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Africa, south of the Sahara, intra- and intercontinental population movements by Dr Matlotleng P. Matlou

14 Mar , 2016,
Nancy Mavunga
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Passport Photo Matlotleng MatlouIntroduction

This essay starts with an overview of migration across Africa, and then increasingly concentrates on Africa south of the Sahara, from ancient times until today. A historical context is necessary to locate the modern era in order to understand where we are today and what possibilities exist for the future. It covers both national and international migration, but concentrates more on the latter.

History of migration across Africa

As the Sahara dried up around six thousand years ago, people began a southward movement into west, east, and southern Africa. These areas had grassy Savannah plains and rain forests, with variable dry and rainy seasons. In the Savannah, the poor soils contributed to the migration slash-and-burn agricultural techniques used by farmers; whilst others who were mainly livestock herders migrated substantially in search of fodder for their animals.

The Nok people lived around three thou-sand years ago in what is now south-east Nigeria and south-west Cameroon and there is evidence that they were involved in iron smelting and manufacturing of various implements  tools, weapons, and products which were traded across West Africa. Living together with the Nok were the Bantu (-ntu is a person and Bantu a people), who were mainly farmers and herders, but later also involved in iron smelting that they probably learnt from the Nok. The Bantu comprise various cultures and groups, but they have a common heritage

or language foundation. The development of better iron tools and agricultural techniques led to high population growth. This built pres-sure on available land, created conflicts and created the need to search for opportunities further afield. Bantu migrations between 1000 and 1800 CE to central Africa (Bemba, Lozi, and Shono), eastern Africa (Akamba, Digo, Embu, Giryama, Kikuyu, Luhya, Meru, Pokomo, and Taita in Kenya; and Chagga, Nyamwezi, Segeju, Yao, and Zamaro in Tanzania; and Baganda, Banyoro, Banyakole Basoga, and Batoro in Uganda) and southern Africa (Bapedi, Basotho, Batswana, Matabele, Pondo, Vavenda, Xhosa, Zulu) was one of the largest in history. Today they form about two-thirds of Africa’s population, with Swahili, spoken by over 50 million people, the most widely spoken Bantu language.

This process of migration led to the spread of ideas, culture, and knowledge. The Bantu in some areas displaced local inhabitants, especially hunter-gatherers. In the process their languages spread, and there was a sharing of agricultural and iron-smelting techniques. This intermingling of people also led to the transformation of societies, and the reconfiguring of boundaries and social systems. Archaeological evidence shows that the Bantu developed pottery, utilized dry stone walling, mined copper, gold, and iron, were involved in agriculture, and domesticated animals.

Societal boundaries were then not as defined as today and the issue of sovereignty was more variable. Population densities were small, with people living in small clans or villages and largely related to each other. The discovery of iron and development of iron tools meant much more land could be cleared for agriculture and other activities. Land was owned more communally than today and as the population grew so pressure increased on the limited resources available for farming. Numerous empires and states were formed across Africa: Axum, Benin, Dahomey, Ghana, Karnem The Encyclopedia of Global Human Migration, Edited by Immanuel Ness.

© 2013 Blackwell Publishing Ltd. Published 2013 by Blackwell Publishing Ltd. DOI: 10.1002/9781444351071.wbeghm015

Bornu, Kongo, Kush, Nubia, Mali, Mabun-gubwe, Monomotapa, Pedi, Songhai, Sotho, and Zulu amongst others, over the centuries. The development of these empires entailed wars, conquest, displacement of people and the rise of certain cultures and consolidation of varied societies from disparate communities. These empires and other state formations developed complex systems of government, economic and knowledge production, and culture.

Interactions between Africa (mainly the east coast) and Asia go back to the 1st century CE at least. Vasco da Gama is supposed to have been guided cross the Indian Ocean in 1498, by various Indians in Malindi (Kenya); workers from Gao apparently assisted in building Fort Jesus in Mombasa; whilst various other trading relations took place between the two conti-nents (Modi 2010: 51–52). Relations with China go back to the Ming dynasty (1368– 1644) with ships bringing merchants, some of whom stayed permanently. Many more Chinese came to Southern Africa as slaves, indentured laborers, and convicts (Freemantle 2010: 34). When Europeans and other peoples came into contact with Africa from the 14th century onward, many parts of the continent were either on a par or more advanced politically and socioeconomically than the visitors. Relations initially were cordial and exchanges were usually mutually beneficial. However, gradually Africans were compelled into unfavorable terms of trade, and their cultures, freedom, and land compromised.

