From hair brained schemes to cross-promotion to mass protests, Africans are responding in a myriad of ways to the Rohingya crisis.
The plight of Myanmar’s Rohingya people - a persecuted Muslim minority - has continued to occupy a hybrid position in the international media. While simmering for years, the crisis has elicited regular articles condemning the actions of the Burmese government, but with little effect on the situation in the country. The ascension of Nobel Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi to power in 2015 has not led to an improvement in the conditions of the Rohingya. Indeed, the level of government repression has increased, sparking a refugee and humanitarian crisis in recent years.
In 2017, the fitful coverage of the Rohingya issue has grown to increasingly become top of mind for many, as the crisis becomes internationalized. While critics in the West are well represented in the media discourse, the reaction from Africa has been just as impassioned and even more varied.
Morocco has sent humanitarian relief to Myanmar’s Rohingya and on September 13th, Egypt called for an emergency session of the United Nations Security Council to address the Rohingya crisis. Alongside the uniform calls from Muslim majority North African countries to protect fellow Muslims in Myanmar, the response from sub-Saharan Africa has been more multifaceted, providing unique insights into the region’s complexity.
Gambia: Thanks, but no thanks
One of the most bizarre responses to the Rohingya crisis came from the tiny nation of Gambia. One of the earliest and ostensibly concrete responses from the wider international community came in 2015 from Gambia’s (then leader) Yahya Jammeh, who offered to accept all Rohingya fleeing persecution. Unfortunately for the Rohingya people, this offer amounted to nothing more than a cynical antic by Jammeh to distract from Gambia’s own dismal human rights record.
As mainland Africa’s smallest nation, the Gambia’s entire population (1.8 million) is almost equivalent to the that of the Rohingya population in Myanmar. Aside from the difficulties in suddenly dealing with double the population, Gambia’s offer was also entirely reliant on external logistical and material support. It is therefore fairly obvious that this offer was never meant to be a serious one.
Instead, Jammeh used the plight of the Rohingya to score some easy points with the international community. By hijacking the media attention surrounding the Rohingya issue, Jammeh was able to plaster the news with good press about himself and Gambia - both of whom most news readers had never heard of.
This move in turn worked to distract the international media from Yammeh’s oppression of his own people, which in turn was fuelling another refugee crisis in the Mediterranean. Already home to some 10,000 refugees from the low-level conflict in Senegal’s Casamance region, tiny Gambia was also the 3rd largest source nation for African boat people entering Italy, with some 8,000 arriving in 2014. In the first two months of 2015 alone, the number of Gambians entering Italy reached 2,100.
Yammeh’s media stunts did him little good in the end as he was defeated in the December 2016 presidential election. After refusing to accept the results, Yammeh triggered a constitutional crisis which led to a military intervention by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). In an ironic twist of fate, the man who offered to accept the displaced Rohingya has himself been displaced in turn, and currently resides in exile in Equatorial Guinea.
The Igbo: Nigeria's Rohingya?
The reaction from Nigeria to the Rohingya crisis has some parallels to Gambia’s. Firstly, both the Gambia and Nigeria share a concern for the Rohingya on a religious level - the former being 96% Muslim, while the latter is the most populous Muslim nation in sub-Saharan Africa. Consequently, Myanmar has received condemnation from the Nigeria Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs (NSCIA). Specifically, the organization noted that it is "perplexed that such crimes against humanity are taking place at a time when a supposedly Nobel Peace Laureate [...] is at the helm of affairs in Myanmar [sic].”
Furthermore, while Yammeh sought to use the Rohingya crisis as a means to bolster his own public image, so too are groups in Nigeria seeking to utilize the level of international attention focused on the Rohingya issue to advocate for their own causes. For instance, the Human Rights Writers Association of Nigeria (HURIWA) is seeking to highlight the parallels between the treatment of the Rohingya and minorities in Nigeria. Specifically, HURIWA is calling out Nigeria’s leader - President Muhammadu Buhari - for his administration’s treatment of the Igbo people.
HURIWA has called on the UN and African Union to recognize that “President Buhari is treating [...] Igbo-speaking people just like the Rohingya tribal people of Burma (Myanmar) through a well-coordinated deprivation and denial of [their] constitutionally guaranteed freedoms.”
The Igbo represent one of the largest ethnic groups in Nigeria, and the Rohingya one of the smallest in Myanmar, so the analogy is not perfect; however, in a country of 185 million, Nigeria's 33 million Igbo are a minority when compared to the total population - albeit a ‘minority’ in a patchwork plurality.
That being said, the strong sense of Igbo identity, coupled with the continuing legacy of the Biafra War (in which Igbo territories attempted to succeed from Nigeria) makes the Igbo feel like outsiders. This coupled with allegations of systematic discrimination and disenfranchisement has made the Rohingya analogy an appealing one to groups like HURIWA.
South Africans take to the streets
References to the experiences of African peoples has coloured the responses from countries like Nigeria, as well as South Africa. Memories of institutional discrimination in South Africa led thousands to protest last week in Pretoria and Cape Town against the treatment of the Rohingya. Speaking on the Rohingya issue, former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navanethem Pillay stated in an interview that “they are treated much worse that we people of colour were treated during Apartheid.”
Similarly, last week protesters in Ghana sought to deliver a petition to the Israeli embassy demanding that Israel stop selling weapons to Myanmar. Speaking on their protest efforts at the Israeli embassy, one of the coordinators for Ghana’s Freedom and Justice Group - Irbard Ibrahim noted that “the world cannot afford another Holocaust and what is happening now is the vile murder of a persecuted minority group.”
Protests in South Africa - Onlinemagazin (@OnlineMagazin) Sept. 15th, 2017
South Africa’s tiny Muslim minority was joined in protest by various other faith-based groups, with protests organized by the Muslim Judicial Council and various community groups. The fact that the Rohingya face persecution on religious as well as ethnic grounds animates many fellow Muslims in Africa to protest on their behalf. Even so, protests in South Africa have reached a wider audience than an appeal based solely on religious fellow-feeling would otherwise achieve.
Shared experiences of oppression during Apartheid, as well as strong interfaith links have bolstered support for the protests from the wider South African community. Speaking on this dynamic, protestor Yusuf Trichardt argued that “we need the South African government to step in and help our sisters and brothers by getting the message to the United Nations [...] That’s why we’ve mobilized together as South Africans, not just as Muslims, to let the world know we are against these killings.”
South African protesters have also been bolstered by Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s harsh criticism of Myanmar and Aung San Suu Kyi for her inaction. In May 2015 Tutu referred to the violence faced by the Rohingya as “nothing less than genocide.” A respected figure and himself a Nobel Peace Prize winner, Tutu recently broke his vow of silence on public affairs to write an open letter to Aung San Suu Kyi. In his letter Tutu laments that “my dear sister: if the political price of your ascension to the highest office of Myanmar is your silence, the price is surely too steep.”
Jeremy Luedi is the editor of Asia by Africa. His writing has been featured in Business Insider, The Japan Times, The Diplomat, FACTA Magazine, Yahoo Finance, Asia Times. His insights have also been quoted by TIME, OZY, and the Washington Times, among others.