Mayotte rejects Africa

2009-04-06 00:00

On March 29, the 180 000 people of the island of Mayotte decided that they would like to become the 101st department of France. They live on a tropical island in the Indian Ocean, they are almost all Sunni Muslims, and their cultural heritage is overwhelmingly African and Arab. They could have become independent just by ticking the right box — but they voted instead to become fully, irrevocably French. Why?

Sure, it’s the money. Per capita income on Mayotte is $2 600, compared to $1 142 in the other Comoro islands (the other three islands of the group declared independence from France in 1975), and even less in Madagascar, Mayotte’s giant neighbour on the other side. But why does being ruled by France make Mayotte richer?

There hasn’t been much by the way of subsidies from France over the years, and even after Mayotte becomes a full-fledged department the money is not going to flood in. The population will have to give up local customs like Islamic courts, polygamy and child marriages right away to conform to the French legal code, but they will only gradually gain access to French social benefits over the next twenty-five years.

Nor has Mayotte a very advanced economy. Most of the population works in agriculture, and there’s no big export crop. Somehow or other, just making sure that all the children are in school, and that everybody has enough to eat, and that there is a reasonable degree of public security and official honesty, produces a much better economic outcome. Is that enough to make a large majority of them decide to be French? Apparently so. This is not about how wonderful France is. It’s about how awful Africa is for most of the people who live there. So awful that most other people in the continent would, like the citizens of Mayotte, vote to be French if they were given the choice. Or Hungarian or South Korean, for that matter.

You’re not supposed to say this, but it’s the most obvious thing about Africa. There are oases of hope here and there — most other Africans would also vote to join South Africa, for example — but most countries in the continent are broken. Consider what the people of Mayotte see when they look at their neighbours.

South of them is Madagascar, where the latest coup took place just two weeks ago. It has been lucky as African countries go: no civil wars, and none of its dictators were monsters. But are its people any better off economically than they were when Madagascar got its independence from France 49 years ago? Not much.

Madagascar’s economy has grown since independence, but average income barely kept up with population growth for the first forty years. There was then a 20% rise in average income over the past decade, but the present and prospective political upheavals will probably cancel that out. As for democracy, it comes and it goes, but mostly it’s gone.

Mayotte’s other neighbour, the Union of the Comoros, has had 20 military coups in its 34 years of independence, some of them carried out by foreign mercenaries (mostly French) who were hired by the various local rivals for power. Two of the three islands even seceded in 1997 in an attempt to put themselves back under French rule, but France refused to take them on and the revolts were bloodily suppressed. Population growth is high, and per capita income has been falling for decades.

On the whole, you would not choose to be born in the Union of the Comoros. Indeed, almost one-third of Mayotte’s population is made up of people from the other islands who have moved there to place themselves back under colonial oppression.

So now Mayotte will become an integral part of France, and in another generation or two it’s likely that most people there will speak nothing but French.

Becoming an overseas department of France is not a “happy ever after” ending. Martinique and Guadeloupe in the Caribbean and Reunion in the Indian Ocean, other islands with the same status that Mayotte seeks, have all seen major social unrest, mainly because of the huge income differences between local white minorities and the rest of the population. But most Africans would still choose these problems over those that they have now.

There will be a great outburst of indignation and much anti-imperialist bluster by the representatives of Africa’s ruling elites asMayotte’s voters make their choice. But not one of those privileged people would be willing to live as an ordinary citizen of the Union of the Comoros, which is the only practical alternative available to the residents of Mayotte. And most of their own fellow citizens at home would make the same choice as the voters of Mayotte if it were offered to them.

You can discuss it and analyse it as much as you like. You can hypothesise causes and postulate solutions. But half a century after the first great wave of decolonisation gave most Africans back their independence, this is the bitter truth about the continent.

• Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.

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