/ 6 May 2020

SOS: Covid-19 leaves stranded Africans distressed and abandoned

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South Africa alone has registered more than 3 600 of its citizens who want to return home. (GCIS)


The pandemic has meant that governments in Africa are faced with a litmus test on how they respond to their citizens in troubled times, especially those overseas. And so far, the test results have been negative. The early response of respective African governments to the distress call sent out by their citizens stuck abroad, amid the coronavirus pandemic, has largely been slow, inadequate or nonexistent.

Some Africans away from their home countries are living in distress. Stuck abroad and facing a difficult experience thousands of miles away from home, many are unsure when they will return.

Dr Pisso Scott Nseke, a Cameroonian business consultant living in Wuhan, China, is one of them. Nseke is grappling with the ripple effects of the coronavirus which broke out in Wuhan last December. “We are facing economic difficulties – loss of jobs and revenues,” Nseke told the Mail & Guardian. He said there is also the problem of housing, with Africans having been forced to leave their abodes in search of shelter. “They don’t know where to go!”

Cameroon’s diplomatic mission to China has not helped. Nseke said officials from the embassy in Beijing used to send messages of encouragement at the beginning but these came to an abrupt halt. The last time Nseke and some 200 other Cameroonians in Wuhan officially heard from their embassy was on February 7.

This is despite the Cameroonian government’s public announcement on February 20 that the president had ordered the urgent disbursement of 50 million CFA francs (around $83000) to assist them. Fast-forward to today, and those hopes have all faded away. “We haven’t seen even one franc of the money,” Nseke said. “I feel frustrated and disappointed that the government has not done as the others [governments in Africa]. I want to return home but the borders are closed,” he said.

Nseke’s frustration with Cameroon’s government was echoed by other stranded Africans who spoke to the Mail &Guardian. Tisiliyani Salima, leader of the Zambian student community in Wuhan, feels disappointed that her government has not been able to evacuate her and other Zambian students back home. “Following the outbreak, we watched helplessly how other countries airlifted their citizens from this city. Only sub-Saharan African students stayed back, besides South Africans who were later evacuated home,” she said.

Back in February, the Zambian government gave ¥1,035 (around $150 or R2700) each to some 182 Zambian students in Wuhan, according to Salima. But they have since not heard much from their embassy or received further government assistance. Salima says some of her peers are now grappling with expired visas in addition to other personal issues.

Like Salima, Theophilus Komalafe, a Nigerian student at Beihang University in Beijing, says “nothing has actually happened with regards to evacuation back home”. Komalafe hasn’t received even palliative support from his government. “The response from the federal government [of Nigeria] has been very poor. It is high time the government changes the way it responds to its citizens in distress,” Komalafe said.

Another Nigerian student in South Africa said he wrote to the Nigerian High Commission in Pretoria before the nationwide lockdown but still has yet to receive even a response acknowledging receipt of his email. “This is not unusual and I didn’t expect much,” the student said.

In April it was reported that some Africans were being mistreated in China, and their governments did little in response. Many reported being targeted and thrown out of their apartments. “Africans have been subjected to high levels of scrutiny, suspicion, anger and discrimination in Guangzhou,” Keith B. Richburg, director of the Journalism and Media Studies Centre at the University of Hong Kong said.

Authorities from African countries including South Africa, Nigeria, Ghana, Uganda, Zimbabwe, Kenya as well as from the African Union, called on China to provide answers to the Chinese assault on African immigrants. But as Africans across the continent continued to vented their anger on social media regarding the attacks, the diplomatic rows came to an end. Geoffrey Onyeama, the foreign affairs minister of Nigeria, said the skirmishes with China had been “sorted out”.

Thousands of stranded Africans either need help or are seeking to be brought home. They had travelled for various reasons, most commonly: study, business, family visits and tourism. Some were trapped in foreign lands when countries imposed restrictions on movement or completely shut their borders, making travelling back home almost impossible.

South Africa alone has registered more than 3 600 of its citizens who want to return home. Kenya announced it will be evacuating its nationals from China at their own cost, a move its former trade and foreign affairs minister Moses Wetangula described as “a big letdown”. Nigeria commissioned two airlines to repatriate over 2 000 of its citizens from various European countries as well as the United States and the United Kingdom. Some other African countries such as Cameroon and Uganda have opened registers for their citizens abroad who wish to return home.

As it stands, though, most governments’ evacuation plans have started and ended with lip service.

Circumstances are much worse for migrants all over the continent who were on the move heading home or travelling in search of work. The Guardian reported on Tuesday that there were large numbers of students from Chad stuck in Cameroon, and around 1800 workers from Nigeria stuck in isolated gold-mining areas in Burkina Faso. Around 1000 Malian and Senegalese migrants are also reportedly trapped in Mauritania.

Many of the people migrating – a large proportion of them women and children – were migrating illegally. It is reported that around 2300 migrants who were being transported by traffickers have been abandoned in Djibouti.

Several factors could be fuelling the inaction or slow response of some of these African governments. One prominent factor is the absence of a culture of African governments responding to situations such as citizen repatriation — like in the West — according to Babatunde Fagbayibo, professor of law at the University of South Africa, Pretoria. “There is really no template, but that is not an excuse.”

Fagbayibo also believes many African governments lack the ability to articulate clear political visions – and subsequently fail to understand how their actions now can convey more important messages about solidarity and national pride.

Some governments might argue that they don’t have the funds to engage in this type of repatriation. But Fagbayibo argues that such reasoning is not tenable “because this is a crisis that could also work in the favour of the government, in the sense that if you show willingness, you could use it as a political point; that ‘at least when citizens were in distress we sent people to go take them there.’”