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The Tragic Migration of Africans to Europe Started Thirty Years Ago, Just When Neoliberalism Started to Bite

On November 1, 1988, a dead African man was found on a beach in the south of Spain. A flimsy boat lay a few yards away. In the next few days, 11 lifeless bodies were pulled out from the water. The doomed boat began its journey on a beach in Tangier, with 23 “Moroccans” on board. That corpse, on the beach, was Spain’s first sight of a migrant death. Thus began a tragedy which, thirty years later, is epic in scale. However, first and foremost, the scene on the beach was a crime – a crime of neoliberalism.

Since that November day in 1988, according to the Spanish newspaper El PAÍS, over 6,700 African migrants “have died or gone missing in the Strait of Gibraltar” – Spain’s extreme south – the place where Africa and Europe almost touch. In truth, no one knows how many Africans have lost their lives while trying to make it to Spain. It is certain, however, that the number is much greater than the official 6,700. Whatever the number, the fact is that the bottom of the Strait of Gibraltar has become a giant grave – a giant scar on the face of neoliberalism.

The Gibraltar Chronicle reports that in 2017, “some 22,102 migrants crossed the strait in 1,248 boats, an increase of 8000 people over 2016.” And “through the first five months of 2018, a total of….11,792 [migrants arrived] in Spain.” Indeed, this year, during one June weekend: “Spain’s maritime rescue service pulled 986 people from 69 small boats…. in waters in or near the Strait of Gibraltar…” A similar sudden “influx” of desperate Africans occurred in the Summer of 2014, “when over 1000 migrants reached the shores of the Campo de Gibraltar in less than 48 hours”.

Of course, today’s other route to Europe, for clandestine African migrants, is through Libya. But that only became prominent in the last decade or so – especially after NATO’s destruction of Libya in 2011. In comparison to the Libyan route, the Spanish route is a more sensitive indicator of the deep crisis in Africa – because it goes back to the beginning of the tragedy. And that is to be found not in NATO’s war on Africa but in the Neoliberal war on Africa. The economics preceded the bombs.

In Africa, the neoliberal turn didn’t just mean a change of policy. It meant a change of life -if not the end of life. Whatever independence Africa won in the 20th century was brutally sabotaged by neoliberalism. If the implementation of the neoliberal agenda in Europe and America was bad, the execution of it in Africa was a monstrous crime against humanity. Extremely vulnerable African states – only years old – were thrown into the sea of global capital, without a life belt.

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank (WB) were the architects of this crime. Taking advantage of the unsustainable debt Africa accumulated in the 1970s (the infamous third world debt trap – high oil prices and low interest rates), these Washington D.C. organizations pounced on the disadvantaged continent in the 1980s. Whether by design or accident, it was the worst possible time for weak nations to seek help from global capitalism. The neoliberal belief in free markets had just won over the Anglo-American world. The counterrevolution was just beginning.

In Africa, this manifested itself in the Structural Adjustment Policies (SAPs) that were being pushed by the IMF and WB. If Africa needed help in managing its debts – it needed to implement SAPs – it needed to swallow the Washington Consensus. And so, according to the Eritrea Profile, “by 1989, 84 structural adjustment loans had been agreed to between the WB and various African states”.

Neocolonialism was in control. And the proud anti-colonial movements of the 1950s and 1960s became but a memory. Faceless economic assassins from the West defiled the ideals of Kwame Nkrumah (Ghana), Julius Nyerere (Tanzania) and Amílcar Cabral (Guinea-Bissau and Cape Verde). Nationalism and Pan-Africanism were mercilessly crushed by the IMF and WB. Again according to the Eritrea Profile: “Africa’s debt crisis actually worsened from the period 1980 to 2000; [for example] sub-Saharan Africa’s total foreign debt rose from US$60 billion to US$206 billion, and the ratio of debt to GDP rose from 23 per cent to 66 per cent.”

SAPs flourished in such conditions. The political and economic structures that held together the fragile independence and dignity of Africa were systematically dismantled by the IMF and WB. The weakest governments and the weakest peoples in the world lost their sovereignty, subsidies and services. The informal sector mushroomed. Austerity was absolute. From Morocco to Madagascar no one escaped debt servitude (Libya was the exception). The Africanization of the continent became the liberalization of the continent. Everyone was forced to become an “entrepreneur”. Slums mushroomed. “Cities without jobs” became the norm.

Africa’s development had been hijacked. Two decades were lost – the 1980s and 1990s. The governments were crippled and the people abandoned. Once again, Africa was being looted by the forces of imperialism.

Africans knew what was happening. There was a fight back. And Thomas Sankara, the leader of Burkina Faso, was it. In the 1980s Sankara – “Africa’s Che Guevara” – challenged the IMF and WB. He stated the facts: “The question of debt is the question of Africa’s economic situation, as much as peace; this question is an important condition of our survival…the debt cannot be repaid. If we do not pay, our creditors will not die. We can be sure of that. On the other hand, if we pay, it is we who will die. Of that we can be equally sure”, [The Dominion]. For Sankara, “self reliance and social solidarity” were the answer – not foreign loans, foreign aid and foreign charity. In October 1987, Sankara was overthrown and killed in a pro Western coup.

A year later, the dead African migrant was found on that beach in Spain. Neoliberalism had got its pound of flesh.

 

 

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Aidan O’Brien lives in Dublin, Ireland.

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