In a first for an African country, during the last World Cup in Qatar (2022), Morocco qualified for the semi-finals. After the victory over Spain in the quarter-final, Moroccan player Sofiane Boufal was criticized by Africans for dedicating his country’s victory to Arabs, Muslims and Moroccans, without mentioning Africa or Africans. Although he apologized a few hours later in the face of widespread criticism, the controversy highlighted the problem of identity between Maghrebians and sub-Saharans. This article examines two pressing issues, racism and xenophobia directed against sub-Saharan Africans, as well as conflicts between some Maghreb countries.
The question of identity
The people of the Maghreb are often divided about their identity. Many of them consider themselves culturally more Arab than African. But these countries are by no means monocultural, as one might think, because amongst their population there are Berbers or Amazighs (40 percent of the population), Arabs, Jews, blacks and Moriscos.
In North Africa, the specific issue of sub-Saharans, particularly blacks, has often been evaded. Whether native or not, the everyday reality for a black person in the Maghreb is to be an object of disdain and discrimination. They are regularly perceived as belonging to an exogenous group, identifiable with supposedly distinct ethnic and sociocultural characteristics; simply put, they are stereotyped. It is evident that the problem of identity affects every nation on every continent, as history has shown.
With regard to Africa, a distinction must be made between national identity conflicts and regional or continent-wide conflicts. National religious identity conflicts are not properly the subject of this reflection; rather we are examining identity conflicts between North Africa and sub-Saharan Africa. Twentieth-century African history is a roll-call of painful and violent identity conflicts that have characterized and bedeviled many countries. In particular, exclusion and discrimination have led to conflicts with significant casualties. One illustration of this was the war in Liberia, which pitted the Krahn and Mandingo ethnic groups against the Gio and Mano. In much of West Africa (southern Algeria, northern Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso, Mauritania, and Western Sahara), Tuaregs and Moors have rebelled against central governments to defend their identity.
In Sudan, the conflict in Darfur also has identity implications: government authorities were accused of arming Arab militias, called “Janjaweeds,” to fight against the rebellion of the Fur, Masalit and Zaghawa ethnic groups, which they themselves could not suppress. Hence the ethnic cleansing by the Janjaweed militias. The external expansion of the conflict and the ethnicization of the political scene caused identity conflicts and led to fighting in Burundi and Rwanda as well. In the latter country, identity conflict combined with politics led to genocide in 1994.
Thus a real problem arises, nationally and internationally: how to live with each group’s cultural differences under the shadow of globalization. It is true that identity differences create antagonisms with the strengthening, in many cases, of nationalist sentiment, accompanied by a radicalization of differentiating factors. But globalization, rather than removing the barriers erected by different groups, leads them to close in on themselves in an attempt to “deny” the existence of others.
An identity based on race or skin color becomes even more unacceptable today, when the mixes created by displacements and marriages between people of different races or cultures transform or disrupt sociological, ethnographic and identity realities. In this context, it seems that opening up cultures to the reflexive consciousness of individuals should make it possible to ward off the dangers emerging from bigotry, as well as that of isolation.
Allowance should be made for the identity that results from the meeting of different cultures that understand each other in openness and interaction. Rather, the situation in the Maghreb, but also in other parts of Africa, should be geared toward a solution of coexistence that rejects memberships based on skin color, tribal origin or any other prejudice. Unfortunately, it is currently these divisive factors that dominate and determine the behavior of individuals in society. Among the most common evils are racism and nationalism.
Ordinary racism reigns supreme in most cases
In recent years, racism has been on the rise in North Africa. This resurgence makes it difficult to reconcile African and Arab identities. The roots of this are to be found in the Maghrebi conceptual and linguistic imagery, which pits “white” and “black” against each other. Indeed, modern Arabic language usage defines the white person as a “free being,” while the black person (oussif) is considered a “slave.” Tunisian President Kais Saied’s speech on February 21, 2023, during the meeting of the National Security Council, inflamed the situation in a part of Africa where sub-Saharans already complain of racism in several North African countries. In his speech, the president accused sub-Saharans of being part of the plot to change the demographic composition of North African lands whose culture is predominantly Arab-Muslim, while accusing them of being the source of violence, crime and unacceptable acts. These claims, called “hateful and discriminatory” by Amnesty International, have provoked a wave of attacks against black African migrants.
