Africa Watch – Scapegoat politics

Africa Watch – Scapegoat politics

Tunisia’s president denounced racism and pointed to legal consequences for perpetrators ten days after announcing a crackdown on illegal migration, using language the African Union condemned as “racialised hate speech.” He had called migration a conspiracy to make Tunisia more African and less Arab. Rights groups said that many migrants were detained, evicted, and fired, yet there has been slow police response to such assaults. President Kais Saied described the racism accusations as a campaign against the country “from known sources,” adding that Tunisia was honoured to be an African country and visa rules will be relaxed for African citizens.

This is the latest in a string of authoritarian moves by a President who has succeeded in antagonising key constituencies—opposition parties, the judiciary, civil society, civil servants and now minorities and foreigners—all in a bid to ensure that all power in the country is squarely concentrated in his hands.

Kais Saied’s version of the Great Replacement Theory, which is most favoured in Western supremacist and far-right circles, is symptomatic of a larger problem: Tunisia is stuck in a grinding economic crisis that has seen inflation hit 10.4 percent and unemployment reach 15.2 percent. Mr Saied came to power following President Beji Caid Essebsi’s death and carried out a constitutional coup to concentrate more power in himself, which alienated him from the larger Tunisian population and civil society. He also faces a legitimacy problem, as the last parliamentary elections he called saw a measly 11.4% turnout. Whipping up anti-black hate, a common feature in Arab society, is his way of fishing for legitimacy.

Saied will not be the first African leader to scapegoat foreigners for domestic problems. Blaming Ghanaians for Nigeria’s economic woes was the go-to resort of the Shehu Shagari government in the early 1980s in the famous ‘Ghana-Must-Go’ saga. A few years earlier, Uganda’s Idi Amin found scapegoats in South Asians. In both instances, the Ghanaians and South Asians were expelled. In a way, one could say that the failure of regional organisations to deal with such actions actively set the tone for Saied. His about-turn moves could not have come without the World Bank’s intervention.

The week before the last, the institution’s outgoing president, David Malpass, told the body’s staff in an email that the institution had indefinitely postponed a key board meeting on Tunisia, saying Saied’s tirade had triggered “racially motivated harassment and even violence.” Top World Bank officials had been asked to meet later in March to discuss the body’s “Country Partnership Framework,” laying out priorities for Tunisia until 2027. This is as much a victory for the World Bank as it is a failure for the African Union (AU) to administer the appropriate sanctions.

The reasons are not hard to come by: Given how much trade and integration exists between Africa’s economies, the World Bank pulls more power than the AU. Compared with the European Union which has banded together to punish Hungary and Poland for similar scapegoating efforts (with varying degrees of success), the AU’s non-reaction has been tepid and is symptomatic of the challenges of Africa-led diplomacy. As economic and cultural forces continue to collide, racist politics will persist in North Africa and many parts of Africa south of the Sahara until robust mechanisms for collective justice are developed.


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