Slave trade

Slavery as a system has a long history. In Africa people who were conquered by others often became enslaved. They had to work directly for their conquerors or pay tribute to them, though it was not unusual to have slaves winning their freedom and in certain cases becoming rulers or very powerful persons in their new communities.

Between the 7th and the 15th century the Arab slave trade, a feature mainly of east and west Africa, transported an estimated 15 million

Africans to other parts of the world. Added to this was the later, but equally destructive and violent European slave trade, centered primarily in central and west Africa, which took an estimated 22 million Africans as slaves mainly to the Americas. Africans were enslaved after the indigenous Amerindians had been decimated by European invaders, who considered both them and Africans as subhuman and dispensable (Harris 1968). Slavery was under-taken at great cost to Africa. There were numerous conflicts, many people were maimed in the process, families and communities were broken and divided, political and socioeconomic life disrupted and Africa’s development stalled. The human resources lost were used to develop other parts of the world, so that slave merchants and trading companies grew wealthy and a weakened Africa became vulnerable to colonialism and other ills. The result was that Africa, which had been on a par with or ahead of many other parts of the world in this early period gradually regressed and is today, despite its rich natural resources, the poorest continent globally.

In eastern Africa, from 1895 to 1900 the British brought 31,983 Indians as indentured labor on plantations; to build railways and other infrastructure; and as traders. In Mauritius, Indian migrants were also imported by the British as indentured labor and eventually became the majority population (Modi 2010: 50). Chinese indentured laborers, to work mainly in the mines, were brought into South Africa at the end of the 19th century and today forms the oldest and one of the largest Chinese communities in Africa, over 200,000 strong.

Independence and its aftermath

Between 1951 and 1956, starting with Libya and ending with Sudan, most countries in north Africa gained independence. They were followed by Ghana in 1957 and an increasing number of other countries, culminating in black majority rule in South Africa in 1994. In 2012, only former Spanish Sahara remained a colony occupied by Morocco and a number of islands around Africa were under colonial rule.

After independence, millions of Africans were force to migrate internally and across borders of countries such as Algeria, Kenya, South Africa, and Southern Rhodesia as part of the independence process, and it is in these countries where some of the deadliest and most costly liberation struggles were fought.

In May 1963, the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) was formed to spearhead the liberation of Africa politically and economically. Shortly before its formation, January 1963, Africa experienced its first coup in Togo. This was a pattern that was to bedevil sub-Saharan Africa for decades, coupled with one-party states, presidents for life, civil conflicts, massive abuse of human rights, and stalled socioeconomic development. Since the 1960s there have been over 70 coups and 13 presidential assassinations across Africa together with numerous intra and inter-state conflicts, during which millions of people were displaced through liberation struggles, civil wars and natural disasters.

In attempting to deal with these migration crises, the OAU in 1969 created a refugee protocol which made provision for the granting of asylum en masse to supplement the 1951 United Nations Refugee Convention which caters mainly for individual applications. Tan-zania, Zambia, Kenya, and Sudan are some of the countries that became receiving nations of large numbers of refugees since then and today still host some of these people, to some of whom they have granted citizenship. In addi-tion numerous other countries across sub-Saharan Africa hosted significant internally displaced persons and refuges. Mahr and Pinang (2010), indicate that in 2009 there were over 15 million refugees and 826,000 asylum seekers globally and most of these were Africans. The decades of the 1980s and 1990s, when structural adjustment programmes were imposed on many African countries, created widespread hardship even though the intention was to stabilize and generate growth and development across the continent. It was in these circumstances that huge numbers of people migrated within countries, crossed borders to neighboring states, while others left the continent.

Migration issues and regimes across Africa

Orozco (2003) postulates that migrants impact on origin, transit, and receiving states through the 5Ts telecommunications (transnational communications), trade (across borders), transfers (financial), transport (traveling between countries) and tourism (encouraging visits between countries). These 5Ts can be applied both for national and international migration. Origin states lose both unskilled and skilled persons, the resources that these people could generate locally, and what they make abroad, and their development is com-promised through the absence of these people. Receiving states benefit from the presence of migrants who provide skills, and pay taxes and various fees (as students, patients, tourists, etc). Ratha and Shaw note that African migrants number about 14.5 million, with 10 million having migrated to other sub-Saharan African countries, four million in high-income Organisation of Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries and 0.5 million in high-income non OECD countries (Ratha & Shaw 2007: 6). West Africans are relatively more inclined to migration than other regions, largely because of history, geography, culture, politics, transport links, and the region’s economy. Former colonial links lubricate inter-national migration, because of historical factors for movement of people. However, with globalization people are moving in wider circles. In the past the opportunities for migrants favored mainly males; but today many more females are independent, there is greater societal acceptance of females traveling and during conflicts and other upheavals they have to seek safety like everyone else.

