ABIDJAN — Jumping and dancing to the rhythm of the popular urban music zouglou, they snap pictures on their smartphones of their idols performing onstage. Always smiling and never sitting still, Ivory Coast's millennials have been nicknamed the "génération pressée pressée," the generation that is always in a rush.
Young Ivorians are dynamic and curious, and restless to leave their home country to explore a world they have so far only seen on TV. On a Sunday in late November, a free concert in Abidjan's sports stadium attracted many spectators. The country's largest city and financial capital hosted a show featuring some of the most popular Ivorian stars, including the band Magic System and the Ivorian soccer legend Didier Drogba. They all came together to send one message to their young fans, many of them eager to make the illegal journey across the Sahara and the Mediterranean to a better life in Europe: Don't go.
Recent images broadcast on CNN of a migrant camp in Libya, showing refugees chained and enslaved, served as a wake-up call in this corner of West Africa. In one single day in late November, 321 Ivorians returned home from Libya, taking advantage of a joint program of the United Nations and the European Union, which has helped 12,000 migrants return safely to their home countries. Despite the increase in returnees, an estimated 7,000 Ivorian migrants remain trapped in Libyan refugee camps in infernal conditions.
We may have little to eat here, but at least we have some.
"We don't need to be humiliated to achieve well-being, so let's seek it at home," shouts Asalfo, Magic System's frontman. Culture Minister Maurice Bandaman then takes the microphone on the stage. "We may have little to eat here, but at least we have some," he says. "We've created two million jobs and we'll keep creating more, it's always better than being enslaved in Libya or dying in the Mediterranean."
Anywhere else, such remarks might appear insensitive, but here they are received with applause from the large crowd. Protesters cheer, holding up signs against illegal emigration.
Photo: Magic System via Twitter
After the minister's speech, the evening's true star, Didier Drogba, appears on stage, wearing a hat that says, "Don't care to be a star." He urges his compatriots to stay positive: "With the EU-Africa summit hosted here in late November, we have a unique chance to have our voices heard," he says. "Every problem has a solution."
That may be easy to say for an extremely wealthy man in a country where 46% of the population lives under the international poverty line. While Ivory Coast boasts Africa's fastest-growing economy, with a GDP growth rate of 8%, the number of citizens living in poverty is rising and life expectancy hovers around 52, the lowest in West Africa.
Ivorians were the fourth-largest group among foreign arrivals on Italian shores in 2017, with around 7,700 making the journey to Italy. Only one in 10 was granted asylum, with the rest deemed economic migrants and ordered to leave.
They're victims of illusions peddled by smugglers.
"We're only treated well at home," says the zouglou star JC Pluriel. "We must try to improve conditions here through our work, that's the only thing that sets us free."
Many Ivorians who leave for Europe already have jobs but decide to leave anyway. "I know many people who left their jobs to go to Europe, they're victims of illusions peddled by smugglers," says Agriculture Minister Sangafowa Coulibaly. "Of course, lack of opportunity here is still a problem."
Ivory Coast is the world's leading cocoa producer, with 35% of global production, but Coulibaly laments that the industry has been using the same methods for 50 years. The EU, the top consumer and importer of cocoa, is funding projects to foster innovation in the sector.
European flags line the streets that lead to the center of Abidjan. Among locals, the perception is that the EU is bringing hope and money to this West African country. But underlying these expectations is a burning anger at the images from Libya.
"You Europeans have made a deal with criminals," says one local. "You are responsible."