Sunday October 9th was Uganda’s Independence Day, and this year’s was an especially joyous occasion as the country was marking the 60th anniversary since it gained freedom from British rule. It was also a reminder that independence is yet to be meaningfully felt in the lives ordinary Africans, Ugandans included, who 60 years later are still subjected to modern day slavery in the hands of criminal networks and individuals.
Certainly, I don’t in any way intend to minimize the slave trade involving tens of millions of Africans forcefully taken to undertake free labor in the Americas. Nothing today compares to the crimes against humanity committed during European expansions. Modern day slavery, in this context, describes attempts in the Middle East to emulate some of the worst practices of that period. Indeed, what is happening in the Middle East demands that something is done to save African youth.
For some 308 Ugandan youths, mostly girls, Sunday was greater than a national calendar occasion for they also regained their freedom from captivity as Uganda’s security forces raided a ‘hotel’ upcountry where they were being inducted into ‘service abroad’ by a labour export company.
That same weekend in Kenya, the public were sharing an incredulous video of a girl breastfeeding a set of puppies, somewhere in the Middle East. In the video, she pleads clearly in Swahili to be rescued, for she had gone there to work as a maid, not to breastfeed dogs. Kenyan trade unionists are now demanding that the new government of President William Ruto bans labour export.
Back in Uganda, the internal affairs minister, Maj Gen Kahinda Otafiire recently sounded a chilling alarm that not all the thousands of young Ugandans exported to the Middle East to do domestic work live to do that, for some are instead used as crocodile feed on crocodile farms in South East Asia. This is of course after their internal organs have been harvested to supply the lucrative medical tourism industry in that part of the globe. This was a security minister talking, not some random fellow on the street.
In hindsight, the Minister’s warning gives more insights into why young people exported to work in the Middle East are subjected to the most rigorous medical laboratory tests and scans to ensure they are in total health before they can be exported. The examinations, besides checking for infections and defects, also include confirmation that the internal organs are in good shape and intact. The labour export companies say it is a requirement for insurance purposes. Now that most of the young East Africans who die out there and are lucky to have their bodies returned turn out to be badly disfigured, one wonders how kids who were in tip top condition months earlier can end up like that. The story of one migrant worker, Judith Nakintu, who returned alive, minus a kidney – a fact confirmed by the country’s top medical facility of Mulago in Kampala – has been extensively covered by the Ugandan media. Nakintu’s health is rapidly deteriorating and her family has rejected a cash compensation offer offered by her former employer in the Middle East, who claimed she had been injured in an accident.
In the same week of October 9th, an audio of a victim saying she was in the Middle East, circulated as the distressed Ugandan girl pleaded for rescue from a hospital where she had been taken while in perfect health and was being prepared for an organ harvesting operation.
The paradox is that however much young East Africans are warned about the dangers of being ‘labour-exported’, they still strive to beat the system and go. If they are blocked from boarding the plane at their country’s international airport after failing to answer questions about their trip, they sneak across borders and go to board from another country – obviously facilitated by the well-connected labour exporters.
At this rate, East African parents may have to do what West African parents were doing a two hundred plus years ago – cutting the faces of their teenage children to make them undesirable to the slave traders. That, according to some old writings, explains why some communities make “tribal” marks on the faces. For the slavers wanted only the healthiest to go and slave on the plantations. East African parents may have to devise ways of making the youth fail the medical tests that qualify one to be ‘labour –exported’ however desperately they want to, owing the unemployment in their countries. But why let the parents resort to such desperate measures when there is a better way to keep East African youth at home, safely and happily.
What East Africa, and Africa at large, can do for its children to grow and its youth to mature in dignity was captured well in the launch of the Global Africa Business Initiative –GABI during the September 77th United Nations General Assembly. UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres noted that Africa’s young population represents a dynamic workforce and a massive market. The Secretary General observed that with its massive natural resources, the renewable/clean energy sector alone can create six million new jobs in Africa by 2050.
The Secretary General of the Africa Continental Free Trade Area, Wamkele Mene was of the same view, putting it across even more strongly that Africa needs to unlock its resources now or it will be too late if the process is delayed.
Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame said unleashing the potential of the young people through enterprise to create jobs using the power of innovation, creativity and technology will make Africa unstoppable.
Many of the one hundred or so of the world leaders who participated in the GABI launch agreed that focusing on the youth to unlock Africa’s potential was the way forward. It is therefore really unacceptable that the youth, on whom Africa’s future prosperity depends are left to be decimated in other lands or to drown in seas as the recent deadly attempts to cross the Mediterranean have shown. The seven-member East African Community which sits smack in the middle of Africa, touched the Atlantic and Indian oceans and has all the strategic minerals that the new world of clean energy badly needs, has no excuse for letting its youth population go get literally wasted in the Middle East and other parts of the world.
There is enough for the youth of Africa to do profitably, in the large, continental market. If they are not “unleashed” then the Independence days we celebrate so pompously will remain largely irrelevant.