Perceived as a privileged community under Ben Ali, Sub-Saharans say a recent spike in assaults has left them vulnerable
TUNIS - In early November, the badly bruised face of a Cameroonian university student made waves in Tunisia. Walking through Tunis' El Aouina neighbourhood, the 23-year-old law student was allegedly violently assaulted by four Tunisian men.
Days earlier, a group of Tunisians had assaulted a Congolese student in the same neighbourhood.
While the attacks in Tunis provoked outrage on social media, Sub-Saharan students and activists say they represent a wider challenge faced by their community, a phenomenon tied up in their relationship with Tunisia's deposed leader, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.
While Ben Ali's fall in 2011 led to the creation of a new Tunisian constitution lauded as one of the most progressive in the region, Sub-Saharan students and activists say the country's laws still leave them vulnerable at a time when their community, perceived as privileged under the dictator, has seen a spike in violence against it.
“We are a lot more anxious now,” Hubert Ondo, project manager with the Association of African Students and Interns in Tunisia (AESAT), established in 1993 to advocate on behalf of Tunisia’s Sub-Saharan community and promote Sub-Saharan culture. “Under Ben Ali, people were too scared to attack foreigners. And if they had, the police would have responded. Now, we don’t know whether there will be an investigation.”
Lawmakers say they are aware of the problems but are struggling against both the workload of a country in transition and a culture that won't change overnight.
“We are in the midst of re-making the institutions of the republic. Parliament is working around the clock, and hundreds of laws are pending," said Youssef Tlili, a member of Nidaa Tounes, the political party of President Baji Caid Essebsi.
Tlili said politicians are working “to accelerate the process of finding solutions to the problem of racism, a disease that plagues all societies," but cautions that it will take more than laws.
“If we passed an anti-racism law today, what would that change?" Tlili said. "We need to change the mentality."
'Friend of the community'?
Just months before the double attacks in El Aouina, violence had erupted across the country after Tunisia’s loss to Equatorial Guinea in the Africa Cup of Nations. After the match, in Tunis neighbourhoods including El Nasr and Ariana and other cities such as Sfax, mobs of Tunisian fans attacked Sub-Saharans, as well as other Tunisians attempting to defend them.
“Certain people were shouting, ‘Go home! Ben Ali isn’t here anymore,’” said Blamassi Toure, programme officer at the Tunis-based Maison du Droit et des Migrations, an organisation supporting Tunisian civil society groups, focused on migrant and refugee rights. “For many Tunisians, Ben Ali was a friend of the African community.”
The perceived connection between Ben Ali and the Sub-Saharan community stems largely from the African Development Bank (AfDB). One of the world’s largest international financial institutions, the AfDB is normally based in the Ivory Coast.
However, following the outbreak of the Ivorian civil war in 2002, the Ben Ali government welcomed the bank to relocate temporarily to Tunisia, where the AfDB remained headquartered until 2014.
As thousands of well-off Sub-Saharan bank employees and their families arrived in the capital, Ben Ali warned Tunisians against any mistreatment of the newcomers, Toure said.
“The Ministry of the Interior told the population to be very careful because they are the president’s invited guests,” said Toure. “Nothing bad is to happen to them.”
Along with the bank employees came students from across Sub-Saharan Africa enrolling in Tunisia’s private, francophone universities. The timing was right. It had become progressively harder for students to obtain visas to the European Union. Tunisia, on the other hand, automatically granted visas to citizens of numerous Sub-Saharan countries. For Sub-Saharan students seeking to study abroad, Tunis rapidly developed into an attractive plan B.
“Ben Ali had done everything possible to ensure that the situation in Tunisia was good for Sub-Saharans,” said Hubert Ondo, project manager at AESAT.
By 2009, about 12,000 Sub-Saharan students – six times more than the year after the bank had relocated to Tunis – were studying in Tunisia, according to AESAT.
With foreign students often spending several thousands of euros per year, the influx of Sub-Saharans was a boon for the country’s universities in particular and the Tunisian economy in general.
Or 'friend to no one'?
