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Migration: Africa

Migration: Africa

Historically, migration has been a way of life in Africa. Over the generations African people have migrated in response to demographic, economic, political, and other factors, including environmental disasters and conflicts. The histories of many African communities record their migratory movements from one area to another or the incursions of more powerful migrant groups who conquered and reorganized their societies. These large movements across the continent have accounted for the rapidity of the spread of new ideas and changes in culture.

Migration in Africa has been of three types: intra-and inter-country (internal) movements of people within the continent; movement from outside into the continent; and movement from the continent outward.

Internal Migration

Although the most prominent movement within the continent in historic times probably was that of the Bantu-speaking peoples, there have been many different movements of peoples from one region of the continent to another and over many centuries. Because of a population explosion that is yet to be fully understood, Bantu-speaking peoples have spread over most of the continent south of the equator. Bantu migrations were reflected in the expansion of Bantu languages in several parts of East, Central, and Southern Africa. Other examples of major intracontinental migration include that of the nomadic Bedouin Arab peoples, the Banu Hilal and the Banu Sulaym, into the Maghreb beginning from the second half of the eleventh century. They initiated a massive movement, infiltrating the cultivated lands while spreading westward from Tunisia to Morocco. The arrival of the Bedouin Arabs provoked a rapid Arabization of the Maghreb region. A high proportion of the Berbers were assimilated to the Arabs through intermarriage, and Arabic became the lingua franca for most of the population. In the mountainous areas, including the Atlas range in Morocco and the Kabylie mountains of Algeria, however, the Berbers maintained their language and culture, together with a fierce spirit of independence.

Intraregional migration also took place in West Africa. Hausaland, for example, was a major recipient of large-scale migration, with peoples and groups coming from different directions and at different times for different purposes. Sources of migration into the Hausa country were the Sahel in the north, Bornu in the east, and the regions of the late Mali and Songhay empires in the west. The Fulani, who reached Hausaland from the west, were the most prominent immigrants into the region. The vast majority of Fulani immigrants were nomadic pastoralists in search of new and better grazing for their cattle, although there were also some Muslim clerics among them. Other migrant groups included the Tuareg, who were mostly pastoralists and who showed little interest in territorial occupation and settlement. Migrants from Bornu included refugees, aristocrats, merchants, and scholars who settled in all parts of Hausaland. Other immigrants were the Wangara/Dioula; the Songhay fishermen, who settled in the Lower Rima River Valley; and the Arab and Berber merchants and scholars who came from North Africa and the Timbuktu area and began entering the region in the second half of the fifteenth century, about the same time as the Fulani. The influx into the region was connected with the growing prosperity of the Hausa states and the adoption of Islam by further groups and strata of the urban population.

The dominant trend in internal migration in more recent times has been the movement from rural to urban areas. Contact with Western Europe facilitated the emergence of new towns and other urban centers that served as colonial administrative centers or as economic or industrial centers. Many capital cities of West African countries developed as artificial ports built on vacant or sparsely populated sites. These administrative, industrial, and commercial centers all experienced rapid growth during the years of colonial rule, with implications for migration. The new towns developed certain characteristics that contrasted sharply with the traditional culture. An improved physical environmentsanitary facilities, roads, street lighting, health servicescombined with other rudiments of urbanism to provide the background to the rural-to-urban migration that was a hallmark of the colonial period. This prompted the "bright lights" theory of migration (that is, that rural-to-urban migrants tended to be attracted by the new facilities in the towns). However, empirical studiessuch as the one on Tukulor migration to Dakar (Diop)confirm that rural-to-urban migration was neither the outcome of an attraction to the city nor youthful rejection of traditional values. Rather, it resulted from serious and persistent underdevelopment in the communities of origin of the migrants. In the case of Tukulor migration from the Senegal River Valley, money sent back to the village by the new city dwellers was crucial to maintaining a minimum standard of living in the valley.

