News & Media / African migrations: setting the picture right

African migrations: setting the picture right

08 March, 2019

The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the opinions or views of the Mo Ibrahim Foundation.

If we begin with the premise that the cradle of mankind is in Africa, then it goes to follow that migration has been a practice since time immemorial. It is not a new, 21st century challenge.

Migrations in Africa go back for centuries and are diverse, taking various forms, from rural-to-urban migration, labour migration, forced migration (including human trafficking), internally displaced persons, refugees, seasonal or circular migration to do with trade, agriculture or religion. Today, African migrants account for less than 15% of the global migrant population and almost 3% of the continent’s total population.

When one puts these statistics in a backdrop of the current overheated and often emotional debates on migration which conjure up imagines of poor African migrants drowning in the Mediterranean, it is clear that the real dynamics and the African viewpoint is misconceived. This picture must be set right with evidence-based discussions of the reality on the continent. This is one of the many reasons I’m looking forward to the upcoming Ibrahim Governance Weekend in Abidjan, from 5-7 April.

From a historical perspective, migration has existed for centuries on our continent and took place across routes that are still used today. These migratory routes continue to shape patterns of movement in Africa, and we see African migrants find connections and ties across vast expanse of continent, be it historical, geo-political, linguistic or cultural.


Our people are dispersed beyond country – and colonial – borders, around widespread regions. For instance, the Fulani people, a nomadic tribe, are all across Central and West Africa. When you consider languages spoken in various African countries and across expanses of land, the notion of long-standing human mobility is affirmed. Take a moment and think about the various languages spoken on the African continent and their commonalities. Linguistic origin and patterns reflect movement of people. Bantu languages from Cameroon to South Africa. Berber languages from Ethiopia throughout the Horn of Africa.

The drivers and motivations for Africans migrating have been varied and nuanced over time, ranging from socioeconomic, to political, and at times even environmental. Some historical routes link major commercial activities, and markets – for example the oldest market in West Africa founded in the 15th century, Kurmi Market had routes attracting traders from as far as Sudan and Libya. Other routes were pathways for informal trade or forced migration channels.

Worryingly, today almost 80% of African migrations are economically or socially driven. The 2018 Ibrahim Index of African Governance, based on a decade of data, sounded the alarm bells on the dismal trajectories that Africa is confronted with in providing economic opportunities for a particularly bulging youthful population. Combined with worsening education outcomes for citizens and a shrinking civil society space – as the Index data shows – these factors often culminate in human capacity drain.

While migration is part of normal life and has been for centuries, it is high time we have a full and frank conversation about the challenges and opportunities of migration from and within the continent, and its key relationship with youth expectations, jobs and mobility. In the 21st century, we must gather together, discuss and look for ways to ensure Africa’s migrations are managed sustainably for the wealth and prosperity of its people and future. The upcoming Ibrahim Governance Weekend will provide a platform to hold this very important discussion.

The Foundation will hold its flagship annual event, the Ibrahim Governance Weekend (IGW) from 5-7 April 2019, in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire.

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