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

Front Page

The legacy of colonialism

By Gamal Nkrumah

Africa's emancipation from poverty, under-development and backwardness is comprehensively subjugated to the imperatives of globalisation. This was the message emanating from Europe at this week's summit. As such, it is unfortunately reminiscent of the paternalistic attitudes adopted in the aftermath of the Berlin Conference of 1884, following which the continent was effectively carved up between seven of the current EU member-states -- namely Belgium, Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Portugal and Spain.

Britain, of course, seized the lion's share. This week, London's relentless hounding of Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe brought back bitter memories of European colonial powers using the allegedly "barbaric" practices of pre-colonial African political entities as a pretext to declare war and appropriate land. In African eyes, the old colonial spirit lingers on. Perhaps the grimmest reminder of how little has changed is the fact that land remains the critical bone of contention.

Europe's tunnel-vision morality which focuses on human rights, good governance and democracy smacks of colonial paternalism. At the summit, Mugabe warned that he was not about to capitulate under the relentless fusillade of verbal abuse directed at him by high-ranking British government officials, including Prime Minister Tony Blair and Africa Minister Peter Hain.

The latter described as "thuggery orchestrated from on high" this week's clashes in Zimbabwe between white anti-government protesters, veterans of the Zimbabwean liberation struggle and landless peasants, who defied a court order to vacate white-owned farms they had occupied. Mugabe, still reeling from a full-frontal attack last year in London by homosexual rights protesters, promptly denounced Blair's "gay cabinet."

Europe should take care to keep its distance before tackling head-on such thorny subjects as "good governance." That was the message coming from the African delegates in Cairo, as they rushed to Mugabe's defence. Indeed, Britain's lobbying for Zimbabwe to be ostracised from the international community and have its membership in the Commonwealth suspended was universally rejected.

Even Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, Mugabe's arch-rival in the war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, expressed grave concern. "African countries should be given the chance to develop democratic processes that are suitable to their state of development and that take account of local conditions and traditions. It took Europe several centuries to develop democracy, and even today European democracies are still evolving," Museveni observed.

It was Africans, too, who took the initiative to try and heal the wounds. Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo brought together Mugabe and British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook for a meeting on the fringe of the summit on Monday. The two sides pledged to build on the ceremonial event by moving forward on tough negotiations, with Zimbabwe offering to send a high-level delegation to London in the next few weeks to ease tensions. Yet both will be hard pressed to avoid further crises along the way, as the peasants' seizure of white-owned farms remains an explosive issue.

There are many who doubt that any talks can bridge the differences. Mugabe has skillfully portrayed himself as a man of the people and averted criticisms of his economic record, cleverly shifting the blame onto British political interference in his country's domestic affairs. He accuses the UK of deliberately tarnishing Zimbabwe's image abroad and scaring off all but the most intrepid investors. And indeed, Zimbabwe's opposition parties, viewed from an African perspective, look increasingly like the lackeys of the country's 20,000 white farmers who still own the choicest land. As if to symbolise the fact that the past is still with us, Ian Smith, the 81-year old leader of racist Rhodesia, who unilaterally declared independence from Britain in 1965, recently announced his return to active politics.

Europe, meanwhile, is undergoing a process of colossal change. The outcome of its experiment with economic and political unification may be difficult to predict, but pointers attest to marked progress in several key areas. At the recent EU Lisbon summit, "we launched an irreversible process that will change the course of European economic realities," said Portuguese Prime Minister António Guterres. "And we want Africa to benefit from that radical new process. Everyone realises that we are moving into a new knowledge-based economy on which it is easier to reach a consensus." The Africa-Europe summit was Guterres' brainchild.

Portugal, which currently holds the EU chairmanship, also has its own bitter colonial legacy in Africa. Indeed, it was the first European country to establish colonial outposts there. So it is both ironic, and ominous, that Lisbon should have lobbied so hard to focus European attention on Africa under its chairmanship. Indeed, in Lisbon, the Portuguese are playing host to a controversial meeting of African and European non-governmental organisations which the Organisation of African Unity and Egypt had declined to accommodate.

So what can Africa learn from Europe? Europe now has a single currency, the euro, a common European market, a single European passport, open borders, and a European Parliament. These are not trivial achievements. Moreover, at the Lisbon summit, European leaders vowed to catch up with the United States in the realms of high-tech and knowledge- and information-based economies. Meanwhile, the single European currency is speeding up the process of structural reform and promoting competition and capital market development.

Even more impressive is Europe's social model. A charter of fundamental rights may metamorphose into a federal constitution in the foreseeable future. This embryonic European constitution will inevitably undermine national sovereignty, making it ever harder for member states to maintain unjust labour laws. National sovereignty is voluntarily -- if in some instances reluctantly -- being abandoned in favour of a continental political, social and economic entity.

These achievements are not irrelevant for Africa. But the dialogue in its current form remains dominated by one inevitable issue. African leaders at the summit stressed that if Europe is interested in establishing a new relationship with Africa, characterised by equality, then old colonial attitudes must be shaken off. Topping the list of African demands is the writing-off of the continent's external debt. The African countries expressed grave concern about the overwhelming poverty that continues to plague the continent. "The impact of the debt has been the inability of African economies to generate enough domestic savings and investments," South African Foreign Minister, Nosazana Dlamini-Zuma, told the joint Africa-Europe foreign ministers meeting on Sunday. "The African countries need capital to regenerate their economies. The challenge facing Africa is socio-economic development. If we fail in that, the consequences in other areas, such as good governance and stability, will be dire."

   Top of page
Front Page