Author: Oz Russell
Affiliated organization: European council on foreign relations
Site of publication: ecfr.eu
Type of publication: Commentary
Date of publication: September 8th, 2021
European politicians can build stronger relations with African partners if they consider how to make big public statements that recognise the iniquities of their countries’ colonial past
The Humboldt Forum debacle is part of a pattern of avoidable and self-defeating blunders by European leaders dealing with Africa. British prime minister Boris Johnson has published a litany of insulting and racist comments throughout his career as a politician and columnist, once claiming that “the problem [with Africa] is not that we were once in charge, but that we are not in charge any more”. French president Emmanuel Macron alienated African leaders almost immediately upon entering office when he suggested that the continent had a “civilisational problem”, and that an African Marshall Plan would be unfeasible because women there were having “seven or eight children”.
These repeated missteps in dealing with African states stem both from Africa’s relative lack of importance in European policy, and Europe’s selective amnesia over its imperial past. Museums often display looted colonial artefacts, public memorials to the victims of colonialism are few and far between, and nationalists are quick to pounce on even modest attempts at reform.
At the EU level, a joint European Union-African Union statement from 2014 maintained that, “the abuse and cruelty of European colonialism is of course not forgotten, but [has been] put to one side in order to leave room for new forms of cooperation”.
These repeated missteps in dealing with African states stem both from Africa’s relative lack of importance in European policy, and Europe’s selective amnesia over its imperial past. Museums often display looted colonial artefacts, public memorials to the victims of colonialism are few and far between, and nationalists are quick to pounce on even modest attempts at reform
Half-hearted attempts at redress for colonialism in Africa have followed a similarly unsuccessful pattern. Germany’s apology for the genocide of Herero and Nama was rejected by leaders of a group of five government-aligned chiefs, who said that Herero and Nama descendants had not been properly consulted. Meanwhile, the Belgian king’s carefully worded non-apology for colonial abuses in the Congo was rebuffed by the human rights minister of the Democratic Republic of Congo, who stated that “the regrets of certain Belgian officials will never be enough in the face of their obligation to grant reparations to the victims of colonisation”.
As European states and leaders increasingly realise the importance of Africa to their policymaking, and as African states today have more choice in who they partner with, member states should consider taking bold public moves in place of the halting ones made so far. The lessons of memory culture are the big diplomatic steps that should be taken in concert with victims and descendants as well as the leaders of affected nations, and that their public nature should become part of a wider project to shift public memory at home.
These steps could include returning cultural artefacts, ending strangleholds over the hard currency of African states, and providing reparations. Memory culture will not fix all relations; nor will failure to carry out these steps turn African states away from Europe. Security, trade, migration, and health will still define these relationships. But changes in how colonialism is remembered would lead to fewer unforced errors from Europeans, fewer defences of colonial empires, and fewer botched apologies or museum openings – all of which would make cooperation much easier.
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