But regional economic disparities were not the only factors that prompted internal migration, particularly in the colonial times and after. The transformation of agriculture during this period that resulted from the creation of large plantations by the colonizers in certain regions of the continent was a major factor. The new plantations required a substantial labor force that was not always available locally. The required movement of population was often achieved by force. Colonial intervention in the mining sector prompted similar forceful movement of the people, achieved through policies designed to drive peasants from their land and attract them to the mining areas. Moreover, colonial fiscal measures, particularly the introduction of the head tax payable in cash, also gave rise to migration. It was impossible for most rural families to raise the necessary sums from the village, and this necessitated the migration of one or more members of a household to the city. In other instances, villagers fled the tax by migrating to neighboring territories.

Intra-and intercountry migrations remain a prominent feature of African life. The persistence is partly the outcome of the fact that migrants have always considered the various sub-regions as single economic units within which trade in goods and services flowed. But more important, intraregional migration has been sustained by the persistence and intensification of widespread poverty, the deteriorating economic situation, and the consequences of the various macroeconomic adjustment measures. In addition, conflicts and environmental degradation, particularly in the Sahel regions, desertification, and cyclical famines have further aggravated the pressure for migration from poorer to relatively prosperous regions of the continent. The deteriorating economic situation and pressures have also affected in recent times the traditional labor-importing countries, including Gabon, Côte d'Ivoire, Zimbabwe, and Nigeria. The inability of their economies to continue accommodating clandestine labor migrants was at the root of the various expulsion measures directed at foreign nationals at different times. On the other hand, the violent conflicts that have plagued the political landscape of many African countriesBurundi, Rwanda, Liberia, Sierra Leone, and recently, Côte d'Ivoireas well as the Horn of Africa have produced massive waves of refugees who sought sanctuary in neighboring African countries. Many have chosen to remain as migrants in the countries of their sanctuary even after conflicts have ceased in their homelands.

Immigration into Africa

In modern times, the major movements into the continent have been of European settlers into northern Africa and of European and Asian settlers in Southern and East Africa. The Dutch migrations into Southern Africa began in 1652, when a European settlement was established by the Dutch East India Company at the Cape of Good Hope. The colony was intended to serve merely as a refreshment station for the company's ships on their way to India and was originally peopled by the company's servants. But with the decision to allow some of these people to settle as free citizens owning their own farmlands, the Dutch (Boer) population in the region began to swell, and soon a deliberate policy of increasing the settler population was instituted to strengthen it against possible attacks. More Dutchmen arrived as well as a party of French Protestant Huguenots fleeing religious persecution in France. The French refugees lost their language and became absorbed into the predominantly Dutch population. As most were farmers, this meant that more land was needed as the population increased. From the coast, the settlers later moved inland to the Highveld region, where, in the nineteenth century, a series of military conflicts occurred between them and the Bantu speakers. The Dutchand the absorbed French refugeesconstituted about one-third of the European population and were the ancestors of many modern white South African families. Other major European settlements took place in the nineteenth century: the British were dominant in modern-day KwaZulu/Natal Province of South Africa as well as in Zambia, Zimbabwe, and the East African highlands; the Germans were predominant in modern Namibia; and the Portuguese were in Angola and Mozambique.

When the European colonies were first founded, there was no conscious policy of introducing racial discrimination and settler rule. However, the presence of large settler populations later affected the pace of political developments in these territories, and the achievement of self-government and independence by the African peoples of South Africa, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Angola, and Mozambique was delayed. The struggles for independence and majority rule became the source of much bitterness and violence between races in Southern Africa. On the other hand, the growth of Arab nationalism and the emergence of Morocco, Algeria, and TunisiaNorth African countries with vast European settler populationsas independent states led to the return of between one and two million colonists to their European homelands in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

Emigration from Africa

Probably the greatest outward regional movement of people in human history was that of Africans to the Americas and the Caribbean during the period of the slave trade from the sixteenth to the nineteenth century. Estimated figures of Africans forcibly uprooted from their homelands, largely from West Africa and to a lesser extent from Angola, range from fifteen to twenty million. Substantial numbers of these died in the appalling conditions of the trans-Atlantic passage. The slave trade was also active on the east coast of Africa, particularly on the island of Zanzibar. Although the composite effect of the loss of this considerable size of manpower is yet to be fully quantified and appreciated, there is no doubt that it retarded the African continent's development. At the same time, these forced migrants made substantial contributions to the development of the New World.

