In addition, because it is still not recognised internationally as a sovereign state, Somaliland is denied many of the opportunities that come with statehood. It cannot easily enter into bilateral agreements with other countries, get multinational companies to invest there or obtain loans from international financial institutions, though in recent years it has been able to overcome some of these obstacles.
Somaliland is also not recognised by the Federal Government of Somalia, which believes that Somaliland will eventually relent and unite with Somalia, which seems highly unrealistic at this time. This is one reason why the Somali government gets so upset when Kenyan leaders engage with Somaliland leaders, as happened recently when Mogadishu withdrew its ambassador from Nairobi after President Uhuru Kenyatta met with the Somaliland leader Musa Bihi Abdi at State House. Raila Odinga’s recent call to the international community to recognise Somaliland as an independent state has been welcomed by Somalilanders, but is viewed with suspicion by the federal government in Mogadishu
Nonetheless, there has been some debate about whether Somaliland’s hybrid governance model, which incorporates both customary and Western-style democracy, is perhaps the best governance model for Somalia. Is the current Western- and internationally-supported political dispensation in Somalia that has emerged after three decades of anarchy a “fake democracy”? Can Somalia be salvaged through more home-grown solutions, like the one in Somaliland? Should Somalia break up into small autonomous states that are better able to govern themselves?
Balkanisation is usually a deprecated political term referring to, according to Wikipedia, the “disorderly or unpredictable fragmentation, or sub-fragmentation, of a larger region or state into smaller regions or states, which may be hostile or uncooperative with one another”. While usually associated with increasing instability and conflict, balkanisation could nonetheless still be the only solution for a country that has been unable to unite or to offer hope to its disillusioned citizens for more than three decades.
As Guled Ahmed of the Middle East Institute notes, “the 1995 Dayton accords, which ended the Bosnian war, paved the way for ethnic balkanisation of former Yugoslavia into six countries. This resulted in peace and stability and prosperity. So if Eastern European countries can separate along ethnicism, why not balkanise Somalia with multi-ethnicism just like the former Yugoslavia to achieve peace and stability and fair elections based on one person one vote?”, he said.
Ahmed told me that balkanisation would also eliminate Al Shabaab (which has been fighting the government in Mogadishu for the last 14 years) as the independent states created would be more vigilant about who controls their territories and also because people will have more ownership of their government. Somali refugees languishing in Kenya, Ethiopia and elsewhere might also be tempted to finally return home.
Balkanisation can, however, be messy – and bloody. But Somalia need not go down that route. A negotiated separation could still be arrived at peacefully with the blessing of the international community. If the international community is serious about peace and stability in Somalia, it should pave the way for these discussions. Sometimes divorce is preferable to an acrimonious marriage.
The Danger of the Single Story and Africa’s Refugee Equilibrium
Africans’ lack of knowledge about our own shared refugee experiences continues to fuel hate and discrimination on the continent.
For far too long, the global refugee situation has been misconstrued as static, with certain parts of the globe generating disproportionate numbers of refugees and others perpetually faced with the burden of hosting displaced peoples. In particular, Africa is seen as a producer rather than a receiver of refugees. To be clear, Africa is not a continent that feeds the world with refugees any less than it hosts them. Although Africa is seen as exceptional in terms of global refugee networks, the factors accounting for refugee crises can bedevil any region at any point in time. These factors include war, natural disasters, political upheavals, military coups, civil strife, religious or cultural persecutions, personal circumstances, economic hardship, terrorist activities, and many more.
African countries, as much as any other, have taken turns in both generating and hosting refugees, and if history is any measuring rod, will continue to do so. It is the African refugee equilibrium, a phenomenon whereby a country that at one moment in its history is feeding its neighbors with refugees can become, at another moment, the receiver of refugees from those same neighbors. Africa isn’t just feeding the world with migrants and refugees but is top on the list of hosts. As per the UNHCR statistics of 2018, 30% of the world’s 25.9 million registered refugees were being hosted in Africa. Yet, the numbers of Africans who make their way to the West as refugees and migrants occupy the headlines of international news, painting the continent and the people as a miserable “sea of humanity,” perpetually flooding the rest of the world, especially North America and Europe.