Sub-Saharan Africans were then attacked by armed mobs. Condemning these actions, the NGO Human Rights Watch argued that after fomenting violence against immigrants, President Saied has employed the most ineffective measures to try to end it. Human Rights Watch has called on Tunisian authorities to immediately halt the arrest of black African foreigners, examine cases one at a time to ensure due process for all those arrested, release those arbitrarily detained, promptly investigate and hold accountable those responsible for racist attacks and abuse.
Faced with this situation experienced by sub-Saharan Africans in Tunisia, some countries have been forced to evacuate their citizens. This was the case with Côte d’Ivoire and Guinea, which sent planes to return their citizens to safety at home.
For its part, the African Union strongly condemned President Saied’s “shocking statements” that go against the letter and spirit of that organization and its founding principles. The African Union called on member states to honor their obligations under international law and the relevant instruments of that organization, namely “to treat all migrants with dignity, wherever they come from, to refrain from hate speech of a racist nature that may harm people, and to prioritize their safety and fundamental rights.”
It is remarkable that Tunisia is now a country where immigrants are mistreated. In fact, on September 26, 2017, at the headquarters of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCHR), during the Council’s debate on racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance, the Tunisian authorities, on behalf of the entire African Continent, declared their concern about the recurring manifestations of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance in various parts of the world.
While the president’s February 21, 2023, speech triggered episodes of racist violence, the phenomenon of racism and xenophobia is not new in Africa. A survey conducted between late 2021 and spring 2022 by the Arab Opinion Barometer Research Network for BBC News Arabic found that discrimination and racism are a real problem in several Arab countries, particularly in North Africa. This survey found that in Tunisia, 80 percent of citizens (the highest percentage in the region) believe racial discrimination is a problem.
Recent events in Tunisia are reminiscent of what happened a few years ago in Libya, where the media publicized a phenomenon that was thought to have disappeared: the sale of human beings. Migrants from sub-Saharan Africa in transit through Libya on their way to Europe were being sold at auction, twice a month, for between 500 and 700 Libyan dinars (about 435 euros).
These migrants came mainly from Nigeria, Senegal and Gambia. On their way to northern Libya, they were at the mercy of armed groups and smuggling networks who used them as day laborers in the construction and agriculture sectors, or they were sexually exploited. The U.N., through the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, had described this situation as “modern slavery,” adding that it constituted an “outrage on the conscience of humanity.”
Tunisia is not the only country where sub-Saharan migrants are being attacked. The same goes for Algeria and Morocco. In Algeria, the media regularly criticize immigrants. In fact, local media has proved to be extremely dangerous. A few years ago, Algerian newspapers routinely attacked immigrants. Thus, for example, in 2014 the newspaper Echorouk pointed out on its front page the problems and diseases that people from sub-Saharan countries would transmit to Algeria. Another newspaper, Algérie News, attacked Nigerian nationals, who were accused of “invading” Algeria. Earlier, the daily Jazaïr News had published similar comments.
The involvement of social media has also increased racist comments in Algeria. It is no coincidence that in 2020 Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune, after noticing a resurgence of incitement to hatred and fitna (“discord”), particularly through social networks, instructed Prime Minister Abdelaziz Djerad to draft a bill criminalizing all forms of racism, regionalism and incitement to hatred. Recently, thousands of those described as “damned” are estimated to be at “Point Zero” in the Sahara. As of early January 2023, nearly 5,000 migrants have been turned away from Algeria back to Niger under an agreement concluded in 2014.
In Morocco, racial discrimination is part of the experience of sub-Saharan migrants. They often live in subhuman prison-like encampments. The NGO Human Rights Watch, in its 2022 report, highlighted the various excesses and human rights violations committed by the Kingdom of Morocco against refugees and asylum seekers. The country enforces a 2003 law with provisions that make it a crime to enter the Kingdom illegally, with no exception for refugees or asylum seekers.
