In flight to Nigeria, Tajudeen Abdul-Raheem encounters a howling young man being deported from the United Kingdom. How is it that the youth of African countries will do anything to leave their place of birth and slave away in poorly paid jobs in rich countries? What kind of societies are being constructed in African countries when remittances act as the only method of survival for whole commmunties?
Today is Africa Day and I wish to share a very painful story with you.
One has heard or read many horror stories about detentions, forceful removals, and deportation of Africans accused of being 'illegal immigrants' or failed asylum-seekers, almost always from one European country or the other. Most people are not likely to encounter this directly. In February this year I came face to face with the inhuman way it is done.
I was travelling to Nigeria with a former radical lecturer, mentor to several generations of Nigerian students and intellectuals, Dr Patrick Wilmot. In 1988 he was kidnapped by security officials of the IBB regime (government of Ibrahim Babangida) and forcibly removed from Nigeria, a country in which he had lived in for almost 2 decades and despite the fact that he was and still is married to a Nigerian.
Wilmot's 'crime' was allegedly, 'teaching what he was not paid to teach'! Wilmot is of Jamaican origin but has lived longer in Nigeria than in Jamaica and is better known to Nigerians and considered 'one of us' by many. Yet in one night the military government yanked him away from his family and academic community and landed him in the United Kingdom, a country in which he had never lived in before and had nothing but a painful historical link of slavery and colonialism. Britain finally gave him legal residence and later citizenship and London has remained his home since 1988.
In spite of fears and anxiety by friends and colleagues unsure about the selective efficiency of the African state when it comes to real and imagined 'enemies', Wilmot was happy to be returning to a country from which he was deported. I was never officially deported from Nigeria but have become expert at being 'prevented to leave or enter the country' throughout the military regime and even under the current 'democratic' order. My travelling with Wilmot was both a personal and political assurance that we could face any trouble together and tough it out.
From checking in and boarding you know you are Nigeria-bound and in many ways feel like you are already in the country. As loud as Nigerians are infamous for, that evening there was an unusual noise coming from the back of the plane, distinct from the racket of voices around. The voice grew more disquieting as we sat so I went to check in the next cabin.
At the back of the plane was a young Nigerian man, definitely not more than 25 years old, sandwiched between two bully-built white British police/immigration officers and handcuffed to both of them. I made enquiries from the airhostesses since my initial attempt to talk to the man's captives was rebuffed. The hostess casually informed me that it was nothing unusual, that these things happen fairly regularly, that the man was being 'removed' and assured me that his noise would reduce as soon as the flight settled.
Meanwhile, the removal police were trying their best to calm down the howling young man as they would 'calm' an aggressive dog or cat. On his part he was just crying, howling, swearing, and whining like a trapped animal. It was so dehumanising and I felt humiliated for him and for Africa. Even sadder still was the general indifference of most of the other largely Nigerian passengers. Many of them have become inured to this kind of routine humiliation of fellow citizens. One even advised the whaling young man to 'shut up and try again when you get home'.
Here was Dr Wilmot, happy to return to a country from which he was unceremoniously thrown out, on the same flight with a young man being unceremoniously returned home. One got the impression that if he was left unshackled he could attempt jumping out of the plane. He wanted to be anywhere but home.
How bad can it be that a young man who should have his whole life ahead of him should be so frightened of going back home? What kind of society have we created where our young people see no hope in remaining in Africa and would do anything to leave it? We are even beginning to valorize poor jobs, bad pay and immigrant insecurity by gleefully talking these days about how important 'remittances' are to the welfare of Africans trapped in poverty at home. This actually makes it imperative for many young people to devise even more desperate means to opt out of Africa in order to become Western-Union life-savers to their families. Some countries are now even trying to launder that exploitation as part of Overseas Development Assistant (ODA)! And some of our own organisations in the name of Diaspora initiatives are directly or indirectly offering justification for this by only looking at the 'contribution' that remittance is playing instead of the wider conditions and the long term negative impact of whole communities dependent on handouts.
We do not tell the truth about the degradation, racism and exploitation that most of our people suffer in those 'shitty jobs', 'early morning and late night' that makes our peoples the last to go to sleep and the first to wake up!
These horror stories about immigration are repeated everyday across Africa and the world. Some of our own governments, despite being responsible for the economic and political conditions that are making many Africans leave home, even connive in the routine humiliation in their forcible return from different countries in Europe. Some of them are willing to accept payments from European countries in exchange for taking fellow Africans (not necessarily their citizens) that are deported from Europe.
Who says slavery is dead? This is official people trafficking by any other name and it is done with impunity by countries who have signed all kinds of international conventions allegedly protecting human rights. The same countries that are forcing us to globalise, open up our economies and markets, but are unwilling to open up their markets for our goods and our labour.
In spite of the humiliations many more people from across this continent will do anything to get a visa to go to the West and if that fails, anywhere else but Africa. Many years ago I had written about this phenomenon and suggested then that were a slave ship, properly labeled, to appear in any port city in Africa, people would rush into it proclaiming that they were fit to be slaves! It is worse today; we are in many ways financing our way into slavery both at home and globally.
As if the bad treatment from others was not enough, intra African trade and free movement of peoples are denied through branding of fellow Africans as 'aliens', 'foreigners', 'non indigenes' and 'settlers' even inside the same country. Pan Africanist entrepreneurs delivering goods and services to African people as when and where needed are criminalised as 'smugglers'.
They say Rome was not built in a day.
Today being Africa Day, we need to ask ourselves: if Romans were not there who would have built Rome? You need to ask yourself whether by your action or inaction you are part of the problem or part of the solution.
Happy Africa Day!
* Dr Tajudeen Abdul-Raheem is General-Secretary of the Pan African Movement, Kampala (Uganda) and Co-Director of Justice Africa
* Please send comments to or comment online at www.pambazuka.org