Adam Nossiter has published a thought-provoking article in the April 29, 2015, New York Times. He comments on the silence of African leaders regarding the deaths of scores of African boat people who were trying to cross the Mediterranean in search of a better life. While it is true that many of the Mediterranean boat people are from Syria, Afghanistan, and other parts of the world, the majority are African.
Nossiter quotes the chairwoman of the African Union commission, South African Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, as expressing her “condolences.” To me, that is a trivial reaction to an African tragedy, which, one might have thought, exposes an issue that would be a central concern of the African Union. Nossiter also reports similarly weak statements from other African leaders. European civil society indignation and calls for their governments to “do something,” even if sometimes dysfunctional, lacks an echo among African political classes and elites. African governments simply seem to be disengaged from the tragedy.
Part of the reason for this disengagement may be an African lack of capacity. Few African states can control the flow of people across their borders. Many, if not most, have weak bureaucratic institutions and underdeveloped civil services. Disengagement may also reflect elite detachment from their own people.
The drivers for Africans to take to the boats appear to be poverty and the lack of opportunity, underpinned by poor governance. But, economic and social development as well as improvement in governance and accountability are not simple tasks and take a long time to achieve.
The African boat people are a rebuke to the popular, undifferentiated narrative of “Africa Rising.” In too many parts of Africa, nominally high rates of economic growth go hand in hand with increasing poverty and desperation. So, if they can, many Africans will take to the boats, believing that life in a European camp is preferable to staying home.