Arrests of migrants and refugees increased in 2022. Some of these migrants and refugees have been sent to remote desert locations or brutally killed. Unfortunately, Morocco is a country where racism is rooted in history, according to some analysts who argue that Moroccan society is sadly divided along lines of color and race.
In addition, Muslims have also enslaved other Muslims. In 2019, the UN Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and intolerance, E. Tendayi Achiume, in a report to the Human Rights Council, argued that Morocco must implement a comprehensive plan to fulfill its obligations to eliminate discrimination and achieve racial equality.
The nationalist component at the heart of the conflict between Algeria and Morocco
In recent times, North Africa has not only been characterized by the problem of African identity and racism, but is also torn apart by conflicts based on nationalist issues. In addition to the internal conflict in Libya, there is the tension between Algeria and Morocco. One of the shared experiences of these two countries is having suffered French domination: Algeria was a colony for 130 years and Morocco a protectorate for 50 years. They are thus, in a sense, two “knife brothers” who look at each other askance, in a competition for power and influence marked by tension. They have maintained a hostile attitude to each other for many years.
After several months of bickering, the rivalry between Algeria and Morocco escalated, leading, on August 21, 2021, to the breakdown of diplomatic relations. The crisis began with a note circulated by Morocco’s ambassador to the United Nations during a meeting of nonaligned countries held in New York. This note stated that “the valiant Kabyle people deserve, more than any other, to fully enjoy their right to self-determination.” Any reference to the self-determination of the Kabyle people is a provocation and an attempt to divide Algeria.
Algeria therefore sees Morocco’s attitude as support for sedition within a sovereign state and an attack on its national unity. At the same time, for Algeria the Moroccan government’s action was an attempt to divert the attention of the international community from the problem of self-determination of the people of Western Sahara. For Morocco, the Moroccan identity of Western Sahara (which, according to the Moroccan government, is an integral part of the country’s identity) is intrinsic to the country’s identity and not open to discussion. The two countries have provoked each other through the issues of the self-determination of Kabylia in Algeria and Western Sahara in Morocco.
Not only have diplomatic relations been severed, but Algeria announced, on September 22, 2021, the closure of its airspace to all Moroccan civil and military aircraft and all aircraft registered in Morocco. According to Pierre Vermeren, the immediate causes for the escalation of tensions between Algeria and Morocco were the signing in 2020 of the Abraham Agreements. These multilateral Agreements, signed by Morocco, the United States, Israel and the Gulf monarchies, represent an explicit recognition by the United States and others of the Moroccan identity of the Sahara.
The Algerian government has undoubtedly had difficulties accepting such Agreements. It is like a declaration of war, because its “enemy brother,” Morocco, has gained many points at the diplomatic level. In addition, the Pegasus affair, in which it was revealed that many Algerian telephones had been spied on by Morocco using Israeli technology, angered the Algerian authorities.
There is no sign of lasting rapprochement between the two countries, whose interests diverge. U.S. support for Morocco on the Western Sahara issue and France’s delicate position in the dispute between its “former colonies” are factors hampering the resolution of the dispute between Algeria and Morocco. In fact, France is already at loggerheads with Algeria on several issues. First, on the question of immigration. On September 28, 2021, the French government announced its intention to reduce the visas granted to Algerians by 50 percent, due to the low readmission rate of Algerian nationals in an irregular situation. Moreover, the most sensitive issue for France today concerns Algeria’s role in Mali. Since France has withdrawn its forces from this country, Algeria now seeks to play a key role there. Together with France and the United States, it is pressuring Malian leaders to comply with the demands of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) on the issue of a quick return of power to a civilian government.
In addition to the Algeria-Morocco bilateral framework, the conflict between the two countries also undermines diplomatic relations in the Maghreb. In August 2022, for example, Morocco recalled its ambassador in Tunisia for consultations after President Kais Saied received Polisario Front leader Brahim Ghali at a Japan-Africa economic summit. Morocco saw in this gesture Tunisia’s affiliation with the pro-Algerian camp.