In recent years a combination of factors, including the worsening economic situation of most African countries, perennial conflicts, and environmental degradation, have provoked a new outward movement of Africans from the continent. The stressful socioeconomic environment created by the retrenchment of public sector workers in states across the continent implementing diverse programs of structural adjustment, the decline in real incomes, and the hostile political environment occasioned by the consolidation of autocratic regimes in several states have combined to generate and sustain pressures that trigger the outflow of professional and skilled persons on a scale hitherto not experienced. This migration has been to Europe, North America (United States and Canada), and the Gulf states. Some Africans have also found their way to Asian and Pacific countries. This phenomenon has come to be described in the literature and general discourse as the brain drain. Thousands of highly skilled migrants, including doctors, nurses, lecturers, teachers, engineers, scientists, technologists, and other professionals, have moved from a number of African countries to the destination states attracted by relatively higher salaries and better working and living conditions. This is in addition to movements from poorer to relatively richer regions of the continent. Also, many students in various disciplines failed to return to their home countries from these richer countries at the end of their training.

The stressful socioeconomic environment has produced other survival strategies that affect contemporary migration patterns and gender roles in the continent. Clandestine migration, an age-old phenomenon, has reached new proportions as young migrants are adopting more sophisticated, daring, and evasive methods to enter the countries of the Northeven as these destination states continue to tighten their border controls. Many clandestine migrants enter the host states as tourists or students and later work and live there without officially changing their status. Others travel via intermediary countries, where they obtain false documentation for a fee. Another phenomenon is autonomous female migration, which is equally a response to deepening poverty in the subregion. With several families forced to adopt migration as a coping mechanism of the last resort, the traditional male-dominated, long-term, and long-distance migratory streams are becoming increasingly feminized. A significant proportion of females now migrate independently to fulfill their own economic needs rather than simply joining a husband or other family members. Higher educational attainment among females has also enhanced their mobility and their propensity to migrate both locally and internationally.

Explaining African Migration

Although the most common explanations are those focusing on the economic dimensions, a general survey of the literature on demographic mobility reveals numerous economic, sociological, and demographic attempts to explain the initiation of internal and international migration. Migration is seen as a response to both endogenous and exogenous variables. These variables are, in sum, the overall effects of sociocultural, economic, political, and psychological conditions on the migrant. The decision to migrate is thus a response to one or many of the variables and the location of such variables. The sociologist describes migration in relation to the nature and magnitude of its social and cultural dimensions, the destination, and the sending area. The economist, on the other hand, reflects on the occupational and employment status, pressure of demand and supply, and relationships among wage, income, and price levels. Demographic explanations relate all the variables to the prospect of measurement and control of migration and its effect on growth and development.

Given Africa's cultural, linguistic, and economic variegations, and its vast country-to-country differences, a systematic analysis of any aspect of its social behavior can be a difficult enterprise. Analysis of its migration behavior is no less challenging. When applied to the African situation, accepted theories of migration reveal the need for the development of models that distinguish between developed and developing countries. Indeed, a number of explanatory models have been developed in the literature seeking to explain internal and international migration of labor in undeveloped countries. Three of these are especially suited to the African situation. These are the Todaro's, Mabogunje's, and Byerlee's models.

Todaro's model is a modification of the neoclassical economic (human capital) theory of migration. The theory posits that migration is the consequence of individual cost-benefit calculation. Todaro proceeds by affirming that migration is based on rational economic calculations and argues that the decision of the individual to migrate is usually a response to rural-urban differentials in expected rather than actual income earnings. This model assumes that the potential migrant selects a location that maximizes expected gains from migration. This was the first explanatory attempt emphasizing that potential migrants should base the decision to move on rational calculation of differences in expected earnings.

