The Washington Post
Abidjan, Ivory Coast:
AFRICA’S INTERNAL MIGRATION ROUTES
Despite fearmongering that Africa’s growing population will flood into wealthier parts of the world, cosmopolitan cities like this one draw most of Africa’s migrants and serve as models of tolerance, welcoming immigration policies and a reinvigorated Pan-african identity.
At first, the sudden stardom she found playing the lead role in “Mistress of a Married Man,” Senegal’s surprise smash-hit soap opera, was something for Halima Gadji to relish. There were trips to Europe and America. On the streets of Dakar, Senegal’s capital, she’d encounter fawning fans whose adoration reaffirmed what she had heard so often: You’re a great actress. She confidently defended the TV show’s controversial premise, which had riled some sections of her conservative society.
“People say that I am perverting the youth, but I don’t think so,” she was quoted as saying in the New York Times in 2019. “I am only reminding them that everyone is free to do what they want with their own sexuality.”
But the clerics got louder and louder, and her image was recast in the eyes of the public. The glamour gave way to glares.
A deep depression crept over her, and she found herself echoing a question asked by tens of millions of Africans every year: Should I leave my country?
When Gadji decided the answer had to be yes, she, like the majority of African migrants, did something many in the West might not expect, especially after a decade of fearmongering by populist politicians and a relentless focus in the media on the most desperate, perilous voyages in search of asylum.
Gadji immigrated, legally, to another African country.
Data from the United Nations’ migration agency offers a clear rebuttal to the misconception that this century’s projected population growth will inevitably lead to a flood of Africans leaving the continent.
The majority of African migrants, both rich and poor, do not cross oceans, but rather land borders within Africa.
Ninety-four percent of African migration across oceans takes a regular, legal form.
At least 80 percent of Africans contemplating migration say they have no interest in leaving the continent.
Gadji, like 2.5 million other West Africans, chose Ivory Coast, where foreigners now account for nearly 20 percent of the country’s economy, more than anywhere else in Africa.
Like New York or Paris, Ivory Coast’s biggest city, Abidjan, is a cosmopolitan patchwork of neighborhoods where flavors, languages and histories overlap. As Africa’s population grows, Abidjan, Nairobi, Johannesburg and other cities across the continent that brim with opportunity will reap the dividends of that growth, especially if Western countries continue to suppress African migration flows off the continent.
“I didn’t have to go to some unfamiliar world to find my peace — I’m still right here in West Africa,” Gadji said. “I may be famous, but yes, I am also a migrant — there is no shame in that. Like anyone, I would rather live where I am comfortable, where I am accepted.”
In West Africa, ‘we welcome’ migration
West Africa is one of the most integrated regions of the world. That’s partly a holdover from France’s colonial domination of the region, which left behind a lingua franca and a common currency still backed by French reserves.
But before the French arrived, this was also a region of vast trading empires and of nomadic groups that traversed it in search of pasture. In modern West Africa, home to 17 countries, locals often see borders as a hindrance — or even a fallacy — more useful to the Europeans who created them than the Africans who have to navigate them.
Despite relatively low historical levels of African migration to Europe, European Union member states have paid billions of dollars to West African governments over the past decade in return for strict enforcement of border controls aimed at preventing African migrants from reaching European shores.
“There are levels of irony here. Europe has integrated into a union, and yet they pay us to isolate ourselves,” said Issiaka Konate, a senior official in Ivory Coast’s ministry that promotes regional integration. “By doing so, they create an opportunity for criminal networks to operate in human trafficking, which has led to a profusion of armed groups and instability. Migration is not the political lightning rod in West Africa that it is in Europe. We welcome it.”
Between 2000 and 2019, the number of international migrants within Africa jumped from 15.1 million to 26.6 million, a 76 percent rise, the sharpest increase of any world region, according to the International Organization for Migration. On the entire continent, only South Africa, which has more than double Ivory Coast’s population and a much bigger economy, has more migrants.
For most of its post-independence period, Ivory Coast has sought to lure migrants with relatively high wages, especially in its cocoa industry, the world’s largest. That alone has drawn millions from Guinea, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger and others, and propelled Ivory Coast forward as the region’s best-performing economy.
