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Articles on political and social issues in Cameroon, Africa and the world as seen by Njei Moses Timah > Why Africans Risk Their Lives To Go Abroad

17 Jan 2007

Last week, it was reported by the Associated Press that the body of a man was found in an airplane wheel well after a Delta Airlines flight from Dakar (Senegal) landed in Atlanta, USA. While police were still investigating the circumstances surrounding the death of the unknown man, observers of the African scene have no doubt that he was certainly a would-be illegal immigrant. Desperation and ignorance is pushing many young African immigrants to premature death.


 If the deceased knew that an airplane flies at the height of 10000 meters above sea level, and travels at 900 kilometers per hour in an environment that is extremely cold (sometimes reaching –60 degrees Celcius), he would have not attempted the adventure, more so that the flight duration was long- 9 hours.


This is just one of the many, almost daily fatalities involving mostly Sub Saharan Africans trying to reach foreign shores in search of a perceived better life. Europe, due to its proximity, is the most popular destination for those Africans leaving the continent clandestinely.


At the end of last year, it was reported by officials in Spain that about 6000 African migrants died or got missing on the sea journey to the Spanish Canary Islands alone. Some have perished (on the first leg of their journey to Europe) trying to cross the hostile Sahara desert that lies between West Africa and the Coastal Northern African Countries of Libya, Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco, while others have died trying to cross the Mediterranean sea to Europe from these North African countries. According to EU figures, 31,000 Sub Saharan Africans managed to reach the Canary Islands in 2006, six times the figure for 2005. The Canary Islands located west of Morocco became a popular destination, after security was tightened on such other crossing points like North Morocco to Iberian Peninsula in Spain or From Libya, Algeria or Tunisia to Malta or to the Italian outpost of Lampedusa.


The migrants come from such diverse countries like, Senegal, Mali, Mauritania, Ghana, Nigeria, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Ethiopia, Sudan, Somalia, DR Congo, Cameroon, Guinea, Burkina Faso and Cote d’Ivoire. Young people, mostly males go to extremes to make sure they reach Europe. Frequent reports of accidents resulting in fatalities do not seem to deter these people.


 The Europeans are astonished at the determination of these migrants and overwhelmed by the numbers entering the continent. Those that survive the treacherous journey to Europe usually arrive bankrupt, emaciated and sick. These people have been to the rock bottom of life and as such any threat to throw them in jail pales in comparison to what they have lived through in the perilous desert or turbulent waters.


The European is trying to fight this growing problem with new ideas. Among the measures, include; the tightening of border controls, the facilitation of legal migration and the establishment of accords with African governments for short guest worker programs for specific jobs in the EU member countries. In my opinion, these are cosmetic measures because the root cause of the problem lies in the way African economies are structured.


 This approach has many flaws because it may worsen the situation instead. Like the American Green Card Lottery, the EU proposal will lead to the migration of mostly qualified professionals from the continent leaving behind less competent people to run the bureaucracies and African economies. There will certainly be further dislocation of the already fragile economies leading to an increase in the number of desperate and unemployed Africans seeking to leave the continent. Knowledge is the principal force behind the changes we are witnessing in the world economy. As Microsoft’s Bill Gates pointed out; “There will be two societies in the future: high-paid knowledge workers and low-paid service workers”. Who is going to teach African children now that the intelligentsia is in diaspora? Expect the migrants of tomorrow to comprise a substantial number of children seeking better education.


If you have never been to Sub Saharan Africa, you will assume that these migrants come from some barren wasteland with inhospitable living conditions. You will not imagine that the young men and women come from such countries like Congo, Cameroon and Nigeria that have all the natural resources that the Europeans lack. These children are migrating from an area that has sunshine throughout the year to go and endure oscillating climate that includes freezing cold in Europe. The children are perplexed. They cannot comprehend why they live in the midst of apparent plenty in Africa but they are constantly in penury.



photo by Njei M.T 


A peasant farmer suffering under the weight of flawed African Economies.


Sub Saharan Africa is like a mirage. You seem to see water nearby but you never get close to touching it. Since immemorial time, the economies of these countries have been deliberately distorted by powerful outside forces and made to operate contrary to the interest of the people. Many current rulers of African countries perform their jobs as if they were estate managers of some faceless absentee landlord that lives in a foreign land. Yes, there is an external arm that is linked to bad governance and corruption in Africa. It has always been so. It has never been in the interest of that external arm that Africa is properly governed. That external arm may change from time to time but it has always been there. At one time it was in the form of slavery or colonialism, and now it is in the form of the less visible neo-colonialism. Understanding the neo-colonial state in Africa is a very complex issue for ordinary Africans. That is why the same crowd that will lynch a person for stealing a loaf of bread on the streets of Lagos or Douala, will ignorantly adore another man (usually in authority) that has stolen a million dollars from the state with the stroke of his pen.


Wrong economic policies championed by the World Bank and IMF have plunged ordinary Africans into deeper poverty. For example, if an African farmer is using one acre of land for cultivating coffee (an export crop), and the local currency is devalued by 50% as it happened in 1994 in cfa zone countries, that farmer will need two acres of land and also needs to double his working hours just to maintain his living standard at the same level. This means the clearing of more natural forest to make room for more farmland. The multiplier effect will translate into youths escaping harsh working conditions from the rural areas and filling the ghettoes of the cities. Environmental degradation and socio economic problems like unemployment crime and prostitution and civil conflict follow in succession. The resultant pressure then pushes these youths to seek solace in foreign lands.


“No nation” says Norwegian economist Erik Reinert, “has ever taken the step from being poor to being wealthy exporting raw materials in the absence of a domestic manufacturing sector”. Our economic wizards at the IMF and World Bank should know better but for unknown reasons, Africa is being encouraged to get rich by predominantly exporting raw materials and cheap agricultural produce. Worse still, Africans play a little role in determining the prices of these commodities.

It should be made clear to the EU leaders and other rich nations that we can never fix the problem of migration from Africa without fixing the structural problems of African economies.




Njei Moses Timah