It should not be so startling to read an analysis of modern-day migration from Africa to Europe in which the experiences of African states and African citizens are centred at the expense of European perspectives. But this is a startling read. Smith’s book is built (carefully, diligently and intelligently) around the staggering demographics of the African continent: as populations rocket and cities mushroom, an earth-shaking youthquake becomes impossible to ignore.
In Lagos, ‘the unquestioned world citadel of youth’, around 60 per cent of inhabitants are under 15 years of age; across sub-Saharan Africa, the figure is about 40 per cent. As the ‘youth bulge’ builds in under-resourced and often chaotic communities, traditional models of seniority lose their appeal, and smartphones and satellite dishes feed an irresistible longing for escape – to the US, to China, or of course to Europe. Smith cites a 2016 poll which found that 42 per cent of African aged 15 to 24 wanted to emigrate. Senegalese youngsters, we are told, adopt the motto ‘Barcelona or death’ (‘Barcelona, with its dream football team, is shorthand for Europe’).
While wryly underplaying the precision of his many statistics (in African studies, ‘to use a decimal point is proof of a researcher’s naivety, if not incompetence’), Smith does flirt with a sort of demographic determinism; he qualifies the Comtean aphorism that ‘demography is destiny’, but nevertheless leans heavily on a numbers-driven analysis (whereby, for instance, public-sector corruption is seen as ‘informal taxation’, both inevitable and rational under conditions of population-driven undersupply).
Smith moves confidently through a range of possible futures for Africa and Europe, always well-informed and doggedly even-handed; though an insightful critic of Jeremiahs from Malthus to Robert Kaplan, he is sometimes overconfident in his own forecasts, which often come across as something more in the line of proofs or self-evident truths. He tries not to succumb to doom-saying (‘I find it hard to accept that [Africa] could become an abandoned hulk in the eyes of its teeming youth’), but this is not a book that glitters with undue optimism for ‘the Island-continent of Peter Pan’.
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