Stephen Smith’s The Scramble For Europe

Stephen Smith’s La Ruée Vers L’Europe was the talk of Paris upon its publication in France last year, and it is poised to be no less explosive in the English-speaking world after the June release of the English translation, The Scramble For Europe. Smith is presently a “Professor of the Practice of African and African American Studies” at Duke University, but he cut his teeth as the Africa correspondent for Le Monde, Libération and Reuters for a combined 30 years, during which time he authored some sixteen books on African countries, and served as a consultant to the United Nations. These credentials serve not only to establish his authority but also to indemnify him – to the extent that that is still possible in 2019 – from the calumny inevitably visited upon anyone who dares to take up the subject of human migration in a critical light. The thesis of The Scramble For Europe is a simple one: the coming population explosion in Africa, the world’s youngest continent, will dramatically increase the migratory pressures on Europe, to a scale heretofore unseen. And though he aspires to examine his thesis dispassionately, to “provide a factual basis on which others can come to an informed view,” his chosen title – an inversion of the infamous description of European colonialism as a “scramble for Africa” – gives some hint as to the consequences, or at least the stakes, of human migration on this scale.

Let’s begin, as Smith does, with the numbers, for these are staggering, and give some scope of the challenges facing Africa – and likely Europe – in the years to come. There are, at present, some 510 million people living in the European Union (including the United Kingdom) and some 1.3 billion people in Africa. Europe’s population, however, is rapidly aging, and its fertility rate at an unprecedented low, while Africa is remarkably young and fecund. In 35 years, the population of Europe is projected to decline to 450 million, while Africa’s will nearly double, to 2.5 billion – two-thirds of whom will be under 35 years of age. It is sub-Saharan Africa, in particular, that is driving this boom:

[…] between now and 2050, twenty-eight sub-Saharan countries will see their populations double, while nine others – Angola, Burundi, Malawi, Niger, Somalia, Uganda, Tanzania and Zambia – will see their populations quintuple. As a result, between now and 2100, three out of every four newborns in the world will be born in sub-Saharan Africa.

Astoundingly, a significant decline in child mortality rates in sub-Saharan Africa, achieved between 1990 and today, has not resulted in a corresponding decline in fertility. There are, naturally, cultural explanations for this fecundity that deserve mention: in much of Nigeria, for example, “the percentage of women who use modern contraceptives is closer to 5 per cent than 10, and women can only visit family planning clinics accompanied by a man – their husband, father, an uncle or a brother.” And while the average Nigerian fertility rate has declined, from 6.8 children per woman in 1975 to 5.5 today, the birthrate of Muslim women in Nigeria has increased, to 7.3. The most salient consequence of this fertility explosion is youthfulness, to a degree that would astound the aging West. In France, for example, the average citizen is 41 years old; in Nigeria, the average citizen is just 18. These figures are even more stark in the cities, where Africa’s young flock to find what work they can. In Lagos, for example, “the proportion of under-thirties is nearly 95 per cent.” Lagos today is Africa’s most populous city, and yet it seems hard to imagine a city of such youth:

The percentage of inhabitants less than fifteen years old surpassed 25 per cent in 1930, rose to near 40 per cent at independence, and today oscillates around 60 per cent, a figure that makes Lagos the unquestioned world citadel of youth. A comparison with inner London or downtown Paris puts its youthfulness into perspective, just as it throws the ageing – even the mummification – of European capitals into stark relief: in London and Paris, the proportion of inhabitants who are under fifteen is, respectively, 18 and 14 per cent.

This explosion in population, driven also by urbanization and intra-continental migration, has totally overwhelmed Lagos’ already modest infrastructure, where, in 2006, “just 0.4 per cent of the city’s toilets were connected to a central sewage system.”

