Revisiting African Humanism The Moral Dimensions of Xenophobic Incidents

Earlier this year, in September, there was a wave of xenophobic attacks in South Africa on Africans from other countries. Businesses owned by Nigerians, Zimbabweans, and other African nationals were burned, destroyed, and looted. These unfortunate events did not end in South Africa but led to reprisal attacks in countries like Nigeria. The xenophobic attacks and the reprisal attacks were disheartening, and the events prompted me to reflect on the value of African humanism today, the idea that cultural norms and system of beliefs can be used to solve human problems to appeal to our humanity. Africans can use ideas within humanism and concepts such as Ubuntu and mlúwàbí to understand that, as Africans, an attack on other Africans is the same thing as an attack on ourselves.

Etymologically, xenophobia is derived from two Greek words: xenos which means stranger or foreigner, and phobos meaning fear. Put together, xenophobia is the deep-seated fear and hatred for foreign nationals. It is a desire to rid one’s country of its immigrants because one holds them responsible for existing traumas and socio-economic conditions, for example, rising unemployment levels. Xenophobia is dangerous because it is a threat to peaceful coexistence between African countries.

Xenophobia as an African Problem

The African Centre for Migration & Society at the University of Witwatersrand monitors xenophobic threats and violence across South Africa. According to data from ACMS, violent attacks in South Africa against foreign nationals peaked in 2008 and 2015. The BBC reported that ‘the violence is often triggered by local disputes, with migrants being accused of taking jobs away from South Africans.’ Indeed, South Africa has experienced poor economic performance, and the current unemployment rate stands at nearly 30 per cent. Rather than blame the government for the unemployment woes, many South Africans focus their anger on foreign nationals, who are believed to be taking their jobs. This kind of sentiment has brought about an attitude of the mind that makes South Africans see other Africans as usurpers.

However, history reminds us that xenophobia is not an entirely South African problem. Indeed, across Africa, it has been used as a policy instrument by governments, time and time again. In 1969, Ghanaian Prime Minister, Kofi Busia, signed the Aliens Compliance Order. The purpose of the Order was to reduce the number of foreign nationals living in Ghana. That year, the Ghanaian government expelled 150,000 Nigerian migrants and 350,000 migrants from other countries, such as Togo, Benin, Mali, and Niger. The reason for this expulsion? Nigerian migrants and other African migrants were blamed for a rise in criminal activity and lack of economic prospects for Ghanaians.

Similarly, under the executive order of President Shehu Shagari, in 1983, the Nigerian government blamed Ghanaians for the Kano riots of 1980 and 1981. Consequently, the government expelled thousands of undocumented migrants—nearly half of them were Ghanaian. Instead of holding their government accountable for mismanagement and the rising levels of unemployment, Nigerians vowed to rid themselves of undocumented migrants. The mass exodus prompted market traders to sell cheap travel bags to the migrants—bags now commonly referred to as ‘Ghana Must Go’.

In his article ‘Responses to the 1983 Expulsion of Aliens from Nigeria: A Critique’, Aremu Olaosebikan lists security issues, a large influx of migrants, and an economic downturn as the Nigerian government’s reasons for insisting that Ghanaian immigrants leave the country in 1983. Olaosebikan concludes that the government was simply acting in accordance with Nigeria’s immigration laws. However, the reasons given by Olaosebikan are not sufficient. While national security and the economy are genuine concerns for any country, it is unfair to blame foreigners for the woes of an underperforming government. The government should take responsibility for its failure to improve the economy and protect its citizens. The actions of the Nigerian government were a disservice to humanity.

Today, security issues continue to influence xenophobic immigration policies, and there are many contemporary examples of xenophobia across the African continent.  In Kenya, for example, Kenyan politicians blamed Somali immigrants for the 2013 attack by the terrorist group Al-Shabaab. In the aftermath of the attack, Kenyan politicians called for Somali refugees to be ‘sent back home’ because they believed that the refugees developed strong ties to the militants in refugee camps.

In South Africa, the attacks on Nigerians in cities like Johannesburg and Pretoria are a result of what Hakeem Onapajo has called ‘The Nigerianization of Crimes in South Africa’. In 2017, South Africa’s deputy police minister, Bongani Mkongi, made xenophobic remarks about foreigners in South Africa, accusing them of economic sabotage. ‘If we don’t debate [the fact that 80 per cent of the Hillbrow neighbourhood are foreign nationals],’ he argued, ‘that necessarily means the whole of South Africa could be 80 per cent dominated by foreign nationals and the future president of South Africa could be a foreign national.’ His words offer an example of how public officials employ xenophobic remarks, fuelling social tensions.

These instances of xenophobia in Ghana, Nigeria, Kenya, and South Africa demonstrate that, even if there are legitimate economic and political reasons for reducing the number of foreign nationals in one’s country, there are often other sentiments at play. Among those opposed to foreign nationals in South Africa, it seems some believe that foreign African nationals dominate their cities economically, which directly puts them out of work, while others see these migrants as a major cause of unrest and civil disobedience. These sentiments are then used by divisive politicians to divert attention from their failings. The remarks of the South African deputy police minister Bongani Mkongi are a clear example of how office-holders use these sentiments to shift attention away from the failures of the South African government, which includes the surge of violence towards South African women.