Mabogunje's model constitutes the second approach at explaining migration in Africa. The model is a creative adaptation of the world systems model in which Mabogunje asserts that rural-urban migration in Africa is controlled by systematic interrelationships of rural-urban control systems, rural-urban adjustment mechanisms, and the positive or negative flow of information about migration. The model identifies the push and the pull sides of migration. Local economic conditions that affect the pool of migrants constitute the push side. The size of this pool is affected by social practices, customs, community organization, and inheritance laws in the sending community. Wage rates and job opportunities emanating from the urban system constitute the pull side of migration, and these determine whether individuals in the pool of potential migrants would migrate.

In a modification of the human capital approach, Byerlee adopts a cost-benefit economic model in which he considers migration as the outcome of a cost-return calculation. Byerlee posits that the decision to migrate will be made when the perceived returns of migration exceed the perceived costs. The model goes beyond the conventional cost-return analysis of the human capital approach as it includes elements of the social system. It also explicitly identifies determinants of rural and urban incomes and introduces risks and other psychic costs into the migration decision-making process.

All three approaches have made significant contributions to a conceptual understanding of the migration process in Africa. Todaro's model provides a good explanation for labor migration in Africa, as it recognizes the unequal and uneven distribution of economic and social development between regions of the same country and among countries as a primary determinant of migration. The strength of Mabogunje's approach lies in its macrosystem emphasis, given its recognition of the economic, cultural, and social relationships between rural and urban areas. Mabogunje's model is particularly helpful in understanding the impact of family and community organization on migration. Byerlee's conceptualization of the motivation for migration in Africa has also contributed significantly to a conceptual understanding of migration in the region.

Despite their theoretical contributions, all three models fail to deal adequately with several elements of migration, including forced migration. With regard to historically more recent migration patterns, the models fail to deal with non-wage urban income, which accounts for an increasing proportion of urban employment.

One element of migration that has assumed increasing importance in recent years is the large-scale international migration of skilled persons from Africa to relatively more developed regions of the world. Attempts to provide explanatory models for understanding the motivation for this phenomenon confirm that the behavior of the so-called highly trained migrants, including scientists, engineers, artists, and intellectuals, is fundamentally determined by the same kind of motivations and market forces as those of less highly trained migrants. However, interpretations of the effect of the migration of highly skilled workers on the developing sending countries differ. Most economists are agreed that although some degree of mobility is necessary if developing countries are to integrate into the global economy, large-scale losses of skilled workers are detrimental to developing countries and pose the threat of a brain drain.

Neoclassical models of economic development hold that brain drain has adverse effects on the development of the sending country, slowing down the GDP growth rates and adversely affecting those who remain. Consequently, poverty and inequality are likely to increase. More recent economic theorythe endogenous growth theoryalso predicts that emigration of highly skilled workers reduces economic growth rates. In contradistinction, another theoretical variant holds that at some optimal level of emigration (greater than none but not too much), sending countries actually benefit. It is argued that the possibility of emigrating to higher-wage countries may stimulate individuals to pursue higher education in anticipation of migrating to secure, better-paid work abroad. The consequence is the development of a large pool of better-trained human capital in the sending country. The implication is that there may be an "optimal level of emigration" or a "beneficial brain drain." Empirical analysis offers some support for the various theoretical expectations.


Human migrations in historic times have transformed the entire aspects of lands and continents and the racial, ethnic, and linguistic composition of their populations. Migration in Africa has had similar consequences. The peopling of the continent and the consolidation of its racial, ethnic, and linguistic landscape certainly cannot be totally separated from the consequences of the various migratory movements.

See also Diasporas: African Diaspora ; Migration: Migration in World History .


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Sola Akinrinade

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