By Patrick Litanga
I am not offering answers; instead I am asking questions, perhaps unsettling ones. It is my contention that migration and rising forms of nationalisms were never seriously included in the MDG, especially in the African context. For instance, how do we productively address development goals in Tanzania without considering the fate of countless Congolese, Burundian, and Rwandan refugees who have been living there for decades? And how do we improve the overall standard of living in Côte d’Ivoire while Ivoirians have yet to sort out who is truly an Ivoirian and who is not? Moreover, how do we improve public health in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) when some Congolese swear by the heavens and hearth that the Banyamulenge of eastern Congo are not Congolese? This reflection is an invitation to a conversation. I am convinced that today’s unaddressed or inadequately addressed migration questions could lead to virulent exclusionary forms of nationalisms tomorrow, especially with flaring populist political discourses à la Julius Malema.
Decades of political and socio-economic turmoil in many parts of Africa have forced massive population movements to different countries. And we know too well that the longer “those unwanted foreigners” stay the less likely they will go back where they came from. They may become mal-integrated or unaccepted parts of our communities. What do we do when we share our living quarters with them? Recent history teaches us that we sometimes accuse those “unwelcome guests” of our societal ills. And in a frustrated search for answerers we have burned and killed some while forcing others to survive in the shadow of our societies. In Brazzaville, for instance, it is despicably said in Lingala, “boma Zaïrois [with reference to DRC], tika nioka” (kill the Zaïrian, spare the serpent); In Kinshasa West Africans have been derogatorily called “wara,” and in Johannesburg “unwanted foreigners” have been called “girigamba or makwerekwere,” these are but few negative epithets associated with new forms of nationalisms in Africa. These xenophobic attitudes indicate the need for serious conversations about immigration and nationalism in the African continent.
In the last few years Angola, Uganda, Congo-Brazzaville, and Congo-Kinshasa among others have been involved in what I qualify as immigrants ping-pong. It is an inhumane exercise of deporting immigrants willy-nilly. Targeted immigrants, sometimes irrespective of their documentation status, are rounded up and shipped in alarming conditions to their countries. And the most disheartening is that those deportations are political stunts rather than proper execution of migration policies. Governments use those instances to score political goals instead of fixing issues. For instance, when Uganda deports Congolese, DRC responds by deporting Ugandans and vice versa, hence the ping-pong nature of those deportations. The most recent of those disturbing deportation exchanges happened in 2014 when Congo-Brazzaville abusively deported thousands of Congolese to Kinshasa. The operation was officially named “Mbata ya Mukolo” (the elder’s slap), probably a symbolism for Kabila’s youth and political immaturity as opposed to Sassou Nguesso’s age and political experience. As a response, Kinshasa deported hundreds of Congo-Brazzaville university students right in the middle of the school year. I seriously doubt whether Kinshasa’s retaliatory deportation measures sought to fix immigration concerns between Brazzaville and Kinshasa.
In line with Edward Said’s notion of the intellectual, I am more interested with how and whether or not African intellectuals engage with immigration and recent exclusionary forms of nationalisms in Africa. If we profess to represent our societies, both from migrants sending and receiving countries, how do we tackle popular xenophobic attitudes between Brazzaville and Kinshasa as shown in “boma Zaïrois, tika nioka”? How do we engage the political exclusion of Banyamulenge in DRC? Perhaps this is a wishful thinking, but it is time that some of us showed courage not only in denouncing the negativity of xenophobic derogatory epithets such as “girigamba or “makwerekwere” but also in highlighting that immigrants can contribute to our societies, that they are not all after our “men” and “women,” and our “jobs” as often accused in the public square. Immigrants can and have contributed to job creation, they can constitute assets for our societies.
In 2002 while residing in Pretoria I penned a piece in Botshabelo Sanctuary, (Vol. 5, 1). I titled my reflection On the Fringe of Society because I strongly felt that documented and undocumented immigrants were forced to live within the margins of the South African society. Without condoning any type of illegal immigration, I think it is pertinent that we, not only governments and NGOs, but also and more importantly African intelligentsia communities, begin to consider how maladaptive migration policies and threatening forms of nationalisms could upset development goals efforts. Because we cannot simply wish immigrants, or precisely “wara,” “serpents,” and “makwerekwere” away, we have to do something, what should we do with them in the post MDG? That’s the question.