Europe has made a fuss about the Mediterranean crossing. It has beefed up its policing off the waters of Italy; supported coastguard operations in Libya; and offered sweeteners to source countries on the continent, which then commit to stem the emigration of their nationals. But, without any doubt, the most obvious impact of the crossing is how the flow of migrants from across sub-Saharan Africa, through Libya all the way to Italy has had a part in re-shaping politics in Europe. On one hand, despite the Macron counter-narrative, it’s been a driving force in the emergence of right-wing influences on the continent (the growth in the political significance of the Alternative for Germany, and strengthening of Hungarian illiberalism, are but two such examples). In German politics, it has also blotted Angela Merkel’s legacy.
Yet, by far the bigger concern around that high tide of persons flowing out of sub-Saharan Africa ought to be how this new crossing is changing Africa itself. An earlier crossing may have cost the continent far more than is generally admitted — to the extent that the slave-trading class sought out the youngest and most virile on the continent. And, in its own way, this new crossing may be debilitating a similar demographic. Of course, a prolific birth rate may serve to moderate the more adverse effect of this. Ironically, in its own way, too, the high birth rate across economies on the sub-continent speaks to a sub-theme of the main narrative about the crossing.
Poor governance since the wave of independence in the 1960s has meant abysmal underperformance of most economies on the continent. Under-investment in social capacity has left these economies saddled with barely literate populations, with poor earnings prospects. For populations whose path towards completing the transition from agrarian means of production to industrial forms remains asymptotic, a plenitude of children remains a hedge of sorts ― against high infant mortality rates, and a diminution in earnings as parents age.
There are, therefore, arguments around the flow of nationals out of these countries to Europe in search of “greener pastures” operating as a safety valve would on a pressure cooker. In which case, the counter-narratives would be about de-risking the economic pressure points that may be at the root of such behaviour. Put differently, how to provide the skills and public health care that make people in the source economies for this migration employable, and the jobs to keep them in place. This is where the dialogue between Europe and source countries aimed at stemming the tide of emigrants fails. Conceived as a law and order problem, Europe’s focus on beefing up border policing infrastructure in these countries might simply reinforce the bad governments that are at the root of the very problem.
However, that may be, the recent revelations about the abysmal conditions in which armed groups in Libya have held several captives off the crossing, invite a re-appraisal of these readings of the problem.
In Nigeria, at least, anecdotal evidence suggests that much of the motivation for the crossings is the opportunity to “hammer” once safely ensconced in Europe. Adverse economic conditions back home matter here. But the nature of the verb “hammer” in this context suggests more subtle impulses may be at play, and may matter more. To “hammer” is not so much to “make good”. A friend, running me through the slang’s etymology, attributes its provenance to the registers used by “Yahoo Boys”. According to him, “Once the mugu don drop, you have hammered ― it’s as base as that”. “Mugu + drop = Hammer”. And at year-ends like this, impressionable folk across the country are regaled with tales of folks who recently made the crossings and have “hammered” ― a palatial house built in the village for a previously indigent parent; a returnee whose spend at the various pubs that he visited was as if money (U.S. dollars, to boot) was going out of fashion.
Supported by such irresistible imagery, the crossings may yet resemble a throw of the die. But they lose their semblance of recklessness. For in this new construct, they are no less insidious than is the conduct of the habitual gambler before a slot machine. Truth is, anyway, the poor have always had an affinity for the lottery. In this dialogue, that one winning ticket is a poultice, not just for the winner. But for everyone whose play led up to that final choice ― and especially, in the case of the new crossing, including those who lose their lives trying to reach Europe.
Thus far, so good? It gets better.
This conversation becomes ever so involved, when, looking at the Nigerian state, it becomes obvious that we may be organised around the concept of “hammering” far more than we are willing to accept. Whether it’s the popular injunction to “wait for your turn”, or the saw about “all of us being thieves, except the ones unlucky to be found out”, there’s a national sense of hanging in there until one “hammers”. It is the same with waiting patiently for access to political office. Even in the organised private sector, it’s an argument made regularly ― “bid your time”. Success is not for the swiftest. Nor for the most competent. Still less is it for the most innovative. Instead, it is for those with the patience and the nerve to play the roulette over and again. Point is that we’ve organised our space as if it were a lottery: bestowing on those who “hammer”, wealth beyond their wildest imaginations. The rest, unfortunately, have scant reason to argue too hard for a dismantling of this structure: for, that way, they deny to themselves the chance of “hammering” some day!
Playing away at this game of roulette, we’re, in this broad sense, the moral equals of our compatriots, who, aware of the perils of the Sahara/Mediterranean crossing, still embark on the excursion, in the hope that they’d be amongst the ones lucky enough to “hammer” in Europe. There’s, therefore, a duplicitous quality to the indignation with which most of our nationals received news reports of the harsh fate which befell a number of those who tried to make the crossing to Europe. In a much broader sense, quite a few of us who remained here at home have lost significant parts of our liberty trying to make the “crossing” within the economy. Yes, these are currently the “mugus”. But with plenty of forbearance, the “drop” will happen someday that will make us “hammerers”!