Posted on March 16, 2023

Anti-Black Racism Surfaces in an African Country. Critics Are Blaming the President for It

Larry Madowo, CNN, March 15, 2023

A viral video from late February showed a man decrying the incompatibility of Black African “values” with those of Tunisians. Asked by the interviewer if he had ever met any Africans, he retorted implying he knows them well “because my grandfather used to buy and sell them.”

The video has garnered more than 600,000 views on Twitter. It’s one of many circulating in Tunisia that has, in recent weeks, brought to the fore a racism problem in the country that has coincided with an influx of migrants from sub-Saharan Africa who use Tunisia as a transit point to Europe.

Some of the social media posts, shared in Arabic, English and French, have portrayed the migrants as invaders, criminals and rapists who seek to displace Tunisians. Many refer to the debunked but widely shared claim that there are 2 million sub-Saharan Africans in the country of 12 million.

The sudden rise in public expressions of racism occurred in the weeks after Tunisian President Kais Saied delivered a widely criticized tirade about undocumented migrants from sub-Saharan Africa. Tunisia, like other North African countries, is predominantly Arabic speaking.

On February 21, he described illegal border crossings from sub-Saharan Africa into Tunisia as a “criminal enterprise hatched at the beginning of this century to change the demographic composition of Tunisia” and called on security forces to expel undocumented migrants.

That caused fear and insecurity to ripple through migrant communities in the country, who say they have faced racist attacks, evictions, firings and dehumanizing treatment by the authorities. Many have camped outside the embassies of their countries or UN agencies seeking safety or flights back home. Sub-Saharan Africans make up less than 1% of Tunisia’s population.


Tunisia’s Foreign Minister Nabil Ammar scoffed at allegations of racism during an interview with CNN’s Becky Anderson on Monday, calling them a “bad joke” meant to serve people “with other agendas,” without elaborating.

“Of course, nothing (is) wrong,” he said, referring to Saied’s comments. {snip}


Henda Chennaoui, a coordinator at Tunisia’s Anti-Fascist Front, told CNN that Saied’s comments and racist social media posts caused a historic “shift” in the country’s discourse that would be hard to reverse. {snip}


Tunisia has long been a transit point for undocumented migrants trying to cross into Europe. The UN’s International Organization for Migration praised Tunisia’s efforts on migration in a statement to CNN, but said it was “very concerned about the latest rise in hate speeches, anti-migrant narratives and the surge in violence against migrants in the country.”


Condemnation of President Saied has been swift, including a rare rebuke from the African Union whose chairperson called the comments “racial” and “shocking.” The AU postponed a scheduled conference in Tunis to protest the president’s language.

The US State Department said that it was concerned about the Tunisian president’s rhetoric and arbitrary arrests of migrants in recent weeks. {snip}

Asked about reports that the World Bank is suspending talks with Tunisia following Saied’s comments, the Tunisian foreign minister said the lender had postponed the meeting “because it wanted to avoid … this discussion during this useless polemic, that’s all … the programs of the World Bank are still ongoing in Tunisia.”