Whether as displaced people or labor migrants, millions of Africans join the desperate, massive population movements across national boundaries on the African continent and to the West. In search of livelihood, they often face rejection and victimization within new nations struggling with declining economies and population pressure.
The world was shocked by the spectacle of thousands of Ghanaian workers and their families literally fleeing for their lives from Nigeria in February 1983. Yet this was not an isolated occurrence – others are merely less publicized. Over forty illegal Ghanaian migrants in the Ivory Coast suffocated to death when caught and locked up in a tiny room in Abidjan; in Paris, France, local municipal authorities bulldozed the shanties of Malian and Senegalese laborers and street cleaners to win the votes of city dwellers who objected to the presence of immigrant workers. This victimization of migrant and immigrant laborers has national and global implications.
African migrant and immigrant workers, like European “guest-workers” and illegal migrants from Latin America and the Caribbean to the United States, are now part of a global movement of poor people attempting to improve their lives. These are the most recent victims in the long history of forced or induced labor movement of millions of persons. Most of these people have been “pushed out” as a result of internal, usually ethnic, conflicts exacerbated by international alliances or capitalist development. For the most part, African economies have remained underdeveloped and dependent on Western capitalism.
Commenting upon modern labor migration in West Africa, Daryll Forde declared:
The large-scale modern migrations of workers in West Africa are…one element in a still wider transformation of the economic, political and community life of the peoples of West Africa – a transformation which has been stimulated from without and which has also led to their increasing involvement with external economic cultural forces. The new opportunities and demands, together with the stresses and incompatibilities to which the far-reaching technical, economic and political changes have given rise, extend into every field, presenting urgent problems of internal and external policy, of administration and education with which the governments of the countries of West Africa are having to grapple.
Contemporary analyses of problems which confront refugees and labor migrants are scarce. Samir Amin asserts that labor migration has generally been bad for individual migrants, detrimental to the economy of Africa as a whole, and ultimately reinforces the dependency of Africa on Western nations.
Elliot Berg, on the other hand, has viewed labor migration as the best adaptation that underdeveloped (but often resource-rich) African regions can make to the global economy. He and a number of other scholars feel that migration benefits both labor-exporting regions and recipient ones, and that labor migration will continue until fundamental economic changes overtake the African continent. It cannot be denied, however, that migration is partially responsible for the low productive levels in rural areas.
Both Amin and Berg present serious arguments. The dilemma which most African states face in dealing with migration has, however, additional and deeper ramifications. African leaders must manage independent states whose populations came to depend upon massive labor migration and emigration during the colonial period. In colonial Upper Volta and Mali, where agricultural development and cash were scarce, rural men often migrated into the Gold Coast or Ivory Coast in search of jobs as farm laborers, porters and construction workers; in southern Africa, Thonga, Xhosa and Swazi men often left wives on devastated rural farms to search for work in the mines.
Recently African leaders have tried to curb migration to urban areas by attempting to induce peasants to remain in rural areas to produce essential foodstuffs. In the 1970s, Ghana embarked upon Operation Feed Yourself while Nigeria began Operation Feed the Nation. However, tight international markets and low prices, as well as the need to channel agricultural profits toward urban and national development, have frustrated rural growth. The flow of migrants across borders has increased, creating local, national, and intra- and now inter-continental problems.
History of African Migration
Except for bureaucrats in the large complex states of West Africa, or traders along the East African coast, Africans in the pre-colonial period seldom worked outside of their local communities. However, large-scale movements did take place; horticulturalists shifted to fresh land on which to practice slash-and-burn cultivation and pastoral groups moved their herds across the landscape. These movements involved whole families and communities, not individuals.
Early European merchants and missionaries found it difficult to procure porters and guides; later, colonial Europeans almost always used force, hut taxes or other methods, often draconian, to obtain labor. In the colonial period African labor was brutally exploited in the interest of colonial governments and enterprises. As Africa gradually came to depend on the international economy, the colonial powers were able to move from forced-labor practices to wages to attract workers. The discovery of gold and diamonds led to an abundance of mining jobs in central and southern African areas. In West Africa, the transition to wage labor was smoothed by involvement in the palm oil industry (1830s-1880s) and in rubber-tapping (1880s-1910).
Gradually, colonial economies became monetarized. Wages increased Africans’ access to education and Western goods but also enhanced their traditional rural status while providing them with an entree into the “modern” world.
Soon after peasants began to produce cash crops, rural areas of Ghana and Nigeria received large numbers of northern (generally Islamic) migrants who came to work as laborers on the cocoa and coffee farms. Most Ghanaians and Nigerians saw the agricultural work as demeaning, only fit for migrants. Many dreamed of migrating to town, and building a family house in the village for retirement. Towns also became places of refuge for African women fleeing forced marriages and seeking independence; and for young educated African males escaping their tradition-oriented family members.
When export prices for coffee, cocoa, rice, tea or cotton began to slip in the 1960s, many African states pressured farmers to accept a producer price which was considerably lower than the world market price in order to channel the difference into state development. Lower prices, however, provided little incentive for farmers to increase production. In many cases the farmers could no longer meet family obligations. The deepening rural crisis appeared to increase migration from rural to urban areas, and many states found themselves with staggering urban populations and fewer and fewer employment opportunities.
Competition between migrant and indigenous labor forces was exacerbated by this unstable economic climate: ethnic rivalries were exacerbated. It is in this climate that African states began to manipulate employment rights both of immigrant laborers and less powerful ethnic groups in an attempt to bolster precarious and declining economies.
Competition between migrant and indigenous labor forces parallel the antagonisms displayed toward immigrant labor. In Nigeria, ethnic rivalries were fanned by colonial employment and educational opportunities given to the Ibo and Yoruba peoples. During the 1960s such tensions led to civil war. Northern Yoruba and Ibo frictions came to a head when Ibo were attacked in northern parts of Nigeria. In response, Ibo and other eastern-region migrants retreated from northern areas, seceded and attempted to form the small, oil-rich nation of Biafra. The civil war ended in 1970, but not before Ibo immigrants were visible in a number of other African states and in many western countries. While political rivalries were given maximum attention in analyzing this conflict, at the heart of the problem was the northern perception of Ibo as unfairly advantaged in getting jobs and access to other resources.
Competition between migrant and indigenous workforces has increased sensitivity to the presence of foreign nationals in the workforce. Recovering from the civil war in 1970, Nigeria turned to the development of off-shore oil resources. Oil revenues created instant millionaires and upward mobility for the middle segments of Nigerian society. Infrastructural development opened up lower level jobs which began to absorb labor from neighboring countries, but did little to assist Nigeria’s urban poor and farmers. By the 1980s decreased oil revenues tightened budgets in government, education and business and foreigners, such as Chadian refugees and Ghanians, were increasingly viewed with hostility. Nigeria chose to deport nearly 2 million foreign workers.
Many other African nations are discovering that they cannot rely upon surrounding countries to absorb their surplus labor. In Ghana and Mozambique, politicians are devising controversial strategies for redistributing their own rural and urban workforces in order to forestall national unrest and rejuvenate rural production. Small, vulnerable southern African states such as Lesotho and Swaziland now question whether they must sacrifice their ideological positions in order to preserve good relations with South Africa, a country which absorbs their surplus labor.
Global recession and economic decline are being dramatically reflected in the increased number of African economically displaced people and labor migrants. For some time to come, African states will face tremendous problems of how to deal with large and relatively unskilled populations seeking employment in nations precariously dependent on the international capitalist economy.
This Article first appeared in 1983, and is a copyright of Cultural Survival, Inc.