Examples of how Africa has been mutually hosting its own refugees and taking turns are unlimited. The regions of Central and West Africa have particularly exemplified the concept of the African refugee equilibrium, with many nations taking turns in generating and hosting refugees. Even in the days when it suffered refugee and migrant crises, few Equatorial Guineans left the continent; the vast majority fled to nearby Cameroon, Gabon, and Nigeria. During the First World War, the German colony of Kamerun fed the Spanish colony of Guinea with tens of thousands of refugees. But in the 1970s, Cameroon, in turn, hosted about 30,000 refugees from Equatorial Guinea. During the Nigerian Civil War, Nigeria fed several of its West and Central African neighbors with tens of thousands of refugees, including children, who ended up in countries such as Gabon and Ivory Coast. The post-civil war era has seen Nigeria host hundreds of thousands of refugees and migrants from its neighbors, even while Nigeria itself simultaneously feeds some of those neighbors with a new category of refugees.
West and Central Africa are not unique in this exchange. Since the 1960s, nations in East and Southern Africa have taken turns between hosting and generating refugees. In East Africa, the Kakuma refugee camp in the northwest of Kenya currently hosts about 200,000 refugees from more than 20 neighboring countries, including refugees from Ethiopia, Somalia, Sudan, South Sudan, Uganda, Democratic Republic of Congo, and Burundi, to name but a few. Uganda, which has sent refugees to its neighbors, including Kenya, hosts its own refugees and refugees from others. Uganda’s Bidibidi refugee camp currently ranks the second largest in the world.
Perhaps more interestingly is the fact that besides mutually hosting its own refugees, Africa has hosted refugees from other continents, including from Europe. While examples abound, a few here will suffice. During the late 19th century and the 20th century in the midst of anti-Semitism, a significant number of European Jews entered North and Eastern Africa as refugees, with some settling in as far as South Africa. On the eve of the First World War, there were already more than 40,000 Jewish migrants and refugees settled in South Africa. In the 1930s, South Africa again received more than 6,000 Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany. During the Second World War, in excess of 20,000 Polish refugees, who had been evicted from Russia and Eastern Europe following German invasion, were received and hosted in East and Southern Africa, including in modern day Tanzania, South Africa, and Zimbabwe. In the 1960s, the crisis of war and decolonization in the Congo caused the flight of several thousand whites from the Congo. They were hosted as refugees in a number of African countries, including South Africa, Congo-Brazzaville, Angola, the Central African Republic, Tanganyika, Rwanda, and Burundi.
The examples provided here only scratch the surface of the African refugee equilibrium, but they each demonstrate that we must pay attention to historical antecedents in refugee studies. In other words, we need to historicize African refugee studies. Only by so doing can we fully appreciate the important and diverse role that Africa plays. This approach clearly shows that if our neighbors are currently facing a refugee crisis and turn to us for assistance, we must view them with respect and compassion; it could soon be our turn and we could need them.
There are constant examples across Africa where our lack of knowledge of our own shared refugee experiences or sometimes outright denial of history continues to inform the way we treat fellow Africans with disdain and hostility. Xenophobia (better known as Afrophobia) in South Africa is just one example. The African Centre for Migration and Society (ACMS) has carefully documented xenophobic attacks against other African refugees and migrants in South Africa since 1994, establishing several cases where in many South African towns and cities, South Africans attacked, injured or even killed African refugees and migrants. If only an average South African knew that not too long ago many African countries were safe havens to many of their countrymen and women during the anti-Apartheid struggle, they would think twice before unleashing xenophobic attacks against other Africans. Even across West and Central Africa, there have been several instances of both civilian African populations and their governments treating other African refugees in their countries with unbelievable hostility. When oil was suddenly discovered in Equatorial Guinea in the late 1990s and early 2000s, Equatoguineans and the government alike, quickly forgot their shared refugee and migrant history with Cameroon, and began a series of hostilities against Cameroonian refugees and migrants who came to Equatorial Guinea for “greener pastures.” An informed knowledge about our collective refugee and migrant experiences would go miles in ensuring that Africans and African governments treat other African refugees and migrants in their countries in a friendlier and more accommodative fashion.
There is, however, hope on the horizon. Africanists are increasingly turning their attention to refugee studies and the African refugee equilibrium. Two special issues are forthcoming in the Canadian Journal of African Studies and in Africa Today, both of which showcase Africa’s shared and diverse refugee and migrant experiences. These issues are part of the efforts to redress the image of Africa and the misconceptions surrounding the continent regarding migrants and refugee movements.
What all of these means is that it is only a matter of time before the static image of African refugee dynamics and the African refugee equilibrium will displace these ahistorical ideas.
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