Africa

Mediterranean migrants crisis: Why is Africa silent?

Eritrean being rescued in the coast off Greece 20 April 2015 Image copyright AP

In our series of letters from African journalists, Ghanaian Elizabeth Ohene considers why African leaders have been so silent about migrants' deaths.

At both ends of the African continent, there is macabre drama being played out over migration.

At the southern tip of the continent, poor black South Africans have risen up against poor black immigrants from African countries.

They want them to go back to their own countries. At least seven people have been killed.

There has been reaction from almost every part of the continent.

Threats have been issued to South African businesses. There is general outrage - African countries helped black South Africans fight apartheid and Africa expected some gratitude in return.

According to the South African High Commissioner to Ghana, there have been threats to burn down her High Commission in the capital, Accra. In Ghana, the main opposition party has accused the government of a "meek reaction" to the events in South Africa.

Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe, current chairman of the African Union, has had some choice words to say on the matter.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption The anger towards foreigners in South Africans tends to stem from unemployment

Meanwhile at the other end of the continent, at the northern-most tip, desperate young Africans are drowning in the Mediterranean whilst trying to get to Europe.

In the past two weeks about a thousand people have drowned in the seas between North Africa and the southern coast of Italy.

The European Union has had an emergency meeting on the matter and announced measures they intend to take.

The measures seem to amount to: "We will not open our doors to African migrants, no matter how many of them drown trying to enter Europe." Nothing more.

The Pope has had something to say and human rights activists around Europe have all made pronouncements on the humanitarian disaster that is taking place off the Libyan coast.

Everybody has had something to say except the African leaders whose citizens constitute the majority of those dying trying to get into Europe.


Elizabeth Ohene:

Image copyright Elizabeth Ohene

"The drama unfolding on the North African coast demands some noise of some kind from Africa. Otherwise we shall forfeit forever the right to comment on any other world event"


Eritrea heads the list of African countries generating the people wanting to leave their countries and go to Europe; followed by the usual suspects: Somalis, Senegalese, Gambians, Nigerians and my compatriots, Ghanaians.

There came a story within the story, when it was reported that on one of the migrant boats, the Muslims turned on their fellow desperados who happened to be Christians and threw some of them into the sea.

It has been determined that six Ghanaians were among those who perished in that incident.

Our foreign minister has said officials from the Ghana embassy in Italy have gone to find out more details from the survivors and from the Italian prosecutors.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Many have died in what some are calling the cemetery of the Mediterranean
Image copyright AFP
Image caption European leaders are now to triple funding for search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean

On the main story of desperate young Africans - who would rather die in the cemetery of the Mediterranean Sea, to borrow the colourful words of the Maltese prime minister - not a single word has come from any foreign ministry or government on the continent, or opposition party.

The first comments on the subject made by the Chairperson of the African Union Commission Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma came when she attended a meeting with the EU.

I have heard even her make a more spirited statement on other subjects.

I have heard African governments make statements on issues that do not concern them in any way; I have heard them on issues when their opinions are not sought and I have heard brave statements on issues about which we obviously are not well informed.

2015 predictions

The whole world now knows that there must be something very wrong in Eritrea to drive their young people to such desperation. The African Union has not whispered one sentence of anxiety on Eritrea.

I do not suggest that African governments should, or can stop their citizens from leaving their countries.

But the drama unfolding on the North African coast demands some noise of some kind from Africa.

Otherwise we shall forfeit forever the right to comment on any other world event.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Many migrants try to make to the Italian island of Lampedusa to then continue their journey to Europe

At the start of the year, I wrote the following in these columns as part of my predictions for 2015: "And struggling economies on the continent will mean there will be more desperate young would-be African migrants washing up on the shores of Lampendusa in Italy.

"The African Union will hold regular summits and our leaders will make speeches that will make no reference to why our young people are so desperate to leave our countries."

I did not expect to be proved so dramatically right and so early in the year.

If ever there was a need for an emergency summit by the African Union on a problem, this is it.

I have no idea what they will do or say, but at least it will give the impression that we care.

It is simply not like Africa to be silent. Somebody, anybody, please say something.

Or could it be that for the first time, we are feeling the shame that our young people cannot see any hope in our countries?

That must explain our silence.

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