The AU must not allow Tunisia’s Saied to harm African unity

Tunisia’s populist president is trying to divide us using a white supremacist conspiracy from Europe.

Members of rights groups carry banners during a protest against crackdown on African immigrants.
Members of rights groups carry banners during a protest after Tunisian President Kais Saied ordered security forces to stop all illegal migration and expel all undocumented migrants, in Tunis, Tunisia on February 25, 2023 [Jihed Abidellaoui /Reuters]

On February 21, while addressing a National Security Council meeting in Tunis, Tunisia’s President Kais Saied condemned irregular migration from sub-Saharan Africa and described it as a conspiracy to erase Tunisia’s identity.

“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,” he said. “Hordes of illegal immigrants from sub-Saharan Africa are still arriving, with all the violence, crime and unacceptable practices that entails.”

Two days later, as he called on Tunisia’s interior minister to crack down on irregular migration, the 65-year-old leader denied accusations from human rights groups that his hateful comments were racist, and claimed those accusing him of racism “want division and discord and seek to damage our relations with our brothers”.

He, however, did not renounce his unsubstantiated claim that migrants from sub-Saharan Africa are arriving in Tunisia as part of a plot to alter its demographics.

The estimated number of Black African migrants in Tunisia today, including those without proper documentation, is just 21,000. Given the country’s 12 million-strong population, they don’t have anywhere near the numbers necessary to alter Tunisia’s demographic composition. The elaborate plot to end Tunisia’s “affiliation to the Arab and Islamic nations” is clearly just a figment of Saied’s imagination.

Nevertheless, the president’s provocative remarks unleashed a wave of discrimination and violence against sub-Saharan Africans in Tunisia.

Hundreds were arbitrarily arrested, dismissed from work, evicted from their homes and violently assaulted.

According to Amnesty International, a 22-year-old Cameroonian asylum seeker was hospitalised after she was stabbed in the chest and left for dead by six Tunisian men, who yelled “go back home, you gang of Blacks, we don’t want you here”. Another woman, a student from Burkina Faso, was arbitrarily detained and physically assaulted by the police, despite producing her school papers.

“In my neighbourhood, Black people were sought out, chased, raped, and their homes looted by Tunisians,” a university student who was voluntarily repatriated to Guinea told the AFP news agency.

In Tunis, scores of migrant families who were left homeless as a result of Saied’s crackdown set up camp outside the headquarters of the International Organization for Migration.

The president’s racist rabble-rousing also sparked widespread condemnation.

On February 25, Tunisian protesters, holding Black Lives Matter placards, took to the streets to denounce racism and declare that they are Africans.

On the same day, the African Union Commission Chair, Moussa Faki Mahamat, strongly condemned the “shocking statement issued by Tunisian authorities targeting fellow Africans”, and urged Tunis “to refrain from racialised hate speech”.

Later, the World Bank placed its Country Partnership Framework with Tunisia on hold, while the Tunisian General Labour Union said it will defend “the rights of migrants, regardless of their nationality or the colour of their skin”.

In the face of growing criticism, Saied attempted to “clarify” his remarks during a meeting with Guinea-Bissau’s President Umaro Sissoco Embalo on March 8.

He claimed there was a “malicious interpretation” of his comments, and issued a “blatant denial’’ that he is racist. “I am African, and proud to be so.” But, of course, while meeting with Embalo, who is also the current chairman of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), he would claim to be one of us.

While Saied’s “clarification” about his comments failed to convince most in the international community, he had already managed to secure enthusiastic support for his racist anti-migration agenda from one European politician.

Eric Zemmour, a far-right politician from France widely known for his anti-immigration and anti-Islam views, shared a news story about Saied’s comments on Twitter and wrote: “The Maghreb countries themselves are starting to sound the alarm in the face of the surge in migration. Here, it is Tunisia that wants to take urgent measures to protect its people. What are we waiting for to fight against the Great Replacement?”

Zemmour’s mention of the “great replacement” in relation to Saied’s comments was understandable, as Saied’s claims about African migrants’ alleged ambition to alter Tunisia’s demographic composition indeed fits in well with the popular white supremacist conspiracy theory which falsely asserts that white people are being replaced and losing their standing in society as a result of a plot to increase non-white immigration.

In this context, it can be argued that Saied is borrowing his right-wing populist rhetoric from the Western far right and by doing so reintroducing to the African continent the race-based ideologies and false hierarchies of the colonial era.

As a Black African, who lives in Africa, I have always felt extremely blessed to be fairly insulated from the white supremacist hatred and violence that is pervasive in Europe and the US.

I would have never imagined that an African president would employ a white nationalist conspiracy theory that originated in Europe to target Black Africans to score cheap political points in Tunisia, an African country.

I remember with immense fondness how, last December, Africans of all shades, socioeconomic backgrounds and nationalities supported Morocco at the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar.

When the Atlas Lions became the first Arab and African team to reach the semifinals of a FIFA World Cup tournament, millions of sub-Saharan Africans wholeheartedly celebrated their amazing and unprecedented accomplishment as enthusiastically as their Arab neighbours.

After it lost to France in the semi-finals, Morocco’s coach, Walid Regragui, paid homage to Africa declaring, “We were representing our country and our continent.”

His sincere and admirable words confirmed what everyone knew: The Atlas Lions did it not only for Morocco and the Arab world but the whole of Africa.

Africans across the continent felt proud and that feeling of pride, it must be said, transcended the football pitch.

For possibly the first time in history, a post-colonial and post-racial Africa stood united and celebrated together like one big, diverse family.

Barely three months after Qatar 2022, Saied is now attempting to destroy that unity to divert the world’s attention away from the extensive failings of his authoritarian regime.

In July 2021, he suspended parliament, dismissed the prime minister, seized executive control of the country and dismantled independent institutions. He cracked down on the political opposition and his other critics with incredible force, receiving condemnation from many of Tunisia’s international partners. Since assuming near absolute power, he not only destroyed Tunisia’s young democracy and international standing, but also failed to revitalise its economy and resolve the myriad socioeconomic problems facing its people.

Now, it seems, he is trying to scapegoat undocumented Black African migrants for all his failures and sacrificing African unity and solidarity in the process.

The African Union swiftly and firmly rebuked Saied’s divisive comments and, in response to the consequent government crackdown and racist attacks against sub-Saharan nationals, indefinitely postponed a conference it was due to hold in Tunis in March.

However timely and commendable these actions were, they might not be enough to deter Saied from continuing to incite racial violence and sow divisions with Tunisia’s sub-Saharan neighbours under the guise of addressing irregular migration.

Xenophobic violence with racial undertones is not new to Africa or unique to Tunisia. Just last year the United Nations warned that South Africa is “on the precipice of explosive xenophobic violence”. But Tunisia is currently the only country on the continent where the president is blatantly flaming violence with racist dog whistles and conspiracy theories.

Sure, Saied said he is “not racist” and “a proud African”, but he is yet to denounce the sinister Great Replacement conspiracy. This calculated silence demonstrates enormous contempt for Africa’s collective wellbeing and unity.

Like Mahamat pointed out in his initial condemnation of Saied’s remarks on irregular migrants, Tunisia has certainly flouted “the letter and spirit” of the AU’s founding values.

So, it must be reprimanded accordingly and suspended from the organisation, at least until Saied publicly disowns the “great replacement” theory and ends his anti-migrant and anti-Black African fearmongering.

The AU must move to protect Africa from the populist nationalism and racism of the likes of Saied. Without unity, the 2063 Pan-African agenda is doomed to fail. It’s high time the AU demonstrates its authority and brings in line African leaders who attempt to divide us along racial lines.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.