The conflict between Algeria and Morocco particularly impacts the European economy because the Maghreb-Europe Gas Pipeline (MEG), which connects Algeria and Spain, passes through Morocco. Moreover, Algeria is taking advantage of its status as a gas exporter to Europe to gain credit in its long-distance diplomatic duel with Morocco. This might suggest that the European Union has an interest in seeking an agreement, even a partial one, between Algeria and Morocco. But would mediation be possible, given the level of antagonism between the two countries? Answering this question would already imply a solution can be found, and that is by no means a given.
It is clear that identity crises, racism, xenophobia and conflicts always characterize human society. However, they can be addressed or mitigated, if one does not want to remain confined to tribalism or “tribalization,” regionalization and nationalism, in which each group closes in on itself in an egotism that, instead of ennobling it, isolates, limits and potentially destroys it.
In the specific cases analyzed in this article, we are faced with a responsibility that summons us to the court of reason, inviting us to find appropriate solutions to overcome the mentality of exclusion and conflict in a world that has become increasingly interconnected. Identity conflicts, regionalism and nationalism have always been multidimensional. They have consequences and present challenges that do not foster development; on the contrary, they generate disputes, antagonism and hatreds that in the long run lead to destructive wars.
It is therefore necessary to put in place a plan, or rather, mechanisms that remove from our societies and countries the causes that drive the rejection of the other, be it through racism, xenophobia, self-centeredness or conflict. If the culture of peace and harmony is to be promoted, there is no other solution than to opt for overcoming that which can prevent the peaceful coexistence of peoples with different horizons.
. See “Racisme anti-noir: ‘Comment le Maghreb en est-il venu à rejeter son africanité?’” in Le Monde (https://tinyurl.com/bdfn6m7e), February 24, 2019.
. Cf. A.-D. N’dimina-Mougala, “Les conflits identitaires ou ethnopolitiques africains au XXe siècle: caractéristiques et manifestations”, in Guerres mondiales et conflits contemporains, no. 248, 2012/4, 97-119.
. Cf. D. Ngono Lekoa, La vision postcoloniale de l’identité africaine, Paris, Les Éditions du Net, 2022.
. Cf. G. Rossatanga-Rignault – F. Enoungoué, L’Afrique existe-t-elle? À propos d’un malentendu persistant sur l’identité, Chennevières-sur-Marne, Dianoïa, 2006.
. Cf. G. Vinsonneau, L’identité culturelle, Paris, Armand Colin, 2002.
. See, in this regard, an interesting article by C. Sadai, “Racisme anti-Noirs au Maghreb: dévoilement(s) d’un tabou”, in Hérodote, no. 180, 2021/1, 131-148.
. Cf. G. Sale, “The Tunisia of Kais Saied”, in Civ. Catt. English Edition, April 2023.
. It should be pointed out that 10 to 15 percent of Tunisians are black Tunisians, among whom there are descendants of slaves. In Djerba they are still termed “freed slave” (atig) on their birth certificates. For Stéphanie Pouessel, author in 2012 of Noirs au Maghreb. Enjeux identitaires, racism against black Tunisians is an even greater taboo than racism against blacks from abroad. Cf. C. Sadai, “Racisme anti-Noirs au Maghreb: dévoilement(s) d’un tabou”, op. cit.
. Cf. A. Versi, “Le président tunisien Kaïs Saïed suscite l’indignation”, in New African Magazine de l’Afrique (https://tinyurl.com/2p8xwb4x), March 4, 2023.
. Cf. “Tunisie. Le discours raciste du président déclenche une vague de violence contre les Africain-e-s Noirs”, in Amnesty International (https://tinyurl.com/y4bzhfwh), March 10, 2023. President Kais Saied, the article says, declared that “hordes of illegal immigrants from sub-Saharan Africa” have overwhelmed Tunisia and are the source of “violence, crimes and unacceptable acts.” He added that this is an “anomalous” situation, part of a criminal plan to “change the demographic composition of Tunisia” and turn it “into an African state, which no longer belongs to the Arab-Islamic world.”
