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Africa and Europe

Uneasy relationship

by Mildred Ngesa, Carola Kaps
In early December, AU and EU leaders met for a summit in Lisbon. It became obvious that Europeans, so far, tend to feel comfortable in a role they presume to be one of generous donors. Africans, however, do not see things in such favourable light (also note interview on p. 40). Before the event, InWEnt’s International Institute for Journalism (IIJ) had invited a group of African journalists to meet political leaders, scholars and other opinion shapers in Berlin, Brussels and Frankfurt. The idea was to promote exchange between the two continents. Among other things, the journalists attended an informal conference that Germany’s President Horst Köhler held with African counterparts near Frankfurt. Throughout the journalists’ two-week trip, it already became evident that Africans are very skeptical of European intentions – as is elaborated in the following atricles. One was written by a participant from Kenya, the other by the group’s German guide.

[ By Mildred Ngesa ]

Call me a cynic, but something tells me that the unprecedented recent affection for Africa is about something else than relations on the mend. We are witnessing a whole new scramble – an almost haphazard grab for something vital.

Suddenly everyone who is somebody seems to be focusing on Africa with ferocious passion and conviction. Earlier, China and India were presumably too remote and too poor for any kind of cooperation, but they are now engaging sub-Saharan countries. Russia and the Arab World are also paying new and invigorated attention.

Africa, once thought to be “too dark to be redeemed”, is also being courted by Europe. Germany’s President Horst Köhler, for instance, almost sounds like a man in love when he speaks of his vision for the continent. “I believe that Africa matters,” he says. “I believe that cards should not be played under the table.” Köhler emphasises: “We must learn not to lecture Africans on how to govern themselves. They are able to solve their own problems.” He wants partnerships to be “free and fair”.

Uschi Eid, a Bundestag member for the opposition Greens, seems to be reading from the same script. She admits that Africa’s image in the mass media is negative, but stresses that there are positive trends in the continent, and admonishes responsible Africans to move forward: “In democracies, it is the people who make governments responsible, not donors from outside.”

However, the road to Africa becoming an equal partner to Germany (or Europe as a whole) is strewn with stumbling blocks, and not only African ones. The EPA agenda serves as an example. The EU is keen on concluding these Economic Partnership Agreements, which are supposed to be based on an equal and fair footing. Nevertheless, African governments are not prepared to sign up, and rightly so.
Indeed, it is not difficult to find skeptics even in Europe. Ute Koczy is another Green member of the Bundestag, and she considers the way the EU has handled EPAs “shameful”. Koczy argues: “Our trade regulations are not fair. We do not have a liberalised market but we are asking Africans to liberalise theirs.” In her view, the principle of fairness schould apply, and African economies are a long way from becoming able to compete with Europe’s on equal terms.

It would be foolhardy to believe that the former colonisers are now seriously considering Africa for fair and equal partnership. There is always a crunch. No doubt, Africa’s recent attractiveness stems from its raw materials and natural resources.

I once overheard colleagues from Nigeria, Côte d'Ivoire, Uganda and Zambia joking about oil prospects in Africa and Western countries’ sudden scramble for this “Black Gold”. My Nigerian colleague quipped satirically that oil pumps channelling oil from the Niger delta had leaked and spilled in places like Angola, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo, so that the world had gone wild thinking that Africa was flooded with oil!

It is laughable, but sad. The overwhelming majority of Africans is not any richer despite the many oil resources that have provoked devastating wars and conflict. The West knows of this depressing history, but is not ready to admit that raw materials and commodities rank highest in its new-found love for the continent.

Africans are aware that Europe, like the rest of the world, is on a wooing mission. Africans are hesitating. They are questioning motives, re-thinking priorities, calculating moves and balancing losses and gains. It seems like Africa has become a crucial player in the game, whereas in the past, its countries used to be considered mere pawns. For once, it sure feels good for Africa to be coveted.

[ By Carola Kaps ]

“Europe has a completely distorted idea of Africa. The reality is not like what is depicted in European media.” This was the bitter complaint of ten African journalists, who had been invited to Berlin, Brussels and Frankfurt in the context of German President Horst Köhler’s Africa Initiative. They had intense meetings with European opinion shapers, discussing Germany’s and Europe’s Africa policy.

The members of the group complained that German media are full of prejudice when it comes to reports about Africa. The journalists from Ghana, Senegal, the Ivory Coast, Nigeria, Zambia, Kenya and Uganda complained that the media exclusively report wars, famines, natural disasters or epidemics of malaria and AIDS. They were invited by the International Institute of Journalism (IIJ), a Berlin-based InWEnt division.

For instance, the Ghanaian participant found intolerable incessant images of starving children who are too weak to shoo the flies from their faces intolerable, saying that they do not reflect African reality. She stressed there are high-rise buildings in Africa, and that the middle classes live in beautiful homes and apartments that European newspapers never report about.

The African journalists were dismayed to learn that even leading German newspapers have no more then a single correspondent, if at all, for all 48 states south of the Sahara. The group was not impressed by the argument that European press had indeed reported in detail positive trends such as the triumph of mobile telephony, the growing relevance of the Internet for African farmers, the benefits of micro-credit schemes, the brave commitment of many African women and the efforts made by a number of states to ensure good governance and transparency.

No German partner asked the African journalists how African media cover Germany or Europe, and how regularly they do so. That tit-for-tat question would have been unfair; after all, most African newspapers operate under adverse circumstances, most simply cannot afford a network of correspondents.

Distrust of Europe and its leaders runs so deep among Africans, that Western statistics about Africa are rejected out of hand as untrustworthy. In many African countries, Europe’s double standards in trade and its agricultural subsidies have destroyed traditional agriculture and sectors of shoe and textile production. What’s worse, these policies have tarnished the image of Europe in the hearts and minds of Africans for the long term. The journalists were only really impressed by German President Horst Köhler and his Africa Initiative. They appreciated his frank acknowledgment of Europe treating Africa unfairly, his criticism of Europe’s double standards in trade issues and his call for a truly fair system of trade.

On the other hand, the journalists did not seem to know what to make of the nearly unanimous consensus among their German hosts who stressed that African countries need to take their fates into their own hands. While the Germans said that Germany and Europe were willing to help, they also emphasised that African governments had to hold the reins. Uschi Eid, an Green-Party MP and former state secretary at the Development Ministry, put the argument into the clearest terms: Africa will have to get rid of its dictators itself; neither development aid, nor campaigns by international pop stars will ever rescue African countries.

Only time will tell whether the journalists got that message and are prepared to pass it on. These African journalists between the age of 24 and 43 did represented Africa’s young, well-eductated generation. Nonetheless, they seemed to be stuck in a post-colonial mindset, instead of looking forwards.