They are coming. Get used to it

Africa-specialist Ton Dietz has a story you don’t want to hear

Pokot warrior Korinamba Ruto herds his cattle with an gun which he carries for protection against attacks from cattle rustlers from the Turkana community. Photo Hollandse Hoogte

Don’t listen to the politicians, Ton Dietz warns as he resigns as director of the African Studies Centre.

Politicians are sticking their heads in the sand

“European policy makers and politicians have their heads in the sand. They are quite deliberately trying to pull the wool over our eyes. Our cabinet - with Minister Ploumen of Development Cooperation leading with way –, Macron and Merkel all keep repeating the same mantra: ‘We need to help Africa develop quickly so migrants stay put.’ But it’s simply not true.”

Ton Dietz (1951), Professor Emeritus of African Development Studies, has just resigned as director of the African Studies Centre Leiden (ASCL) and he’s certain: “This a story you don’t want to hear. It’s hard to accept, but get used to it: Africans are on the move, and for now, the numbers of migrants will only rise.”

Dietz gave his valedictory lecture on Monday. “My opinions have become increasingly explicit. You see, the numbers corroborate the ideas I’ve had for some time.” Dietz took a thourough look at the United Nations’ figures and models for demographic developments in Africa. “Currently, there are 1.2 billion Africans. By the end of this century, that figure will reach 4.4 billion. In 2000, there were eight million Africans living outside the continent, now there are sixteen million; about two thirds of them live in Europe.

“The African economy has grown in leaps and bounds since about 2000 and life expectancy has increased drastically. The level of development is continuing to rise in many countries. The models reveal that people from countries that are now wealthier and offer better education are emigrating to countries outside Africa.

“If this trend continues, you can bet your bottom dollar that intercontinental migration will increase. It means that, by 2030, fifty million Africans will be crossing to another continent. They’ll not all come to Europe, but in thirteen years’ time, we might have to find room for 25 million migrants from Africa; those numbers are 8 to 9 million at the moment.

Of course, we need to stimulate Africa’s development. After all, in the end, migration will slow down and there will be a better balance between African emigration and immigration. We need to get past the problems as soon as possible.”

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs is aware of his analysis. “The diplomats there say: ‘You’re right and please keep telling everyone but we can’t get the politicians to acknowledge it.’”

Farmers with Kalashnikovs

Although he’s now recognised as an authority on Africa, Dietz only became interested in the continent as a young researcher “by coincidence”. “During the turbulent seventies, I studied social geography at Nijmegen and was involved in all sorts of student movements that opposed colonial imperialism and other kinds of injustice.

My passion was Indonesia, but I was a member of the Nijmegen committee that opposed Suharto’s administration. I didn’t want to visit that country as a scientist because of my political interest. So, in 1975, I went to Zambia, which had just become independent, even though I couldn’t have pointed it out on a map. I was absolutely captivated with it, and later with the whole of Africa.

“In 1978, my wife and I went to Kenya to conduct a study on, and for, Dutch development aid. To our surprise, we discovered they had managed to reach the poorest people in the most marginal areas. We visited West Pokot, a fully divided society in the middle of nowhere. We lived in the high lands among the arable farmers. The cattle farmers lived in the low lands; they were very independent characters, cattle rustlers armed with Kalashnikovs.

The region suffered a horrendous drought: cattle died and people had nowhere to turn. However, partly because of the Dutch help, not many people died of hunger. Nowadays, that region’s doing much better because there is food, work, better education, irrigation and because nurses are trained locally.

“Nonetheless, since 2000, many of those Dutch projects have been wound up – such a pity. The Kenyan government hasn’t picked up much of the work. The West Pokot high lands are doing well, but the low lands are still a problem area. The population is rising fast and heavily armed, uneducated youths raid cattle.

“There’s an ethnic side to the rustling. The Pokot steal from cattle farmers from the nearby Turkana region and vice versa. Tension between those groups is mounting. The governors of those counties want an army, but things will get completely out of control if that happens. There is already so much violence: a police post in the border region was slaughtered last year.”

Terribly aggressive atmosphere

After returning to the Netherlands, Dietz was appointed director of the African Studies Centre in 2010. “The centre is funded with money from the development aid budget. When I arrived, the centre already had plenty of contact with diplomats and development aid workers, but none, or hardly any, with the business community. Accordingly, we invested heavily in our relationship with trade and industry.

The institute was founded in 1947 as a study centre for science and trade and industry. Those two sectors fell out so badly in 1958 that a rift occurred. The Netherlands-African Business Council was set up alongside the ASCL and now it’s a large organisation that was very sceptical about NGOs and science.

“I said: ‘Let’s bridge this gap and do something together.’ So, we did. We’ve jointly hosted conferences and launched projects for innovation. But we also held country meetings where we could discuss a specific nation in more detail. We’ve been working together successfully now for about five years.”

By now, he’s noticed that you need to be careful about some matters. “If you focus on a certain country, aggressive characters might turn up at the meeting: groups who can’t stand the sight of each other. Before you know it, you’ll have a fight on your hands. It nearly happened once at an Eritrea meeting.

“Three years ago, we were involved as experts at a Congo meeting where aggressive supporters of the former Mobutu regime started calling for the genocide of the current rulers and their supporters. The atmosphere was terribly aggressive. People were swearing and pulling each others’ clothes. Scary stuff.”

“The Pieter de la Court building, which we’re still in, is a very open building. Anyone can just walk into any part of it. It’s difficult to give people at risk somewhere safe. In five years or so, we’re moving to the new premises next to the University Library; it’s where the new African Library will be housed too. We’re going to arrange better security there.”

Dietz has good hopes for the ASC’s future, especially as the centre is no longer entirely reliant on money from the government. “In 2012, the minority cabinet Rutte I had Wilders’ backbench support. There were some significant warnings: development aid might be cancelled. That would also mean an end to our funding. The market couldn’t support our fantastic library. Imagine if Wilders ever headed a government – that would be the end for us, we thought.

“We went to talk – it was a plea for help, in fact – to the Executive Board about dissolving the foundation and becoming an interfaculty institute at the university. We’d have a big brother to guide us through a crisis and we’d have the option of offering more education and awarding doctorates.

“The university was immediately enthusiastic; they regard the centre as a jewel in the crown, a place where all the African scholars can get together. We already have six professors and more on the way.”

By Vincent Bongers

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