Africans united in rejecting European arrogance
December 12, 2007 15:28 | by Sukant Chandan
The recent summit between African heads of states and the EU has shown that some Europe has failed to move beyond their colonial-era past-times of economic and political bullying. The African delegates gave Europe an unmistakable cold shoulder on the two big issues of the conference: trade, especially the European proposed Economic Partnership Agreements, and European political interference in African affairs, centred on British arrogance towards Zimbabwe.
This African-EU Summit in Lisbon was possibly Portugal's most important international meeting in its history. The intention of the summit was to discuss peace and security, human rights, international trade and climatic change. Forty presidents - five from Europe and thirty-five from Africa - and twenty-seven prime ministers - fifteen from Europe and twelve from Africa - took part in a summit which summed up the state of African-European relations today.
To give some background to the events in Lisbon, it is worth taking a short look at the history of these summits. The first African-EU Summit took place in Cairo in 2000 at the initiative of Egypt's President Mubarak and the then President of the African Union Algeria's President Bouteflika. Ever since then Britain has been unable to get over itself on the issue of Zimbabwe. From the first summit Blair refused to attend in protest at Mugabe's presence. Already back in 2000 Britain's puerile games on the issue of Mugabe was given a firm rebuttal by Africans when they insisted that Britain had no right to dictate who should or should not attend the summit. There should have been a second summit in 2003 but failed to materialise and was postponed indefinitely after the imposition of illegal sanctions on Zimbabwe by the EU and due to Britain's continued objection to the attendance of President Mugabe. So the Labour Government's attitude towards Zimbabwe and the rejection of it has been an on-going issue in European-African relations ever since.
The British mainstream press likes to present the problems at the summit as the fault of the Africans, rather than the reality which is it is the behaviour of former imperialists who, engaged in fruitless antics, results in them looking the fool on the international stage. Countries such as Britain and Germany seem to put more importance on dictating to Africa on how it should deal with its internal affairs than grappling with the critical issues of African development and progress. Britain has turned what is essentially a bilateral political rift between itself and Zimbabwe into an international issue in the face of opposition by Africa. Even the head of the Commonwealth, Mr Don McKinnon while being a critic of the Zimbabwean Government agreed that President Mugabe must be allowed to attend. José Manuel Barroso head of the EU commission expressed the Portuguese position which has consistently argued that the prospective rewards of closer ties between Africa and the EU are more important than the problems between Britain and Zimbabwe. Barroso made the headlines when he scolded the British apropos their pre-conditions: "If you are an international leader then you are going to have to be prepared to meet some people your mother would not like you to meet. That is what we have to do from time to time."
Portugal's position has been appreciated by Africa. This past weekend's summit was in itself in question if it weren't for Portugal's insistence that it should go ahead. The Africans at the summit, the African Union, the Southern African Development Countries, and South Africa's President Mbeki have held firm to the view that Zimbabwe must be represented by Mugabe despite the EU travel ban on him. Without Mugabe in attendance the whole of Africa would boycott the summit.
This stand of African unity in the face of what Mugabe rightly calls European 'arrogance' is a sign that Africa cannot be pushed around like it had been for centuries by countries from which they have gained their independence in the last five decades. As an indication of the strength of feeling on the issue, Uganda's president Yoweri Museveni told Brown last month "Mugabe is a revolutionary who fought to emancipate his people. When you are dealing with a revolutionary, you listen to his points, rather than give him orders." Indeed Mugabe has a valid point when he reportedly said at the summit that it was Africans that taught the British about democracy when they won their fight for democracy against British-backed Apartheid colonial-settler states.
Whatever one's view of Mugabe and the internal situation in Zimbabwe, Mugabe's stance and the defence of him by African leaders resulting in a row of British red faces, could not but be an inspiration to those who believe in the Pan-African strength of the continent in its struggle for independence and development. Western pressure on Zimbabwe's ZANU-PF government is unlikely to gain any popularity with African governments as the controversy centres around the emotive issue of land distribution to the indigenous peoples, land that was forcibly taken by European colonial settlers. There maybe problems in the details of the land distribution process in Zimbabwe, but the main problems are at root ones that can be traced back to the failure of the British to honour their commitments. This being the case, Africans are not going to back down from defending a fellow African state that is the main target for annihilation by the West. When the same interests who are supporting regime-change in Zimbabwe are behind all kinds of intrigue to grab more wealth from the land and people Africa, such as the plans for a coup against Equatorial-Guinea led by Mark Thatcher in 2004, it somewhat exposes the real meaning behind Western clamours about 'human rights' and 'democracy'. And Thatcher's coup plans are merely the very tip of the ice-berg. It is in this context that closing of ranks by Africans at the summit can be understood.
When Africans show an effective united front against neo-colonialist behaviour, there will always be a few Africans who, conveniently for the British, pop up to assure Western white society that these African upstarts are just being wholly irrational. While the British media occasionally and reluctantly admitted that all the Africans are behind Mugabe, the Archbishop of York John Sentamu attempted what must have been seen as a pathetic attempt to cover up the big issues at the summit by removing and cutting up his dog collar in protest at Mugabe on Andrew Marr's politics program on BBC1.