. Cf. “Tunisie: La violence raciste cible les migrants et réfugiés noirs”, in HRW (https://tinyurl.com/jcuz64tb), March 10, 2023. According to this NGO, “since the beginning of February, Tunisian police have made arrests, apparently targeting black African foreigners based on their appearance or the neighborhoods in which they live. According to the Tunisian branch of Avocats sans frontières, at least 850 people have reportedly been arrested without distinction, apparently on the basis of their appearance.”
. Cf. “Le Président de la Commission de l’Union Africaine condamne fermement les déclarations raciales sur des compatriotes Africains en Tunisie”, in African Union (https://tinyurl.com/2r7encwd), February 24, 2023.
. Cf. “Le Conseil débat du racisme, de la discrimination raciale, de la xénophobie et de l’intolérance qui y est associée”, in UNHCHR (https://tinyurl.com/3at4eyxt), September 26, 2017.
. Cf. “Libye: des migrants vendus aux enchères comme esclaves”, in Le Monde (https://tinyurl.com/yef7bbb3), November 15, 2017.
. Cfr “Algérie: vague de racisme sans précédent dans les médias”, in Terre d’asile Tunisie (https://tinyurl.com/rmthhn94), May 14, 2014.
. Cf. A. Meddi, “Algérie: régionalisme, haine, racisme dans le collimateur de l’exécutif”, in Le Point (https://tinyurl.com/2s46vucf), January 22, 2020.
. Cf. P. Lambruschi, “Tunisia. Migliaia abbandonati nel deserto del Niger. Piano Ue contro i trafficanti”, in Avvenire (https://tinyurl.com/33sahj6d), March 18, 2023.
. Cf. “Maroc: racisme, violence et insalubrité, l’insoutenable quotidien des migrants subsahariens”, in Algérie Presse Service (https://tinyurl.com/2a6wbbbk), January 18, 2023.
. Cf. “Racisme anti-Noirs au Maroc: ‘Le Coran ne soutient pas la pratique de l’esclavage mais son abolition’”, in Le Monde (https://tinyurl.com/4vamf2r2), July 28, 2019. This article highlights the work of Chouki El Hamel, a professor at the University of Arizona, whose book Le Maroc noir, une histoire de l’esclavage, de la race et de l’Islam was published by La Croisée de Chemins. The book “exhumes Morocco’s slave past and deconstructs stereotypes about Blacks to analyze the racism still prevalent in Cherifa’s kingdom.”
. Cf. “Maroc: une experte de l’ONU appelle à agir pour lutter contre la discrimination raciale”, in UN.ORG (https://news.un.org/fr/story/2019/07/1047031), July 8, 2019.
. This people began with language claims, then claimed autonomy, before arriving at plans for self-determination, advocating on this issue the organization of a referendum in Kabylia that would include independence as an option.
. Cf. J.-N. Ferrie, “Que se passe-t-il entre le Maroc et l’Algérie?”, in Telos (https://tinyurl.com/2p86txpz), December 15, 2022.
. Professor of Contemporary Maghreb History at the University of Paris.
. Cf. C. Cabot, “Avec la rupture des relations entre l’Algérie et le Maroc, le Maghreb durablement fracturé”, in France24 (https://tinyurl.com/ycyavjzn), September 25, 2023.
. Cfr Á. Escalonilla, “L’Algérie et le Mali renforcent leur coopération militaire pour contenir l’avancée des djihadistes au Sahel”, in Atalayar (https://tinyurl.com/yck9hy3j), January 18, 2023.
. Cf. Le Monde – AFP, “Mali: la France, les États-Unis et l’Algérie font pression sur la junte militaire pour un retour rapide des civils au pouvoir”, in Le Monde (https://tinyurl.com/wbbh79xk), January 12, 2022.
. Cf. Id., “Sahara occidental: entre le Maroc et l’Algérie, la guerre diplomatique fait rage”, in Le Monde (https://tinyurl.com/3pdpzdzs), September 6, 2022.