Nearby countries such as Niger, which has the world’s highest birthrate and lowest standard of living, are replete with reasons to leave. For Gadou Amadou, 20, it wasn’t just poverty or the fact that the farms of Niger’s Tahoua region are drying up as climate change expands the Sahara southward — it was what all his friends were doing. Of the kids he grew up with, he was the last to reach Abidjan. He arrived here with 8,000 West African francs (about $15) and a backpack.
“My aim, and I think I can do it in just a few years, is to leave with 2 million. With 2 million, you go home, you build a house, you get married, everything is all right,” Amadou said.
He’s never done a day of school, he said, and he didn’t speak a lick of French until he got to Abidjan, where he works at a stall selling garba, a hugely popular street food made mostly by Nigerien immigrants.
He serves its signature fried tuna on a bed of chopped tomatoes, onions and chiles, with a side of attieke, the Ivorian cassava staple. In halting French, he flirted with two young female customers. They admired a new hat he’d bought with his earnings, emblazoned with the English words “Don’t Give Up.”
The food stall’s owner said that in just five years, 15 young men like Amadou had come and gone, earning enough to go back home comfortably.
“Garba makes us popular here. It is cheap, it is fast, it is tasty. People appreciate us,” Amadou said, explaining why he’d chosen Abidjan over Europe.
“Europe is unimaginable to me. Very few people dream of Europe, frankly — and they are people you could say who dream too much.”
‘What I am is thanks to this city, this country’
While the number of migrants moving from West Africa to Europe is minuscule compared with migration within the continent, Europe has nevertheless reorganized its historic relationship with the region around limiting the number of Africans who can reach its shores. In doing so, Europe has restricted the flow to exceptionally strong-willed migrants for whom the lure of Europe is hard to shake.
“Once you make it to Europe, you’re set — it’s a guarantee,” said Aladji Kandé, 21, who arrived in Abidjan from Senegal two years ago, and for whom Abidjan is a waypoint, not a destination. “I don’t care about ‘possibility,’ or about small money. I’m looking for a guarantee. In Europe, making 10 million francs is just a matter of time. So it’s just a matter of getting there.”
Kandé’s dream of Europe has little to do with Europe itself. The real dream — his raison d’etre — is to build his mother a house. She was a teenager when he was born, and his father, an older man, died soon after. They’ve been destitute since.
The dream was meant to be carried forward by his older brother, Adama — but Adama ended up in the hands of traffickers while transiting Libya in 2015, a fate met by tens of thousands of other would-be migrants. His extended family raised 1 million francs for his release, but after they sent it, they were informed that Adama had been killed, his captors having lost hope that the ransom would arrive.
“It’s worth the risk — I still believe that. My mind is made up. I’m leaving in January,” said Kandé, whose Wolof was translated into French by an aunt. She shook her head as he relayed his words. For months, she had shown him videos of the horrors in Libya and mass drownings in the Mediterranean.
To an older generation of migrants, the fixation on Europe and the insistence that it’s the only place to make enough money to live the good life is a sinister myth driven by a few success stories.
It’s also an abandonment of a political ideology often called Pan-africanism — most popular in the years right after independence — that advocates strength in African unity and the dissolution of colonially imposed borders. The movement has faded as nationalism has proved just as potent a political force on the continent as elsewhere in the world.
Abidjan is home to many ardent Pan-africanists. Chief among them is Pathé Ouédraogo, 71, better known as Pathé’o, who came from rural Burkina Faso to Abidjan as a teenager by way of the cocoa plantations and ultimately became one of Africa’s most renowned couturiers.
On a recent day in his atelier, he sat on a plush leather couch, measuring tape draped around his neck, surrounded by portraits of luminaries he has dressed in his signature African haute couture: Nelson Mandela; Morocco’s King Mohammed VI; Aliko Dangote, Africa’s richest man; and dozens more.
“In my youth, there was no word ‘immigration’ — saying a fellow African is a foreigner is itself a foreign concept,” he said. “Well, it is an infectious concept and a political tool — the blame game, the creation of difference, those classic divide-and-rule mentalities of the West, are they not? It is a miseducation foisted upon us.”
“Why should someone spend thousands of dollars, earned with years of sweat, to try to go to Europe when you can build a dignified life in Africa with that kind of money?” he asked. “What I am is thanks to this city, this country. I have now dressed Miss Ivory Coast 10 years in a row. Me, a village boy from over the border.”