The death last Friday of Robert Mugabe, the big man of Zimbabwe from 1980 to 2017, is a reminder of the paradox that Africa, the most youthful continent, tends to be ruled by the old.
When Mugabe was finally overthrown two years ago at age 93, he was 75 years older than the median Zimbabwean, who is 18.
Grotesque as he was, Mugabe was not an anomaly: Broadly speaking, sub-Saharan Africa tends toward gerontocratic cultures in which men are deemed to deserve to accumulate power, money, and wives by outliving their rivals.
It’s no continent for young men.
Why Africa is so biased against the young is uncertain. One theory is that in a region besieged by diseases such as malaria, the sexiest attribute in a husband is a strong immune system, which is most convincingly demonstrated by not dying.
In any case, this leaves Africa an unappealing place for young men, of which, however, the continent is lavishly supplied.
Not surprisingly, African young men sometimes run amok, such as the Boko Haram militia in the Sahel that kidnaps schoolgirls.
Increasingly, the young men of Africa are leaving for Europe and North America.
And, as professor Stephen Smith of Duke’s African Studies department notes in his important book The Scramble for Europe: Young Africa on Its Way to the Old Continent, now available in English after causing a sensation in France, there are vastly more who will depart for the First World in the future as the African masses modernize enough to contemplate immigrating:
Young Africans will rush towards the Old Continent in an inversion of Europe’s “Scramble for Africa” at the end of the nineteenth century.
Granted, nobody knows for sure how many people there are in Africa today, much less how many there will be in 2050 or 2100. When it comes to Africa’s population, Smith, who had previously served as a foreign correspondent in Africa for French newspapers like Le Monde, warns:
…to ground arguments on statistics looks like a fool’s errand. To use a decimal point is proof of a researcher’s naivety, if not incompetence.
African governments are not terribly careful about collecting vital statistics and even if they were, politics would get in the way of publishing objective censuses.
Still, it is quite certain that the population of sub-Saharan Africa is growing much faster than that of any other large region on earth.
The United Nation’s Population Division estimated this year that when Mugabe took power in 1980, there were 370 million people in sub-Saharan Africa and only about 7 million in Zimbabwe, a country almost as large as California. (Please note that I certainly don’t swear by the accuracy of the U.N.’s population guesstimates, but they appear to be the best we have.)
During the first two decades of Mugabe’s rule, Zimbabwe’s highly productive white farmers were largely left unmolested. Zimbabwe, like most of black Africa, was not terribly subject to Malthusian pressures, and when Mugabe came to power there was still a fair amount of unused farmland with which he could reward his supporters.
But by 2000, black Africa was up to 640 million people. Zimbabwe’s population, even with the AIDS epidemic that centered in southeast Africa due to the local “dry sex” fetish, had grown by 60 percent to 11 million.
That year, Mugabe, then 76, initiated his tragic-comic policy of encouraging his supporters to violently expropriate white-owned farms. Smith notes the geriatric
…Mugabe was able to mobilize young people equally as well as, if not better than, the opposition because he had something to offer them, even if it was something in the short run—enrollment in the National Youth Service as a “green bomber,” license to invade a white-owned farm, or to loot international food aid. But the short term is the best you can hope for south of the Sahara….
Economically, this was not a success: By 2009 Mugabe’s government was printing 100 trillion Zimbabwean dollar bills. Politically, however, it was a triumph: He extended his reign seventeen more years.
Today, even with a huge outflow of illegal immigrants to neighboring South Africa, where local blacks have been rioting against the newcomers, Zimbabwe’s population is up to 15 million. (Boer refugee Neill Blomkamp’s 2009 sci-fi hit movie District 9 is an ironic Malthusian allegory about Zimbabwean illegal aliens in Johannesburg.)
Sub-Saharan Africa as a whole has reached 1,066,000,000 people according to the United Nations, almost triple the population in 1980. The U.N. forecasts today’s vast throng will double again to 2,118,000,000 by 2050 and reach 3,775,000,000 by 2100. (Here’s my graph of the U.N.’s data.)
