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Pan-Africanism spirit remains elusive in North Africa

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Picture: Fethi Belaid/Pool via Reuters – Tunisian President Kais Saied sparked a wave of xenophobic violence in his country following the incendiary remarks he made at a National Security Council meeting.

By Dr Sizo Nkala

Tunisian President Kais Saied sparked a wave of xenophobic violence in his country following the incendiary remarks he made at a National Security Council meeting on February 21.

Saied was quoted as saying: “Hordes of irregular migrants from Sub-Saharan Africa” had come to Tunisia “with all the violence, crime, and unacceptable practices that entails”. He continued to say Sub-Saharan African immigrants were meant to “change the demographic make-up” and turn Tunisia into “just another African country that doesn’t belong to the Arab and Islamic nations any more”.

His remarks triggered xenophobic violence against black Africans living in Tunisia, resulting in some having their houses burnt down and beaten up.

Hundreds of black Africans were rounded up in various cities and subjected to physical attacks and verbal abuse. There are an estimated 21 000 immigrants from Sub-Saharan Africa living in Tunisia. Black people, who are mostly descendants of slaves, make up between 10 and 15% of the Tunisian population. However, citizens and non-citizens alike, black people have to deal with widespread racial discrimination on an everyday basis.

The president’s ill-considered words made an already difficult situation worse. Some immigrants hurried to their countries’ embassies seeking repatriation to their home countries. Sub-Saharan African students studying in Tunisia said they were living in fear of arbitrary attacks and arrests. Saied predictably denied that his speech had caused the violence against black people and blamed his political opponents for misinterpreting his words.

Saied’s speech has been attributed to populism aimed at whipping up nationalist fervour to shore up his waning political fortunes through scape-goating the minority black community. However, it is also true that discrimination against black Africans in North Africa and the broader Arab world has been a long-standing historical problem.

This can be traced back to the 17th century when the Arabic and Berber-speaking nomadic pastoralists enslaved and dominated the sedentary and agricultural black communities that had settled in the Saharan desert zones of North Africa. The Arabic and Berber pastoralists and intellectuals used skin colour to justify their superiority over and domination of the black Africans who had a darker skin.

In countries like Mauritania and large parts of present-day Morocco, racial hierarchy was the accepted form of social organisation, with blacks languishing at the bottom. Slavery became a dominant mode of production. Blacks were subjected to hard labour in agriculture under brutal conditions, herded animals, dug wells and performed domestic duties such as cooking and cleaning. Black females were used as concubines and were routinely subjected to rape. Their offspring were regarded as unfree, even though their fathers were slave masters.

The slavery of black people persists in some North African countries today. About 450 000 to 900 000 black Arabs in Mauritania still live under conditions of slavery where they perform most of the gruelling agricultural work for their masters, often without pay. Parts of southern Morocco, though, to a comparatively lesser extent, still harbour black slaves.

Hostile attitudes to blackness are intense in the desert zones of most North African countries, where blacks are concentrated. The identity cards of black Tunisians from the southern part of the country still show the names of the slave masters of their ancestors. Anti-black attitudes up north have intensified as a response to increased numbers of Sub-Saharan African immigrants using North African countries as a passage to Europe.

In most North African countries, black people are referred to as Abid, which means slave in Arabic, while black women are widely referred to as Khudam, which means servant. It is common for black people to be called monkeys, animals, or cannibals across the Maghreb region. In Tunisia, the term Oussif, meaning maid, servant or slave, is used by white Tunisians to denigrate and dehumanise black people.

Despite being members of the African Union (AU), sharing the common history of colonialism and inhabiting the same continental space, questions have always been asked about whether the countries north of the Sahara share the same African identity as their counterparts south of the Saharan desert.

North African countries have tended to distance themselves from Sub-Saharan Africa while gravitating towards the Middle East and Europe. Recently, at the 2022 Fifa World Cup, a Moroccan national team player caused a social media storm when he told the media in a post-match interview that his team’s historic feat of advancing to the quarter-finals of the tournament was a victory for the Arab world. This despite Morocco having qualified for the tournament under Fifa’s African region.

Most people interpreted his statements to mean that his team identified as an Arab instead of an African team. As such, Saied’s statements on black Africans is tapping into a deep-seated and pervasive disdain for black people in Arabic societies. It will be a long time before the spirit of Pan-Africanism crosses the Sahel.

Nkala is A Research Fellow at the University of Johannesburg’s Centre for Africa-China Studies.