The ripples from Tunisia’s President Kais Saied’s baleful speech against Black Africans in the country continue to spread, provoking not only wholesale condemnation from a variety for sources but also action from some African governments to evacuate their terrified citizens. Anver Versi reports.
As this article was going to press, the governments of Côte d’Ivoire and Guinea had announced plans to charter planes to evacuate their citizens from Tunisia where following a rabidly racist diatribe from the country’s President Kais Saied, Black Africans have come under vicious attacks from vigilante groups and many live in fear for their lives.
In Guinea, Foreign Minister Morissanda Kouyate headed to Tunisia aboard a government aircraft “to provide urgent support for Guineans” there.
It was announced that 80 more were to be evacuated on chartered flights.
Kouyate said: “Our compatriots in Tunisia, we found that some of them had lost hope. It was with a heavy heart that I was able to meet with them because the conditions were difficult.”
Amadou Coulibaly, the spokesperson for the Government of Côte d’Ivoire said the most urgent thing was to save lives and to prevent injuries as he announced the evacuation and repatriation exercise. He added that the country’s national carrier Air Côte d’Ivoire had been asked to help return some 500 citizens to their home country. These were greeted personally by Prime Minister Patrick Achi as they landed in Abidjan.
Earlier the African Union had issued a stinging rebuke to Saied’s inflammatory speech. In a statement it said: “The Chairperson of the African Union Commission H. E. Moussa Faki Mahamat strongly condemns the shocking statement issued by Tunisian authorities targeting fellow Africans which go against the letter and the spirit of our Organization and founding principles.”
Faki said AU member states were obligated “to treat all migrants with dignity, wherever they come from, refrain from racialised hate speech that could bring people to harm, and prioritise their safety and human rights”.
In late February, President Saied, under extreme political pressure as the country’s economic situation worsens and essentials disappear from shop shelves, came out with his incendiary speech while addressing the country’s National Security Council. He urged ministers to “take urgent measures to halt the illegal migration into the country, specifically targeting Africans, many of whom see Tunisia as a jumping off point to a better life in Europe.”
But in addition to the estimated 21,000 people without legal rights to stay, there are large numbers of Africans, including students, business people, vocational trainees and legal agricultural and industrial workers in the country, all there legally, and in accordance with Tunisia’s long tradition of migration exchange programmes and collaboration, especially with a number of francophone African countries.
In addition, some 10 – 15% of the population of the country is made up of black Tunisians many of whom can trace their ancestry to the East African slave trade. Although Tunisia was one of the first Arab countries to abolish the slave trade in the 19th Century, it continued in practice until a raft of legislation in the mid and late 20th century outlawed it completely.
Nevertheless a poll last year showed that 80% of Tunisians believe that the country has major issues of race. Black Tunisians have often expressed concerns that they are still discriminated against in terms of schooling and job opportunities, although some have succeeded in business and sport and achieved hero status.
Given this fixation on colour – even shades of colour – black Tunisians have told journalists that Saied’s remarks seemed pointed at them as much as against African immigrants.
Addressing the Security Council, Saied had said that “hordes of illegal immigrants from sub-Saharan Africa are still arriving, with all the violence, crime, and unacceptable practices that entails.”
He then made the astonishing claim: “Migration is a plot to change Tunisian dynamics. Traitors who are working for foreign countries and shady parties are targeting the Tunisian nation state. We helped them during the Covid-19 distribution of medicine and we are proud of our African identity but today, they want to change the demographic composition of Tunisia.”
He went on: “The undeclared goal of the successive waves of illegal immigration is to consider Tunisia a purely African country that has no affiliation to the Arab and Islamic nations,” in other words the migrants, who are a drop in the ocean among the country’s 12m population, have been deliberately sent by these unnamed conspirators to change the ‘Islamic and Arab’ identity of Tunisia to that of pure African – whatever that is.
Wittingly or unwittingly, Saied had borrowed wholesale from the playbook of the extreme right in Europe and the US who have been flogging the ‘Replacement’ conspiracy theory for decades. Under this theory, big business and other vested interests have been working to replace ‘predominantly white races’ with people of colour who are ‘more subservient, easier to control and cheaper to use as a workforce.”
The theory has violent antecedents, predating a spate of racially charged massacres over the past five years. Payton Gendron, a 19-year-old white man who shot and killed 10 blacks at a supermarket in Buffalo, US in 2022, was radicalised by the ‘replacement’ theory. Brenton Harrison Tarrant who shot and killed 51 people and wounded 40 at a mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand in 2019 was heavily influenced by a version of the ‘replacement’ theory. The theory has been used widely to instigate attacks on black people, especially refugees and asylum seekers.