While the AfDB’s arrival was undoubtedly a turning point, public cooperation between the Sub-Saharan community and Ben Ali goes back even further.
In 1993, when few Tunisian civil society organisations had the right to operate legally, AESAT received state-sponsored office space and financial support. At the time, the government’s treatment of the organisation indicated to some that there was more to the relationship between the group and Ben Ali’s regime.
Others however, thought AESAT's treatment might be a propaganda tool to show the world that Tunisia was open to foreigners.
For Toure, the group’s legal recognition ultimately served as a mechanism for surveillance.
Located directly across the street from a police station, the government-provided AESAT office “allowed the state to monitor the comings and goings of the Sub-Saharan community. Beginning in 2000, telephone conversations were bugged,” Toure said.
By monitoring communications and requiring AESAT to seek authorisation before working with Tunisian organisations, the government sought to control the Sub-Saharan community’s activities and influence, he added.
“Ben Ali wasn’t a friend to the Sub-Saharans,” Toure said. “He was a friend to no one.”
Whatever the exact nature and motivation behind Ben Ali’s relationship with AESAT and the AfDB, the perceived privilege of Sub-Saharans provoked anger among the wider populace, a frustration that is directly related to the recent spike in violence, experts say.
“Before the revolution, Sub-Saharan Africans and foreigners in general were well protected by the government,” said Jonathan Bahago, president of Afrique Intelligence. "If you touched a Sub-Saharan, my goodness, what the police would do to you!”
“But since the revolution,” he said, “there have been more attacks against Sub-Saharans, with people saying: ‘The one who was defending you before is gone’.”
Hard statistics on crimes committed against the Sub-Saharan community are hard to come by. In 2013, the Tunisian Interior Ministry launched Open Data, a website through which anyone can access a wide range of government statistics.
But while the programme includes crime data, no mention is made of “hate crimes,” or other attacks against specific communities. AESAT hopes to eventually create an effective data-gathering system.
‘A rage I did not understand’
It is also likely that a large proportion of attacks against Sub-Saharans goes unreported.
“Most of the time, they are quite scared to go to the police,” said Anais El Bassil, coordinator of the Maison du Droit et des Migrations, which encourages victims to report attacks and provides financial assistance for legal fees.
Current students from Sub-Saharan countries studying in Tunisia agreed that there is fear about reporting assaults, including their own.
Grace, a student in management from Congo-Brazzaville, said she was in the north Tunis neighbourhood of El Nasr when several teenagers tried to steal her purse. When she resisted, the situation quickly escalated.
“They began throwing rocks at me, and I had to run. One of my neighbours saw what was happening and came to my defence. He wanted to go to the police, but I didn’t want to. What would that accomplish? They’re not going to do anything,” she said.
Mariette, an IT student from Burundi, had a similar experience. In January, during the same month as the post-soccer attacks, a man robbed her at knifepoint in downtown Tunis. After stealing her bag, he continued to attack “with a rage I did not understand,” she said.
Her hand bleeding profusely, Mariette said, she managed to flag down a passing car, whose driver pulled over to help. When the police arrived, she sensed their hostility.
“You could tell that they didn’t care what had happened. Whatever you did, you could see that the investigation would not go far,” she said.
One week later, her hand still healing from the knife wound, Mariette came across her attacker on the street. Though she immediately realised that he lived in the same neighbourhood, she didn’t bother alerting the police.
“As I knew who he was, I could have pressed charges, but I knew that nothing would come of it,” she said.
While concerned about violence against his community, Toure emphasised that recent attacks must be understood in context.
“Tunisia is going through a difficult period,” he said. “Clearly, there is racism. But there is also insecurity, which affects Tunisians as well as foreigners.”
Undoubtedly, security conditions in Tunisia have deteriorated enormously. After two major terrorist attacks last year at the Bardo National Museum and Sousse, a suicide bombing in November killed 12 members of the Presidential Guard in the heart of Tunis.