The debates around economic relations between the two continents also did little to create the impression that Europe is moving on from its colonial past. Europe wants to replace old trade agreements with EU-proposed Economic Partnership Agreements that have been widely criticised by African states and anti-poverty groups. Certain trade privileges exist between European countries and their former colonies but have been declared illegal by the WTO which is demanding that they be scrapped. These new EPAs would open up African markets to European competition which will have the effect of further devastating African economies. African Union commission president, Alpha Oumar Konaré denounced the EPAs and stated: "No one will make us believe we don't have the right to protect our economic fabric … It is time to bury definitively the colonial past. We can no longer be merely exporters of raw materials. We can no longer accept being solely an import market for finished products", and if anyone was in any doubt about African attitudes to the EPAs Senegalese President Abdoulaye Wade told reporters: "It's clear that Africa rejects the EPAs." There was no agreement on this issue, however this did not stop Barroso from saying that the EU would go ahead with the imposition of tariffs on all but the poorest countries if they do not meet the deadline for accepting the EPAs. So much for Europe exorcising it's colonial past.
Europe's ulterior motive behind the summit was candidly admitted by the Financial Times which stated on Sunday 9th December that it was "meant to showcase a new partnership to counter China's growing influence in Europe's former colonies." The BBC News website too has conceded that it is China which is one of the primary reasons for Africa's new found confidence, which is 'cause for worry in Europe'. The twin causes for worry in Europe being both an influential China and an increasingly assertive Africa.
Since China became independent and socialist in 1949, it has enjoyed especially close relations with Africa. Many newly liberated African states joined Chinese Premier Chou En Lai at the historic Afro-Asian Bandung Conference in 1955, which initiated the Non-Aligned Movement, and where Africans demanded that China be a member of the UN Security Council. This relationship of solidarity saw China directly assisting African states in their liberation struggles and also lending all manner of support in helping the development of the newly liberated African nations, as Chinese Premier Hu Jintao stated at the historic Forum on China-Africa Co-operation in Beijing November 2006: "China did what she needed to do to help ensure that Africa freed herself from the yoke of colonialism and apartheid."
Ever since 1949 Chinese strategies of development and foreign policy have been controversial across the political spectrum in the West. China's post-Mao era has been no exception, with many liberals, leftists and right-wingers all united in their opposition and criticisms of China's development and meteoric economic rise. Notwithstanding the inevitable problems that a massive underdeveloped country like China faces in progressing by means of a mixed economy, it has achieved rates and levels of poverty reduction hitherto unseen in the history of mankind. Apart from winning UN awards for poverty alleviation in lifting over 200 million people out of abject poverty in the last two decades, China's economic rise has also enabled Third World countries to develop political and economic strategies that many would not have perceived possible during the years of the Washington Consensus of the 1990s. There is another rather important advantage of favouring relations with China in comparison to the West: China will not criminalise you, starve your country with sanctions and possibly blitz and occupy your country, whereas the West might. China's strict policy of non-interference and what it terms 'win-win' relations with other countries is winning it ever more friends.
The internal and external effect of China's development is possibly the most important political question in the world today. It is a crucial issue for those who are confronting the challenges posed by aggressive Western unilateralism and hegemony and those of developing a multi-polar and peaceful world. As in Latin America, Africa's relation with China is enabling it to develop a new-found confidence in lifting itself up in the world, and as China rises ever further it allows Africa to free itself from the negative relationship with its former colonial masters. In comparison to the West, China has an incomparably better deal to offer Africa leading President Wade to comment at the summit that "it is very clear that Europe is close to losing the battle of competition in Africa." Therefore Africa is able to put into affect the non-aligned method of getting the best deal it can between bigger powers, although there is no indication that Europe is about to back-off from its unpopular policies towards Africa, although some observers like the BBC's Mark Doyle know that Europe has to address its problematic relationship with Africa, especially in the face of China's growing prestige: "African trade with China is forcing Europe to take Africa more seriously and not just as a collection of former colonial possessions."
It is argued from left to right-wing circles in the West that China is merely a new neo-colonial power replacing the old ones in Africa. This is an issue that has been rigorously raised in the Western mainstream press. This media offensive is unsurprisingly having some success in affecting the attitudes of the political classes in the West, but the West is sadly mistaken if this is argument is going to turn Africans against China in appealing to their anti-imperialist sentiments. Chinese involvement in Africa is warmly and broadly welcomed. Nevertheless, the Chinese are keen to argue their case in response to what they see as hypocritical slurs. It was on this subject that Chinese Commerce Minister Bo Xilai spoke at a news conference last year about China's share of total oil exports in China the previous year of 9% compared to 36% for Europe and 33% for the US. The minister asked: "If an 8.7 percent share could be suspected as an act of plundering resources, then what about 36 percent and 33 percent?" In the chorus of attacks on China as a neo-colonial power, there are very few African voices to be heard, it is the West which is so vocal about losing its opportunities in Africa.
The African states at the summit showed great strength in standing up to Europe, with the latter so far unable to move away from its intransigent positions which are pushing the Africans away from the West in an eastwardly direction towards China. The way Britain and Germany treated Mugabe, and the unanimous defence of Mugabe by the Africans shows that Africans are in no mood to shift one inch from their positions of unity and respecting their sovereignty in African affairs. The consensus amongst Africa is that if there are any problems in any African state, it requires an African solution. The Mugabe issue should be seen in connection with the disagreements over the EPAs, as both these issues represent African demands for non-interference in their affairs so they can find their own ways of resolving and progressing from the problems which have been sown by colonialism in Africa. Maybe not in this writer's lifetime, but perhaps a time will come when European countries can disengage from its colonial past and find new ways in developing a mutually respectful relationship with the Third World. In the meantime, while the US is tied up in Iraq as well as in Afghanistan, Third World countries from Latin America to Africa are taking the opportunity to steam ahead with development and 'South-South' co-operation, of which China is arguably the most important component part. While Africa may not be seeing the type of social movements and struggles taking in Latin America, the current rising confidence of Africa is surely a necessary precursor to further developments in the struggle for social and national liberation.