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Tenacity and risk - the Lebanese in West Africa

Lebanese nationals prepare to leave Ivory Coast in 2004 [file pic]
The Lebanese community is not immune to West African instability

By Andrew Walker
BBC News

The crash of an Ethiopian aeroplane carrying Lebanese passengers to Addis Ababa has highlighted the strong ties between Lebanon and Africa.

Many passengers are believed to have been on their way to West Africa, where Lebanese are the biggest non-African migrant community.

There is an apocryphal story of how they came to be there.

Sometime toward the end of the 19 Century, a ship-load of Lebanese immigrants was heading to Brazil, seeking profit from the booming new world.

The first stop after several weeks sailing was Senegal and - the story goes - the somewhat unworldly Lebanese passengers got off believing they had arrived in South America.

Map showing West African countries with significant Lebanese populations
There are large Lebanese communities in all of these countries

True or not, it seemed the man who told me it might well have had cause to ask what on earth his forefathers were thinking when they moved to West Africa.

In the last 30 years the region has seen some of the most violent and terrifying breakdowns in law and order the world has known.

The region remains one of the most difficult and dangerous places to do business and succeed.

Nevertheless, the Lebanese community across West Africa, thought to be between 80,000 and 250,000 strong, has not only continued to do business but has thrived.

Despite this, ethnic violence directed against Lebanese communities in West Africa is rarer than one might expect in a region where communal tension over access to wealth and resources is often the flashpoint for trouble.

Merchants

The real story of the Lebanese in West Africa does begin with sea journeys in the late 19 Century.

Relatives of Lebanese passengers on board the crashed Ethiopian airlines flight
The Afro-Lebanese community is in mourning

But it is more likely they chose to go to West Africa because at around that time American countries tightened their entry requirements after high levels of immigration during the previous century.

The French government also ran a recruiting campaign in Beirut looking for middlemen to work the boom in West African groundnut farming, at a time of agricultural crisis in Lebanon.

The Lebanese in West Africa have always been merchants, using their connections abroad to source goods for import, and - like other migrant groups - they use their family networks to keep their costs down.

As a result they have built a strong economic presence across the region.

Nowadays, the Lebanese community has interests in many areas and are the backbone of most markets - car importing, mining, oil services, defence contracts - and the more shadowy worlds of gun-running, diamond-smuggling and crude-oil theft.

Risks

Doing business in politically volatile West Africa is not easy.

With a poorly-functioning legal system, contracts and other business agreements can be virtually worthless.

The Lebanese have discovered that the best way of surviving, where the regime you're doing business with could be overthrown tomorrow, is to court the powerful - whoever they are.

And an aspiring West African "big man" knows he has to do business with the Lebanese if he has any hope of getting rich.

Many Africans say openly how much they hate the Lebanese in their respective countries.

But the Lebanese tenacity, aptitude for business and drive to succeed mean they have been sown into the fabric of West African economics, politics and culture.



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