The Moral Dimensions of Xenophobic Incidents

For each instance of xenophobia, news audiences are treated to articles that analyse the political, social, and economic dimensions of the issue, and offer solutions as seen in Quartz, The New York Times, and Al Jazeera. In Quartz, Yomi Kazeem explained how the spread of misinformation escalated the reprisal attacks. In The New York Times, Loren Landau cited the distance between politicians and the masses and the exploitation of the divide between insiders and outsiders by political elites as reasons for xenophobic sentiments. However, he opined that ‘interventions must address the incentives for xenophobic violence’. Nanjala Nyabola offered a different outlook on the issue at Al Jazeera. Nyabola argued that xenophobic attacks are results of the inability of South Africa to sufficiently decolonise the legacy of apartheid.

However, there is a need to also examine the moral dimensions of xenophobia. As David Pilling, the Africa Editor of the Financial Times wrote in September 2019, ‘xenophobia threatens African economies as well as their moral standing’.

To better understand the moral dimension of xenophobic incidents across Africa, one needs to understand that the attacks occur as a cooperation of the mind and the body, the mental and the physical. Xenophobic attacks are carried out (the physical) with thoughts (the mental) that lean toward resentment for non-nationals. Xenophobia can be assessed not only as a physical attack against others, but also as a form of mental dissonance from seeing a fellow African as an outsider rather than as kin.

According to Bola Dauda, African Humanism is a compendium of ‘African cultural values, outlooks, beliefs, and systems of thought in relation to common human needs and a set of moralities or acceptable social norms, mores, rules, and regulation for the running of African communities.’ These norms are expected to be the principles by which all Africans should live by. It is a recognition that one’s existence is only valid when it is in relation to the existence of others. Two of the most prevalent cultural expressions of African humanism are the principles of Ubuntu in Bantu philosophy and Ọmọlúwàbí in Yoruba philosophy. Ubuntu, or umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu, means ‘to be a human being is to affirm one’s humanity by recognising the humanity of others, and on that basis, establish a humane relationship with them’.

The principle of Ọmọlúwàbí is intrinsically tied to ‘ìwà (character). Ọmọlúwàbí posits that a human is only human according to his character. One of the very important tenets of the Ọmọlúwàbí principle is to treat everyone fairly. It notes that the idea of binary complementarity is central to the thesis of Yoruba philosophy—that is, the notion humans cannot exist in isolation. According to Yoruba tradition, K’ájọ rìn, kí a pò̩̩, yíyẹ l’ó ń yẹ’ni which translates as ‘it is harmonious and becoming to walk together in unity’.

Both principles point to the intersubjectivity of human existence, and how humans affirm our existence through the existence of others. Intersubjectivity is understood as ‘the process and product of sharing experiences, knowledge, understandings, and expectations with others.’ It means recognizing the other as an extension of the self. Therefore, when we see others as an extension of ourselves, we do not see another African as a foreigner but as one of us. Consequently, it implies that there is a moral and existential problem when we fail to see the next person as an extension of ourselves.

Xenophobia can be tackled at its very root if Africans actively engage with the concepts of Ubuntu and Ọmọlúwàbí. While the concept of whether one or not one can be truly good is a long-lasting debate in philosophy, African humanism highlights the importance of doing good things for other people. To better understand the moral dimension of xenophobic attacks and the tenets of Ubuntu and Ọmọlúwàbí, we can apply these concepts to the current state of affairs.

In South Africa, the people who loot, destroy businesses, and hurt foreign nationals end up damaging their own moral worthiness. One who kills strangers for his personal gain is morally blameworthy. The principle of Ubuntu posits that ‘Feta Kgomo o Tshware motho’, which means ‘when a choice must be made between preserving the life and integrity of a human being and making wealth, then the former must be preferred and prevail.’ One might argue that it is neglect of Ubuntu that has brought about hatred and corruption in South Africa, widening the chasm between South Africans and foreign nationals.

At the same time, the reprisal attacks that took place against South African-owned businesses in Nigeria were also morally reprehensible. When discussing African humanism in this context, one should ask, ‘What do these reprisal attacks say about Nigerians?’ African humanism condemns fighting evil with evil. The tenets of Ọmọlúwàbí advocate for reconciliation rather than retaliation. In fact, one moral tenet of the Ọmọlúwàbí principle opines that ‘the determination to pay evil with evil prolongs social strife. Those who insist on retaliating every wrong act done to them undermine the possibility of reconciliation’.

A More Humane Human Experience

Migration is an integral, constant part of the human experience. We may not be able to collapse physical borders overnight or erase the relevant socio-economic, political, and security-related factors that surround both migration and policymaking around migration; but we must, at least, talk about the urgent need for nationals of African countries to see other Africans as kin, and not as enemies. As the Kenyan philosopher, John Mbiti, once famously said, ‘I am because we are and since we are, therefore I am’. Africans must revisit traditional African humanism—they must dig deep into the well of care and oneness and listen to the voice of reason that the tenets of African humanism can provide. We must realize that an attack on the other is an attack on the self.

The task ahead for communities and policymakers across Africa cannot be overstated. On the community-level, parents and guardians should teach their children the tenets of Ubuntu and Ọmọlúwàbí. These concepts can help guide the moral judgments of communities so that when they are faced with difficult moral choices in the future, they will be reminded of their moral standing and humanity. The community needs to take an active role in teaching and preaching the essence of African humanism.

In addition, policymakers and legislators should shape their policies in accordance with the tenets of African humanism. This means making informed decisions in the interest of the people, and not in the interest of corrupt politicians. Once established, African humanism can be the foundation upon which future solutions will be built