Amid the global cries of alarm over the deaths of African migrants in the Mediterranean has been a notable silence: Where are the impassioned voices of African leaders who, arguably, could be shouting the loudest?
Their citizens are drowning by the hundreds, along with Syrians and Afghans. But there has been barely an anguished word from the continent’s leaders.
The chairwoman of the African Union commission, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, belatedly expressed “condolences” and called for more “dialogue”. Senegal’s President, Macky Sall, offered a “salute to the memory of the victims”. But beyond such remarks, the relative lack of reaction has been revealing.
“While the West bears some responsibility for this massacre, African leaders, for their part, are standing by, mute, in front of this unprecedented spectacle, which is proof of their failure,” an editorial in the Senegalese newspaper Le Quotidien said last week.
“At least there was a wave of indignation among the Europeans, confronted by these deaths in the Mediterranean,” wrote Le Quotidien. “It’s as though our leaders, who offer no hope to our jobless youth, were telling themselves, ‘So much the better, at least it will reduce the unemployment rate!’”
To many, the muted response is an implicit acknowledgment that, at a minimum, Africa’s leaders are not shocked that tens of thousands of their citizens would rather risk death at sea than endure the hardships and limited opportunities at home.
Likewise, human rights organisations are flaying European leaders for closing their doors and holding migrants in overcrowded detention centres, but they are largely silent about the responsibility of the migrants’ home countries.
Yet a solution will have to come as much from Africa as elsewhere.
In the top 10 countries of origin for migrants risking the perilous journey are Mali, Gambia, Nigeria and Senegal, according to the European border control agency. Still, these four West African nations — and thousands more come from other African countries not specified by the agency — are not at war. And, except in the case of Gambia, they are not especially repressive.
Senegal regularly pats itself on the back for being one of Africa’s most successful democracies. Nigeria has a growth rate that doubles that of many Western nations, even after the drop in oil prices. Mali recently emerged from a quasi civil war. And Gambia has a thriving tourist industry, albeit one unfolding in a place under such tight control that it can sometimes resemble a vast open-air prison.
In all these places, many people feel they have so few options that they risk their lives in rickety boats for an uncertain place in an unwelcoming continent, Europe.
The case of Senegal is instructive. After being attacked in the local news media over its silence on the issue, Senegal this week set up a special government office to track its migrants’ plights.
The government said it would help the families of migrants get information about relatives who had been shipwrecked in the Mediterranean.
But for many, the fundamental issue is offering enough opportunity at home to prevent people from risking the journey in the first place.
“If people don’t have livelihoods at all, they are not going to sit and die of hunger; they are going to look for greener pastures,” Ms. Dlamini-Zuma was quoted as saying in Brussels last week. “We don’t have an instant solution, but we are going to be looking at and taking steps, but we can’t say those steps will solve this thing tomorrow.”
Western donors often turn to Senegal as a place on the continent where power is not controlled by a single dominant party, an immovable septuagenarian, a dictator or a general, and where corruption is at least discreet.
But life is not good for most here. Ask a Senegalese citizen how things are going, and he or she will often answer sadly, “Sénégalaisement.”
A recent World Bank report cited “low job creation” and “little progress in poverty reduction”. Only one in five Senegalese citizens works full time, the report said, noting the profusion of young phone-credit vendors and other hawkers who crowd the sidewalks here.
Almost half of the population remains below the poverty line; employment in what the report termed “modern sectors,” like construction and services, actually declined in 2013.
Senegal has a plan for growth, based substantially on public investment. The country already has the highest level of public investment among its neighbours, but also one of the lowest growth rates. Many residents have little hope of a better future, and Senegal’s coast and interior are full of villages where the Mediterranean dead are mourned.
One of the few African leaders to address the issue, President Yahya Jammeh of Gambia, has one of the worst human rights records on the continent. Senegal’s capital, Dakar, is full of refugees from his brutality. Last year, he urged the United Nations General Assembly to investigate “this man-made sinking”.
Far from examining the internal conditions that contribute to such migration, he assailed “the very dangerous, racist and inhuman behaviour of deliberately causing boats carrying black Africans to sink”, and he spoke of a “deadly mysterious force” causing “boats carrying young Africans to disintegrate”.
Culled from the New York Times