After the attack, Essebsi immediately re-instated a state of emergency previously in place for several months after the Sousse attack, and put the capital under curfew. Meanwhile, in parts of neighbouring Libya, the Islamic State militant group, which has claimed responsibility for all three attacks, continues to tighten its grip.
Beyond terrorist attacks, Tunisia has seen a significant rise in the crime rate since the 2011 revolution.
But for Sub-Saharans specifically, notable changes in police practices coupled with a climate of increased impunity in the context of the state at large has shaken the community’s confidence in the legal system.
“Under the former regime, under Ben Ali, we were well protected,’” said Rachid Ahmed Souleyman, an architecture student and the vice-president of AESAT. “There was a climate of trust and comfort living in Tunisia that is no longer there.”
Tlili, the member of Nidaa Tounes, said difficulties confronting Sub-Saharans cannot be separated from the broader challenges of Tunisia’s democratic transition, including rebuilding state institutions, serious economic problems and political instability.
“Insecurity is a general problem that affects everyone. The government and the authorities have an obligation to resolve these problems, and we’re working relentlessly to do so,” Tlili said.
For activists, it’s crucial that the country address fundamental gaps in its legal system.
Racism is still not criminalised in Tunisia. Though discrimination in general is illegal, perpetrators of ethnically motivated attacks, for example, cannot be charged with “racism” or “hate crimes”.
This absence of legal protection against racism is not unique to Tunisia, and remains an issue across much of the region. However, given Tunisia’s widely praised new constitution, activists say it is worth noting the ways in which legislation has not changed since the revolution.
“These attacks happen all over the world. The problem here is the government’s non-recognition, the official denial,” said Toure, the programme officer at Maison du Droit et des Migrations. “In other countries, politicians and officials speak out. Why does this never happen in Tunisia?”
The lack of government discourse focused on racism generally and the problems of the Sub-Saharan community more specifically reflects the newness of Tunisia’s political transition, Tlili said.
“Tunisian political discourse is not very mature. We don’t have specialised politicians, and discourse is very general, more rhetorical battles than substantive debate,” he said. “Little by little, the political discourse will mature, and you will see discourse focused on the issues of specific communities.”
But even beyond the penal code, Sub-Saharans expressed frustration regarding the rules governing the carte de sejour, or residency permit. Upon arriving in Tunisia on a temporary visa, students and interns have a set amount of time to gather all paperwork necessary for the year-long carte de sejour.
Failure to submit required documents results in fines, which continue to accumulate as long as paperwork is not submitted and outstanding fines remain unpaid. According to students, it is extremely difficult to avoid penalties and ending up, at least temporarily, in an irregular situation.
“There is a lack of coherence among the police,” said Rachid Ahmed Souleyman, AESAT vice-president.
“This week, I applied for my residency permit at a police station in Moncef Bay. I paid 75 dinars [$37], the amount required by law. However, multiple students told me they were required to pay as much as 300 dinars at other police stations. The problem is that different police apply the law differently. Consistent enforcement is a real problem.”
Toure went further: “For many people in an irregular situation in Tunisia, it’s more expensive to pay the accumulated fines than to the pay the smuggler. They’re potential candidates for the trip across the Mediterranean.”
‘A beautiful country’
Although their numbers have decreased since the collapse of the Ben Ali government, thousands of Sub-Saharans have continued to come to Tunisia, often for university studies. While reports of racism are widespread, many students said they still feel positively towards the country.
“Tunisia is a beautiful country, and I don’t regret making the choice,” said Mariam, a communications student from Mali.
While the process of getting a residency permit presents “a serious problem,” she explained that she “does [her] best to take advantage of being in Tunisia as much as possible”.
Arthur, an economics student from Congo-Brazzaville, agreed: “I have a lot of Tunisian friends who invite me to their parties and to their weddings. There is racism here, but I wouldn’t say that Tunisia is a particularly racist country.”
Though many Sub-Saharans expressed a desire to leave, others have begun to see Tunisia as a second home. “At the beginning, it was a bit difficult,” Souleyman, AESAT’s vice president, said. “But now, even when other students go home for vacation, I stay in Tunisia. I love living here.”