There have been various schemes thought up by multilateral organizations, individual countries, diaspora organizations, and others to build transnational connections and institutions that can be made beneficial to Africa. Some of these programs have been based on the 3Rs – retention (forestalling the brain-drain); reversal (reversing the brain-drain and trying to get those who have left to come back either temporarily or permanently); and retrieval (mining the skills, knowledge, resources, and other networks of the diaspora for the benefit of the homeland). On the opposite side, Africa, like any other part of the world, has also been a destination for international migrants. Many of these have been people seeking leisure, business, education, jobs, and other opportunities. People from the global North have come in large numbers as expatriates and investors, humanitarian workers, military personnel, and tourists. There is also movement from the South: Cuba, China, and the former USSR sent large numbers of their nationals from the 1960s onward to assist with development, to fight wars, to train locals and to engage in other activities agreed upon by their governments. China has since 2000 significantly increased the number of its nationals in Africa as it invests and secures resources for its development. Furthermore, it has one of the largest peacekeeping contingents in Africa. India is also growing its economic muscle and its presence in Africa. A second scramble for Africa has commenced.

Countries and increasingly regions have over the centuries sought to control both internal and external migration. Since 1994, South Africa has witnessed an explosion of migrants mainly from Africa, but from across the world as well. Most are economic migrants, and in order to seek residence many have compromised the refugee system by applying for asylum. Other countries that have been magnets for economic migrants have included Botswana, Nigeria, Côte d’Ivoire, and Kenya. However, some countries, including Ghana, Côte d’Ivoire, and Nigeria, have, during hard economic times, expelled millions of these migrants. Countries in North Africa have signed migration agreements with European states where they intercept or receive back irregular migrants and now virtually act as the gatekeepers for Europe.

The OAU has created legislative and institutional arrangements for both forced and voluntary migration in Africa. The OAU sought the assistance of African governments and the international community in dealing with

refugee matters. Through structures like the OAU Liberation Committee, assistance was given to liberation movements to cater for their members in exile. The OAU developed a protocol on voluntary migration which included provisions for freer movement, citizenship, and a continental passport. However, like many other ambitions of the OAU this has not been realized. The OAU divided Africa into five regions, each of which sought to manage inter-national migration through various instruments. ECOWAS is the most advanced, having made provision for visa-free travel for citizens since the 1970s, along with various entitlements to residence where citizens meet certain qualifications. There are even plans for an ECOWAS passport. The East Africa Community (EAC) has also agreed visa-free travel for citizens of the five members and is streamlining immigration matters amongst its members. The International Conference on Migration Policies in East Africa, the Horn and Great Lakes took place in 2002 and 2003, but little progress was reported under this initiative, especially for the conflict-ridden Horn of Africa and the Great Lakes region. The central African region which has had one of the highest levels of conflict and lowest development rates since independence has made the slowest progress in dealing with multilateral migration issues.

The biggest challenge facing sub-Saharan

African countries is irregular migration, particularly of economic migrants and people who abuse the asylum system. This means that thousands of people are arrested yearly and deported, especially from the richer nations, and this is poisoning regional cooperation. This is one reason why Africa should seek sustainable development so that it can better cater for its people and reduce the push and pull factors for migration that endanger the lives of millions of its young people.

In 2001, the African Union (AU) recognized the Diaspora as the sixth region of Africa, which covers people of African origin across the globe who have an interest in the development of the continent. Some people refer to this as the global African community. Most of these people are called the Diaspora of Slavery, but there is a growing number from post-independence Africa and they are spread across the globe. Unfortunately, Africa unlike China, India, Israel, and many South American countries, has not been able to harness the potential of its diaspora effectively. There are challenges about identity, with many people not being able to trace their ancestry to particular countries in Africa, while the poor image of the continent means some diaspora members do not want to associate with it. Africa and its diaspora also have weak political and socioeconomic bonds created by the huge geographical distance and challenges in navigating the immigration and other bureaucracies, and the political instability found in various African states. In some cases the more recent, post-independence diaspora is composed mainly of refugees and they are not positively disposed to their governments and want very little to do with their motherlands. However, some African countries have instituted the appropriate mechanisms for greater cooperation with the diaspora.