Taken by itself, this massive increase in population and population density would pose a challenge, but not an insurmountable one. The difficulties, however, are compounded by the political and institutional failures of so many African countries, which are run, Smith argues, less for the benefit of their citizenry than for the enrichment of a small, elderly elite at the top – and for the international community, who wish to believe their aid money is accomplishing something, rather than merely being expropriated. The “postcolonial state has settled into the role of a collector of customs duties, import and export taxes, and external aid – anything that can be easily pocketed at the border, while the interior of the country is neglected as a tax base, both for political reasons and a lack of institutional capacity.” The international community has long turned a blind eye to this arrangement, giving rise to what Smith terms “phantom states,” that exist in the eyes of the United Nations but not in practical terms. “A colourful piece of bunting, a few rhyming phrases set to music, a few embassies abroad and a national football team have often been enough to constitute a state.” These failed states have concocted an ingenious method of profiting from their failures, by subcontracting important state functions to for-profit companies, conglomerates, or even foreign nations. Customs enforcement is privately contracted, as is national defence (the French long served as defenders of the Central African Republic), and, most importantly, schooling:

In the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), 71 per cent of schools are private institutions; in Uganda, out of 5,600 secondary schools, nearly 4,000 are private; in Lagos State in Nigeria, three students out of four are enrolled in private schools; and even in the shanty towns around Nairobi, the Kenyan capital, four of ten students attend private schools, despite the endemic poverty of the slums.

Many of these “schools” are really religious institutions, most often madrassas, offering the barest of educational rigour. The point, as in everything else the state does, is not to provide a quality service to its citizens, but to profit from them. “What is fascinating in this political alchemy is that it transmutes incapacity into profits, or base metals into gold: the less the state can act on its own, the more it has to offer external partners.” These small-scale government failures are reflected in the anemic African economic growth, which has not in the least kept paced with population growth: “Since 1950, the continent’s share of world trade has oscillated between 2 and 3 per cent, and its contribution to worldwide GDP has remained between 1.5 and 2 per cent.” One major technological change, however, has had marked consequences for African culture: the development of satellite televisions and the Internet, which give the residents of poor Africa a daily glimpse into the affluence of the West, and are effecting a transformation of African culture away from its tribal and colonial roots and towards American pop culture.

The recipe for a migration crisis seems set: a young and desperately poor population, trapped in economic backwaters with weak or non-existent civic institutions and little opportunity for advancement, with an eye towards an ageing, enfeebled Europe, caught between a politics of open borders and a politics of nationalist populism. Smith adds two points worthy of our attention: first, economic aid – at least as it has been conducted to this point – seems to exacerbate migratory pressures, by allowing more people to cobble together the few thousand dollars necessary to make the journey northward. “Rather than the ‘poorest of the poor,’ it is a less indigent stratum of Africans – the continent’s emerging middle class – that migrates.” In other words, the very people most capable of effecting a positive transformation in their own countries are those most likely to flee, with disastrous consequences for the future of Africa. Secondly, Smith notes, it is precisely (and paradoxically) those countries that have been least successful in assimilating migrants that are most attractive as destinations: “the harder it is for a diaspora to merge into its host country, the more effective that diaspora is in welcoming new immigrants who, in turn, will be more difficult to integrate as they find a ‘home away from home.’ He points to the Muslim communities of Europe, as well as the “Little Somalia” neighborhood of Minnesota, as examples. In the book’s final chapter, “Europe as Destination and Destiny,” Smith explores some of the consequences of migration, on Europe and on Africa, and this chapter, in particular, provides a wealth of information for anyone eager to prognosticate on the future of European politics or global migration. Here, for example, is Smith detailing an unintended consequence of Western humanitarianism: the shocking “brain drain” from Africa:

A good third of all African-born physicians work in member countries of the OECD club of wealthiest countries. At the same time, the ratio of physicians to patients in sub-Saharan Africa is in the order of one for every 9,000 people, indeed, one for ever 90,000 persons in an extreme case like that of South Sudan – a ratio between thirty and 300 times less favourable than in the UK. Overall, in the past 30 years, it is estimated that between one-third and one-half of all African university degree holders have either left their country or did not return after studying abroad, preferring to work instead in a developed country.

These immigrants to the West undoubtedly contribute greatly to their new home countries, but that benefit should not be tallied without mentioning its cost as well.

The Scramble For Europe should be mandatory reading, not only for Western politicians – who could do with its heavy dose of facts – but for Western citizens more broadly, who have allowed themselves to be blinded by their compassionate desire to help, at the expense of an honest vision of the monumental problem before us.