African Exodus by Asfa-Wossen Asserate: thwarted ambitions

In the Apulia region of southern Italy, home to vast tomato plantations, there is a district inhabited by Ghanaian tomato pickers. Many of them have made a treacherous journey to Europe in search of a better life. The irony, says Asfa-Wossen Asserate in African Exodus, is that some of the tomatoes — which attract generous EU subsidies — are dumped on Ghana’s own market, undercutting local farmers and contributing to the poverty and unemployment that drive people to Europe.
In the markets of Ghana, he writes, besides stacks of “made in Italy” tomato purée, are breakfast cereals from Germany, tinned meat from Britain and milk powder from Denmark. Ghanaian farmers cannot possibly compete with European counterparts, who received €40bn of subsidies in 2014 alone. Free trade between Europe and Africa, he writes, quoting a Ghanaian economist, is like a “a football match between Real Madrid and the Bole-Bamboi school team”.
Asserate’s short book, originally written in German, is a plea for joined-up thinking on migration. It seeks to examine the forces driving people to leave home. The focus is on African immigrants, even though it was those from Syria who made headlines in Germany in 2015. Africa is currently home to 1.2bn people, but by 2050 that number is expected to double and, by 2100, to double again. By then, one in three people on Earth will be African.
Today’s movements of refugees will seem like a mere trickle, he predicts. This will strain much more than the social fabric of Europe; for Africa, it will constitute a devastating brain drain. Already, there are more Zimbabwean doctors and nurses in London than in all of Zimbabwe, he writes. “Africa is sitting with its bags packed.”
Asserate, an academic, is a refugee himself — though (as a member of Ethiopia’s royal family) not one who came to Europe across the Libyan Desert or in a leaky dinghy. Instead, his “personal tale of flight” came about because of the 1974 overthrow of Emperor Haile Selassie, his great uncle. At the time, Asserate was a student in Frankfurt. News came that his father, a leading politician, had been executed and his mother and siblings incarcerated. “At a stroke, I had become a stateless person.”
Today, he estimates, there are 65m members of humanity “on the run” — fleeing poverty and persecution. The phrase is telling. The book presents migration in a wholly negative light, even though, as he recognises, the history of humanity is one of movement. After all, if Africans had not left Africa millennia ago, there would be nobody today living on the other continents.
Still, the overriding question of the book is how can migration be stopped, or slowed? The underlying assumption, perhaps born of the author’s personal story, is that living away from home is a tragedy. People are compelled to migrate because of lack of opportunity, for which he blames bad African leadership and shortsighted western policies.
Most time is spent on poor African “governance”, in that overworn phrase. Many African leaders, he writes in a canter across the continent, are too busy enriching or aggrandising themselves to enact development policies capable of transforming people’s lives. They have done little, he says, to improve farming methods stuck in low-yield subsistence or to formulate coherent policies that could lift people out of poverty.
Much of the criticism is fair, if hardly groundbreaking. But Asserate, whose book sometimes feels as though it were written from 10,000 feet, can also fall into cliché. Too often, people in Africa are described as “starving and living in grinding poverty”. While that is sometimes true, as Asserate acknowledges, it is not the very poorest who make the journey to Europe. The young Africans pouring into cities are hungry not principally for food but for the life available in more affluent countries. “They own smartphones, surf the internet, use social media and are perfectly well aware of the prosperity in which people in other parts of the world live.”
Asserate is rightly scathing about western policies towards Africa, which too often hover between the ineffective and the hypocritical. He is right, too, to point out that money paid to governments to stop flows of refugees is often a licence for offshore human rights abuse. Internment camps in Libya and Niger are outsourced prisons for people whose only crime is seeking a better life.
His answer is that the west should think primarily about fair trade, first by scrapping farming subsidies. Aid should be concentrated on countries with good governance — though a satisfactory definition of what that is proves elusive.
The main conclusion is that strengthening borders will prove futile in the face of human ambition. So long as those ambitions remain unfulfilled at home, the bags of those seeking a better life will remain packed and ready to go.
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