Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
6 - 12 April 2000
Issue No. 476
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Issues navigation Current Issue Previous Issue Back Issues

 
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Speaking at last

By Gamal Nkrumah

The largest ever gathering of African and European heads of state is over. It was also the first time that virtually all African leaders came together in a ground-breaking, brainstorming summit with almost all the European Union's leaders in attendance. Hitherto, African leaders have been more accustomed to encountering their European counterparts in carefully orchestrated, meticoulously compartmentalised groupings -- Lusophones; Francophones; the British Commonwealth; EU-African, Caribbean and Pacific and Euro-Mediterranean meetings. In Cairo, Africans for the first time met the Europeans as a monolithic block. Moreover, this was the first forum in which Africans articulated their demands clearly and with one voice. In unison, Africa declared that writing off the continent's debt is the absolute imperative.

Now comes the reckoning. The tenor of the conference was unmistakably upbeat. "There is no doubt that our discussions over the past two days constitute the starting point of a new phase, marked with genuine and joint determination to deepen cooperation between Africa and Europe... in such a way that maintains the mutual and common interests of both continents," President Hosni Mubarak said at the closing session.

Much to Africa's surprise, the Europeans listened attentively -- at any rate most of them did. German Chancellor Gerhard Schröeder and French President Jacques Chirac, recalling the Cologne Debt Initiative, announced the partial cancellation of the poorest African countries' debts and concessional development assistance.

A few Europeans, to the chagrin of African delegates, displayed something of the old colonial snobbishness. British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook, for one, offered a tongue-in-cheek tip-off about British retention of the Rosetta Stone being the single most important outcome of the summit -- a masterpiece of post-colonial pathos.

One of the least understood aspects of the Africa-Europe summit was why the issue of the return of African treasures cropped up at all. Why, the Europeans wondered, was this a subject of discussion at the forum. Why not, the Africans countered. Small wonder, what with many African countries hoping to develop their tourism industry as a lucrative source of much-needed foreign exchange. The Greeks sympathised with the Africans on this particular sticky point. They, too, eagerly await the return of the Elgin Marbles from the British Museum. And after all, it is only befitting that the venue chosen for this historic event happens to be a country which had in the past suffered a tremendous loss, from the plunder of its ancient treasures which now stack museums the world over.

As a matter of fact it was widely considered a landmark achievement that in the final declaration of the Africa-Europe summit African leaders prevailed over their European counterparts to include a clause calling for the return of "cultural goods stolen or exported illicitly." The final declaration also calls for joint African-European action to study the "legal and practical consequences of further action."

Cairo Conference Center
Never before have so many African and European leaders met in one place. Above, Egyptian workers preparing the main hall of the Cairo Conference Centre which this week witnessed the historic gathering of the heads of state and government of 68 countries from the two continents
(photo: AP)
Again when the Ethiopian Foreign Minister Mesfin Seyoum declared that his country is currently facing the gravest humanitarian crisis in its history and complained that European nations have not risen to the occasion and dispatched desperately needed humanitarian relief assistance, it was the British who appeared to be the least patient with his plea. "It's a bit extraordinary," Britain's International Development Secretary Clare Short snapped, adding that the war Ethiopia was waging against Eritrea was "wasting valuable resources." Short urged the Ethiopian government to end its war with Eritrea. "People should never be made to pay for their government devoting resources to war," she said.

On a more philosophical note, South Africa's President Thabo Mbeki told the delegates that "this historic coming together of Africa and Europe on the banks of the eternal Nile has the possibility to take decisions that might mark the beginning of a new process of interaction among ourselves and a new epoch in the evolution of human society." But, he quickly reminded his listeners, "it also has the possibility to be remembered as a moment when a critically important opportunity was missed and human hopes were betrayed."

Mbeki also reminded the world that "since 1990, the return on investments by foreign companies in Africa has averaged 29 per cent. Since 1991, these levels have exceeded all other regions of the world." Alas, that one bit of critically important statistical information is often overlooked, and worse overturned.

The twin slogans of the Cairo conference were equality and fraternity. Yet, in Mbeki's words, even though the two continents have been in constant interaction since time immemorial, "very often that interaction brought us [Africans] bitter fruit."

Overall impressions of the Africa-Europe summit were decidedly positive. The easing of tensions, though, was masked by isolated but widely publicised and highly-charged quarrels between certain African leaders and their European counterparts. The most talked about was Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi's tiff with the president of the European Commission, Romani Prodi, and Zimbabwean Prime Minister Robert Mugabe's broil with Cook and other British officials.

"We do not start from zero," Portuguese Prime Minister Antonio Guterres told participants at the summit. He conceded that the European Union cannot ignore African demands that the injustices of the new world order must be redressed.

Prodi concurred, declaring that "the African continent has been the main victim of the unfair character of the present architecture of international relations. This is both unacceptable and unsustainable." Africa and Europe have "deep roots, and we should return to them," he added.

Perhaps the most eloquent outline of Africa's plight came from Kofi Annan, United Nations secretary-general, whose message was delivered by another African, Ibrahima Fall.

"Nowhere is global commitment to poverty reduction more needed than in Africa. The largest proportion of people who live on less than $1 a day are in Africa. Private capital flows to Africa are a tiny fraction of global flows, and some countries continue to experience massive capital flight. External debts are often greater than gross national product, and it is not unusual for debt-servicing requirements to exceed 25 per cent of export earnings," Annan's message read.

"Africa's problems are difficult, but not insurmountable," Annan pointed out, and gave a word of warning. "The Africa-UN partnership is a two-way street, and the Africa-Europe partnership should be the same. To think of these relationships as one-dimensional, or uni-directional, would be to sell them short."

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