By repeating, almost verbatim the ‘replacement’ theory, Saied has handed the extreme right casus belii to step up their attacks on immigrant communities in Europe.
No wonder the French far-right politician Eric Zemmour could not hide his delight following Saied’s statement. “The countries of the Maghreb region have begun to sound the alarm in the face of the escalation of immigration. Tunisia wants to take urgent action to protect its people. What are we waiting for to fight the Great Replacement?” he asked.
The ‘Great Replacement’ theory, someone should have informed Saied, was developed by the French writer Renaud Camus in 2010. It talks of a “conspiracy to replace the white Christian European population with a Muslim and Arab population from the Middle East and Africa.” This idea has been behind the spate of Islamophobic and racist attacks against minorities in the West.
Saied should have kept in mind that around 1.2m Tunisians live in European countries, of which one million are in France. It is their remittances back to families in Tunisia that are helping keep the economy afloat. He has now handed the racists in Europe and particularly France, the justification to go on their rampage.
Any escalation of attacks on North Africans in France or other European countries should be laid directly at President Saied’s door. This issue and its implications will continue to haunt Tunisians for a long while to come.
Blowback against Saied
While the President’s statement gives the green light to those harbouring racist inclinations to go on a spree of violence, threats and insults aimed at anybody with a dark skin colour, it has also brought out thousands to demonstrate their solidarity with fellow Africans and to condemn the ‘fascist’ sentiments.
Condemnations from Tunisia’s rights groups followed swiftly. The Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights (FTDES), among others was scathing: “The presidential campaign aims to create an imaginary enemy for Tunisians to distract them from their basic problems,” said spokesperson Ramadan Ben Amor.
The Tunisian Anti-Fascism Front, a coalition that includes more than 40 Tunisian civil society organisations and several independent activists led a heavily attended demonstration which denounced the Saied’s racial remarks and called him to withdraw the statement that they described as “shameful”.
Among the latest is Tunisia’s most prominent idol, the tennis star Ons Jabeur who tweeted: “Today is #ZeroDiscriminationDay. As a proud Tunisian, Arab and African woman I celebrate the right of everyone to live with dignity.” She displayed a Tunisian stamp from 1961, celebrating Africa Day.
Another Tunisian sports figure, Radhi Jaidi, one of the country’s greatest footballers (he was a defensive mainstay of the national team and a member of the winning 2004 African Cup of Nations team, as well as being the first Tunisian to play in the English Premier League with Southampton) quoted Nkrumah, writing “I’m African, not just because I was born in Africa, but because Africa was born in me.”
He was also referring to the fact that the continent of Africa derives its name from the ancient Roman name given to Tunisia – Iffriquiya. It remained Iffriquiya during the early Islamic period.
Whatever his political shortcomings during the latter part of his reign, the former President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali, staked a great deal on his relationship with African countries, as well as the country’s identity as an African nation.
Before the decline during the last five years of his term, Tunisia was much admired throughout the continent for its economic structure and political stability. It regularly shared top billing with Mauritius on most development indices. It also had an open-door policy for young Africans who wanted to study or pursue vocational skills.
During the time of its first President Habib Bourguiba (1957 – 87), Tunisia welcomed and feted African freedom fighters and many who went on become leaders of their independent countries.
The African Development Bank had its headquarters in Tunisia for many years and Nelson Mandela attended his first AU summit when it was held in Tunis. He recounted the history of how Rome had vowed to destroy Carthage (Tunis) and had done so, but how it had risen from defeat to become modern Tunisia – ‘The country that works’. He called it the story of African Renaissance. This was later adopted by Thabo Mbeki, who followed Mandela as South Africa’s leader, as the continental battle cry.
It is difficult to conceive how those heady days when Tunisia flew the flag of the ‘Best of Africa’ could have descended to into this sorry state, culminating in Saied’s utterly thoughtless statement. It’s just as difficult to reconcile the low-key academic who was elected President in 2019 on an anti-corruption, pro intellectual ticket to the presidency, who has now gathered virtually all powers – including legislative and judiciary to himself – and seemingly abandoned all vestiges of responsible governance.
But the Jasmine Revolution of 2011 which overthrew Ben Ali should remind us that perhaps the best educated young cohort in North Africa is not taking matters lying down. The youth will have its say. in this and other matters and the authorities better remove the wax from their ears and listen.