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Interview

“Africa must push its values”

by Agnes Abuom

Opinion

Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania

Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania

African leaders took a self-confident stand at the EU-Africa Summit in Lisbon in December, nor did European leaders shy from using clear language. German Chancellor Angela Merkel for instance was outspoken on Zimbabwe. In the eyes of Agnes Abuom, of the All African Conference of Churches, Africa must pro-actively express its view instead of only reacting to proposals and actions. For real partnership to become possible, Europe, on the other hand, must give up paternalism.

What is the summits’ most important result?
At least, Europeans and Africans are talking to each other. There were no tangible results, but the summit was nevertheless useful because the issue of human rights was high on the agenda. Not only the situations of Zimbabwe and Darfur were discussed, but human rights in general, along with the issue of African leadership. That was important to deepen democratisation and enhancing good governance in Africa. On the other hand, I regret that the EU did not pay more attention to Darfur, both in terms of support for the peacekeeping forces and the AU peace and security meachanism in general. The Darfur peacekeeping mission has been discussed since last August, but it was not handled with the necessary urgency at Lisbon.

Why was the EU reluctant to discuss Darfur?
One reason could be that the positions of several European Union members vis-à-vis Sudan are incompatible. The EU is not speaking with one voice.

Perhaps the EU didn’t want to spoil the mood and therefore spared African leaders the Darfur issue?
That is possible too. The EU knew that discussing trade relations would be difficult, especially with respect to the Economic Partnership Agreements (EPA). In that sense, it was in Europe’s interest, not Africa’s, to avoid Darfur. On the other hand, the civil society organisations in Lisbon knew that human rights in general would be on the agenda, not only Zimbabwe and Darfur, and maybe that also contributed to the fact that Darfur was sidelined.

Chancellor Angela Merkel strongly criticised Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe, saying that his government was damaging Africa’s image in the world. Senegal’s President Abdoulaye Wade reacted in anger, accusing Merkel of not being well informed. Who is right?
I think they both had a point. One of the failures of European governments is that they do not appreciate the historical dilemmas of Zimbabwe. That is why African leaders reacted rather dismissively in Lisbon. At the same time, I don’t think people in Germany are really sufficiently informed about African debates, so on these scores President Wade was absolutely correct. On the other hand, if there are human-rights issues at stake, they must be addressed. But for Chancellor Merkel to really speak with authority she would have to appreciate Zimbabwe’s dilemmas. It is not by accident that the British boycotted the meeting. They know very well that they have contributed to the crisis.

Are the African Union (AU) and the Southern African Development Community (SADC) doing enough in respect to Zimbabwe’s problems?
There are not only efforts by government institutions, but also by faith-based organisations. I think people are doing what is possible, given the difficult and complex situation. We need to understand that the situation in Zimbabwe became very polarised, so that negotiations are difficult. Many different actors are involved in various ongoing talks, trying to find a solution.

Generally speaking, does Europe have the right to demand that African leaders respect human rights?
Respect for human rights is a global responsibility. While I don’t think Europe has a right to make demands for its own sake, I do believe in an accountability mechanism for world leaders. They must talk to each other, and find out how leaders are performing. If someone is failing, neither Europe nor Africa should be silent. To date, however, Africans have not been that vocal on Europeans’ performance with regard to human rights. In terms of the dignity of human beings, I think that African, European and other leaders need to hold each other accountable, and challenge one another in cases of bad performance.

Trade was another contentious issue in Lisbon. Some African governments have already signed interim EPAs with the EU, others reject them. In this context, President Wade accused the EU of dividing poor from more advanced African countries. Is he right?
Indeed, the EU is not respecting African-led integration. If the EU were really serious about economic integration in Africa, it would not act in a divisive manner. But instead of strengthening the AU, the European Union is “balkanising” Africa into four blocs. This goes against the grain of economic integration. Had the European Commission been serious about negotiating with Africa, it could have helped the AU to bring together the various regional economic blocs like SADC, ECOWAS, or the East African Community. Instead, it has been manipulating, coercing and forcing the various countries. I’m not surprised that our governments are signing interim EPAs in a very chaotic and disorganised manner. Europe is playing the old, historically well-known game of divide and rule. That is why civil society is saying: Europe is not interested in the welfare of Africa.

Don’t the various countries’ diverging economic interests serve best to explain why some countries accept interim agreements while others reject them?
Of course there are different interests, but there are also different relationships to Europe and different forces operating in the capitals. If you look at the countries that signed EPAs: did their governments really listen to their citizens? No, they did not. I dare say that my own country, Kenya, did not listen to the people. So on whose behalf are they acting?

What does Africa need most from Europe? More aid?
No, first of all, we need a fair and just relationship. Second, we need targeted aid, based on well-articulated programmes. We do not need aid just for the sake of aid. That is our experience of the past 40 years. Africa needs aid, but only aid that really meets the needs of the people. Third, Europe must accept that Africa might embark on a new path. We do not necessarily have to follow the European model. Europe must stop pushing Africa in a direction that has failed in the past. If Europe is really concerned about human rights and development, it should help us getting back the money stolen by African dictators. That money is in bank accounts in Geneva and other places. But Europe is not doing much to return this money, which could be used for the development of African people.

President Wade said that Europe was close to losing the competition over Africa. Do you agree?
To some extent, yes. Europe may well lose if it continues to not listen to Africans, while pushing and coercing political leaders in certain African capitals at the same time. Doing so may force Africa to look East and find new partners in Asia. On the other hand, I think Europe still has an important advantage: it commands the technology that Africa needs. The battle is not yet lost for Europe, but it could be lost if the joint EU-Africa strategy is not implemented in a way that takes care of people’s aspirations.

China is investing in Africa and granting aid with no strings attached. Is this “Chinese way” better for Africa than the European approach?
We do not know yet whether it is better or not. What we do know is that China is not giving aid for free. Of course, China is engaging Africa because of resources. In countries like Angola, China has secured long-term agreements for exploiting oil and other resources. That may not be in the interest of Africa because these agreements can not be renewed. Any agreement with any power, be it China or Europe, that does not serve Africa’s environment, Africa’s sustainable development and Africa’s peace and justice, is not in Africa’s interest. These are the factors we must bear in mind when assessing our relationship to China. If we look at Chinese involvement in Sudan, we can certainly say that it is not good for human rights in Africa.

What can Africa do to improve the relationship to Europe?
Africa needs to actively articulate a well-defined agenda and strategy. Africa must not wait and only react. Seven years after the Cotonou Agreement, we still do not have a shared EPA strategy. Africa waited for all this time, and then only reacted to what Europe proposed. Second, Africa needs to push its values that can bring a different approach to development, and not only wait for European approaches. Africa must stop only to play the second fiddle in this relationship.

Questions by Tillmann Elliesen.