Tunisia’s Kais Saied sparks outrage with racist rant

Tunisia's embattled president has made a shocking, racially-charged speech that has sparked widespread condemnation and panicked citizen evacuations by African governments.

Opinion by


The governments of Côte d’Ivoire and Guinea announced plans to charter planes to evacuate their citizens from Tunisia on Thursday after a racist diatribe from the country’s President Kais Saied sparked reported attacks on Black Africans from vigilante groups.

In Guinea, Foreign Minister Morissanda Kouyate headed to Tunisia aboard a government aircraft “to provide urgent support for Guineans” there.

It was announced that 80 more were to be evacuated on chartered flights in the coming days.

Kouyate said:  “Our compatriots in Tunisia, we found that some of them had lost hope. It was with a heavy heart that I was able to meet with them because the conditions were difficult.”

Amadou Coulibaly, the spokesperson for the Government of Côte d’Ivoire, said he had launched an urgent evacuation and repatriation exercise to save lives and to prevent further injury.

He added that the country’s national carrier Air Côte d’Ivoire had been called on to assist in the return of 500 citizens to their home country. The flights were greeted personally by Prime Minister Patrick Achi as they landed in Abidjan.

Earlier the African Union issued a stinging rebuke to Saied’s speech. In a statement it said: “The Chairperson of the African Union Commission H. E. Moussa Faki Mahamat strongly condemns the shocking statement issued by Tunisian authorities targeting fellow Africans which go against the letter and the spirit of our Organization and founding principles.”

Faki said AU member states were obligated “to treat all migrants with dignity, wherever they come from, refrain from racialised hate speech that could bring people to harm, and prioritise their safety and human rights.”

In late February, President Saied, under extreme political pressure as the country’s economic situation unravels and essentials disappear from shop shelves, launched the diatribe while addressing the country’s National Security Council. He urged ministers to “take urgent measures to halt the illegal migration into the country, specifically targeting Africans, many of whom see Tunisia as a jumping off point to a better life in Europe.”

After his comments, the BBC reported that many migrants lost their jobs and housing overnight. Some have reported being physically assaulted.

In addition to the estimated 21,000 people without the legal right to stay in the country, there are large numbers of Africans, including students, business people, vocational trainees and legal, agricultural and industrial workers in the country, all there legally. This is in accordance with Tunisia’s long tradition of migration exchange programmes and collaboration, especially with a number of francophone African countries.

In addition, some 10–15% of the population of the country is made up of black Tunisians many of whom can trace their ancestry to the East African slave trade. Although Tunisia was one of the first Arab countries to abolish the slave trade in the 19th Century, it continued in practice until a raft of legislation in the mid and late 20th century outlawed it completely.

Nevertheless a poll last year showed that 80% of Tunisians believe that the country has major race issues. Black Tunisians have often expressed concerns that they are still discriminated against in terms of schooling and job opportunities, although some have succeeded in business and sport and achieved hero status.

Given this fixation on colour – even shades of colour – black Tunisians have told journalists that Saied’s remarks seemed pointed at them as much as against African immigrants.

Astonishing claim

Addressing the Security Council, Saied had said that “hordes of illegal immigrants from sub-Saharan Africa are still arriving, with all the violence, crime, and unacceptable practices that entails.”

Tunisia’s embattled president then claimed: “Migration is a plot to change Tunisian dynamics. Traitors who are working for foreign countries and shady parties are targeting the Tunisian nation state. We helped them during the Covid-19 distribution of medicine and we are proud of our African identity but today, they want to change the demographic composition of Tunisia.”

He went on: “The undeclared goal of the successive waves of illegal immigration is to consider Tunisia a purely African country that has no affiliation to the Arab and Islamic nations.”

French far-right politician Eric Zemmour welcomed Saied’s statement. “The countries of the Maghreb region have begun to sound the alarm in the face of the escalation of immigration. Tunisia wants to take urgent action to protect its people. What are we waiting for to fight the Great Replacement?” he asked.

Around 1.2m Tunisians live in European countries, of which one million are in France. It is their remittances back to families in Tunisia that are helping to keep the economy afloat.

Blowback against Saied

The statements sparked backlash from the world’s largest development institution, the World Bank, who announced it would be pausing future work with Tunisia following the president’s statements on African migrants, World Bank President David Malpass told staff in a note seen by Reuters.

“Public commentary that stokes discrimination, aggression, and racist violence is completely unacceptable,” he wrote on Sunday.

While current work was continuing, Malpass said the bank was postponing Tunisia’s Country Partnership Framework, which maps out future plans from 2023-2025, until further notice. A board meeting on March 21 would review that new strategic engagement, he added.

The President’s incendiary remarks also brought out thousands to demonstrate their solidarity with fellow Africans and to condemn the ‘fascist’ sentiments.

Condemnations from Tunisia’s rights groups followed swiftly. The Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights (FTDES), among others was scathing: “The presidential campaign aims to create an imaginary enemy for Tunisians to distract them from their basic problems,” said spokesperson Ramadan Ben Amor.

The Tunisian Anti-Fascism Front, a coalition that includes more than 40 Tunisian civil society organisations and several independent activists, led a heavily attended demonstration which denounced Saied’s remarks and called him to withdraw the statement that they described as “shameful”.

Among the latest is Tunisia’s most prominent idol, the tennis star Ons Jabeur, who tweeted: “Today is #ZeroDiscriminationDay. As a proud Tunisian, Arab and African woman I celebrate the right of everyone to live with dignity.” She displayed a Tunisian stamp from 1961, celebrating Africa Day.

Another Tunisian sports figure, Radhi Jaidi, one of the country’s greatest footballers – a defensive mainstay of the national team and a member of the winning 2004 African Cup of Nations team, as well as being the first Tunisian to play in the English Premier League with Southampton – quoted Ghanaian independence leader Kwame Nkrumah, writing “I’m African, not just because I was born in Africa, but because Africa was born in me.”

Whatever his political shortcomings during the latter part of his reign, the former President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali, staked a great deal on his relationship with African countries, as well as the country’s identity as an African nation.

Subscribe for full access

You've reached the maximum number of free articles for this month.

Digital Monthly

£8.00 / month

Receive full unlimited access to our articles, opinions, podcasts and more.

Digital Yearly

£70.00 / year

Receive full unlimited access to our articles, opinions, podcasts and more.

Anver Versi

Award-winning editor and journalist Anver is editor of New African and African Banker magazines.