These forecasts are by no means inevitable. Many Third World countries, including black ones in the New World, have succeeded in lowering their fertility. As Smith points out:
National campaigns to promote birth control, as in Bangladesh (“A small family is a happy family”) or Jamaica (“Two is better than too many”), have barely been tried in any country south of the Sahara.
Black Africa tends toward fertility cults for reasons of ecological and evolutionary history. But with enough encouragement from the outside world it ought to be able to shed its outmoded customs. But will whites dare suggest that it wouldn’t be good for blacks to dominate the human race numerically in the 22nd century?
Nor is it inconceivable that Africa could increase its food output. A 2010 McKinsey report found that Africa had 600 million hectares of uncultivated arable land, 60 percent of the world’s unused farmland.
But how are you going to keep them down on the farm after they’ve seen Paris on their cousin’s Facebook account? (According to Smith, Africans now spend 10 percent of their income on phones.)
We are often lectured that migrants are only on the move because they are fleeing violence at home. But consider Ghana, which has been a stable democracy with lawful transitions from one elected president to the next in recent decades. Most Ghanians alive today have lived only in a country at peace. In this century, it is usually rated as the best-run country in West Africa.
Yet. Seventy-five percent of the 30 million Ghanians say they’d emigrate if they could.
Smith expects at least 100 million Africans to try to arrive in Europe by the middle decades of the 21st century. As an analogy, he points to the huge influx from Mexico to the United States that took off in the 1970s once Mexicans achieved enough prosperity to afford to move. The Hispanic population of the U.S. ballooned from 9 million in 1970 to 60 million today.
Of course, Africans on average are much poorer than Mexicans or even Guatemalans. On the other hand, they are vastly more numerous.
Whether 100 million Africans showing up in Europe would be a good thing or a bad thing is not the subject of The Scramble for Europe:
I want to “de-moralize” the debate on African immigration.
Instead, Smith wants to provides facts and perspectives so that the citizens of European countries can have informed debates about the optimal policies:
The rules ought to be in the best—not the basest or the most self-sacrificing—interests of its citizenry.
Of course, Smith’s “citizenist” principles, while perfectly reasonable (if I say so myself), are not likely to keep him from being condemned as a racist. To assert that European citizens deserve a say in the fate of their countries is increasingly seen as intolerably intolerant.
Obviously, the African population explosion is one of the biggest stories of the 21st century. But it has barely been written about until very recently. Smith observes that the reading list for grad students in Africa areas studies at Johns Hopkins, where he taught from 2007 to 2013, lists 212 works on the African economy but only two on African demography.
The imbalance in the levels of attention paid to climate change versus African demographics as potential destabilizing disasters is striking. This is especially strange because the region of Africa that would be most damaged by even hotter temperatures, the Sahel on the southern edge of the Sahara, also has the world’s highest fertility.
Smith emphasizes that African immigrants aren’t motivated solely by dire need—most of the migrants are from the upper-income ranges and can set aside thousands of dollars to finance a trip.
Few are refugees in the sense of fleeing for their lives. Even calling them economic migrants misses the point that to young African men, migration isn’t a job, it’s an adventure. They go because they want to:
“Adventure” is the password of migration…. Like war, migration is both frightening and exhilirating….
To the young men of Africa, crossing the Mediterranean is an exciting trial of their manhood that transforms them into heroes in their own version of Jason and the Argonauts.
Smith doesn’t mention it, but heroes traditionally expect their rewards from the womenfolk on the far side of the ordeal.
The Scramble for Europe concludes with Smith diffidently arguing:
The second scenario, “Fortress Europe,” is already familiar, and even notorious in the eyes of many for being a losing battle fought for a shameful cause. Yet, if one stops to consider the facts, there is a case to be made for it, and perhaps it has a reasonable chance of success.
Continental self-defense is such a crazy idea that it just might work.
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