Huge opportunities exist for the global African community to seek unity and development of its peoples, communities, and countries. If Africa is the cradle of human kind, is all the world outside Africa not her diaspora? Can the Diaspora only be defined in terms of color, meaning this covers only modern Africans? How does this compare with an Africa which is today made up of Africans, Arabs, Chinese, Indians, Caucasians, and other peoples? The AU Diaspora Summit in May 2012 is to include a declaration covering political, economic, and social issues, which include easier migration of the Diaspora to Africa and vice versa.

Africa at the crossroad

In December 2009, Africa’s population reached one billion and most of its people are very young. Many of these youth are finishing their education and there are no jobs;, they survive through informal activities and many are poverty stricken. The UNDP Human Development Report (2010) indicates that sub-Saharan Africa had the highest multidimensional poverty indices, with over 458 million living in poverty. The DRC, Zambia, and Zimbabwe have worse indicators presently than they had in 1970. There is no African country in the Very High Human Development category. There are four countries in the High Human Development category, 11 countries under Medium Human Development, and the bulk of Africa – 35 countries – are in the Low Human Development category at the bottom of the 169 countries surveyed. Two countries, Eritrea and Somalia, were not examined. These statistics coupled with the dire predictions of sub-Saharan Africa’s slow progress in meeting the Millennium Development Goals, continuing conflicts, weak governance, environmental catastrophes, and other challenges suggest that the future will be unstable in most parts of Africa for the foreseeable future. This will fuel migration flows and further destabilize some states.

Some states have a bright future, where the commodity boom has provided huge investment, trade, and other opportunities. Socioeconomic growth in Africa has over the past two decades averaged 5–6 percent. Most countries have embraced multiparty democracy and governments are seeking to improve their performances in order to meet people’s needs, and hopefully peace will continue to flourish. If this trend continues then in these countries socioeconomic development will improve, poverty will be reduced and the quality of life will rise. The pressures or push factors for forced migration will reduce and much more beneficial voluntary migration will take place. This will include movement for the purposes of tourism, employment, investment, and so on. If this happens many of the African states under Low Human Development will be able to move up.

In today’s global village, many people have more than one citizenship, they have lived, studied and worked in a number of countries, thus acquiring transnational identities. Countries are developing various programmes to attract especially skilled or wealthy persons for both permanent and temporary residence.

Tourists are also seen as a valuable resource for generating foreign income. Sub-Saharan Africa is making significant in-roads in attracting both intra and inter-regional tourists who are making different types of contributions to its socioeconomic development. This is beneficial migration that Africa should be encouraging; but it will only thrive where there is peace and security; good governance and sustainable development.


We cannot talk of human development without reference to migration. Africa as the cradle of humanity is where people moved from and eventually colonized the whole globe and became the dominant species. The process has entailed taming the environment, the rise and fall of civilizations, domination of some groups over other, conflicts and expulsion of the weaker by the stronger peoples. Consequently different human groups are distributed across the world and some are dominant in some areas.

This essay has traced the development of Africa from the past to today using migration both intra and intercontinental movements – as the framework for understanding these issues. The interaction of Africans with other peoples has sometimes been on an equal footing and mutually beneficial; at other times Africans have been subjugated. The different slave trades that Africa suffered stymied her development with millions of her children forcibly taken abroad and she denied their contribution to her development. Colonial-ism replaced slavery, but the exploitation of Africa did not change; there was even greater extraction of her human and natural resources in order to benefit and develop other parts of the world, mainly Europe.

The defeat of colonialism and five odd decades of independence have not really advanced most of Africa. Various global indexes have Africa at the bottom. What must it do to improve? How does Africa create an environment in which its people can live long, healthy and creative lives? How should development be

made people-centered? One option is to see how migration can be managed for development purposes, through adopting national and regional integration strategies.

SEE ALSO: Africa, immigrant legislation and laws; Africa, internal migration; African diasporas, theories, representations and definitions; African emigration to United Kingdom; African Maghreb, migration to the European Union, 1980–present; African slave trade and maritime transportation

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