Africa's Plight How Europe Lost Africa

The future of Europe's special relationship with Africa is at risk as former colonies react to a blasé, if not hypocritical, European attitude toward the continent. European-style institutions could enter a profound crisis of legitimacy if things do not change soon.
Von Dominic Johnson
2007 was a year of debacles for European-African relations.

2007 was a year of debacles for European-African relations.


Africa currently has bad press in Europe. In Kenya, rigged elections recently triggered ethnic unrest . In South Africa, political tension accompanied the rise of populist Jacob Zuma  to the leadership of the ruling African National Congress. These events, among others, give the impression that even Africa's model states are at risk of backsliding, to say nothing of the perennial problem nations like Sudan, Somalia, or Democratic Republic of Congo.

But Europe currently has bad press in Africa too. The pressure exerted by the European Union on African governments to sign new free trade deals, the continuing crisis over illegal migration , and a perceived reluctance of European institutions to engage with their African counterparts have created the impression that Europe is an unreliable partner for an Africa seeking to redefine its place in the world order. This crisis of mutual perception between Europe and Africa is real and, with hindsight, 2007 may come to be regarded as the year of missed opportunities -- the year when Europe finally lost the preeminence it once had in Africa.

Controversy over free trade and Economic Partnership Agreements (EPAs) is not necessarily the source of mutual distrust. But since these new trade arrangements will profoundly impact almost every African country, the political pressure is fierce. In 2005 the European Union, pushed by the World Trade Organization to dismantle the Lomé/Cotonou system of trade preferences for 78 former European colonies (the ACP countries), set the end of 2007 as a deadline to sign agreements for virtually complete free trade in both directions. This would have meant a total opening of European markets and the opening of 80 percent of ACP markets after a transition period of ten years. It was, however, rejected by most countries in Africa: Governments feared the loss of customs revenues that account for around a quarter of state revenues in Africa, and business communities feared unfair competition from subsidized European imports.

Africa's leverage on this issue was constrained by conflicting interests. The Least Developed Countries, which include the majority of ACP countries, already enjoy free access to EU markets under the "Everything but Arms" initiative. For them a free trade agreement would mean opening their own markets to European goods and services. They therefore had no incentive to sign. Medium-income countries, on the other hand, faced losing existing market access to the European Union at the end of 2007 without an agreement and felt under pressure to negotiate at least a temporary replacement.

The diversity of interests was compounded by the insistence of the European Union on negotiating not with the African Union, its natural pan-continental partner in Africa, but with individual states grouped by region. As the conflict of interests between lower-income and middle-income countries came to the fore and the deadline neared, the European Union even took to closing deals with individual African states. This has caused a great deal of concern in Africa, as Europe -- which usually promotes African integration and likes to have a joint EU face for anything it does on the African continent -- has now adopted a “pick and choose” attitude.

By the end of 2007, only the Caribbean region had signed a full EPA with the European Union. Some other countries signed Interim Economic Partnership Agreements (IEPAs), pending the negotiation of a final settlement within the coming years. Even including these, only 35 of 78 ACP countries have signed any form of new trade deal -- a minority, especially in Africa. The countries of the East African Community, which includes Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Rwanda, and Burundi, signed en bloc at the end of November, but they were the only regional group to do so. In West Africa, only the Ivory Coast and Ghana signed -- two middle-income countries. In central Africa, again the only middle-income country, Cameroon, was alone in signing an IEPA. In southern Africa, Botswana, Lesotho, Swaziland, Mozambique, and Namibia were the only states to sign.

The EPAs are thus unfinished business and the area of trade remains a contentious issue. Europe does not appear to understand this. At the EU-African summit in Lisbon in December 2007, the African side surprised its European counterpart by wanting to put trade back on the agenda when Europeans considered the issue closed. The final summit declaration, which talks about a “partnership of equals” between Europe and Africa, does not mention trade at all. It is an exceptionally bland document.

Migration is another issue that is not often at the fore of political discussions but that concerns all Africans and affects their perception of Europe. Outrage over the number of Africans who die while trying to reach Europe by boat, when all other routes of legal immigration are blocked by law, continues unabated. In the course of 2007, some 1,861 migrants died trying to cross into Europe by sea, according to the Italian monitoring organization Fortress Europe. This is only a slight improvement upon 2006, when the number of known deaths was 2,088.1

Yet no European government feels compelled to act to save these lives. Fishermen from Tunisia and Italy have even been prosecuted for abetting “human trafficking” because they rescued migrants at sea. Illegal migration is seen exclusively as a security issue by Europe, and in the course of 2007 the European Union decided to make its maritime frontier patrols, organized by the EU border security agency, permanent. This may have deterred some crossings, but the body count shows that it has not provided security to migrants. The European Union is also increasingly relying on North African countries, especially Algeria and Libya, to do some of the dirty work in repelling migrants on its behalf by rounding up, interning, and deporting illegal sub-Saharan travellers. Despite shocking reports of abuse in desert detention camps in Libya, none of the many state dignitaries from Europe visiting North Africa last year voiced concern about the matter. In fact, European leaders are instead in stiff competition to close the best business deals  with the Libyan dictator, Muammar el-Qaddafi, who is never subjected to the same criticism regarding democracy and human rights as sub-Saharan governments.

African observers take note of this much more than European observers do—and much more than Europeans think Africans do. It fundamentally alienates them from any European rhetoric about democracy. Africans also note with incredulity that anti-African racism is still a feature of European political discourse. Nicolas Sarkozy, the newly elected French president, caused a storm of protest throughout Africa on his first visit to the continent in July when he gave a speech riddled with racist clichés at the University of Dakar in Senegal. Colonialism, he said, was not responsible for genocide, dictatorship, fanaticism, and corruption in Africa today. “Africa’s tragedy is that the African man has not entered into history sufficiently. The African peasant, who since time immemorial has lived according to the rhythm of the seasons and whose ideal is to be in harmony with nature -- he knows only the endless return of time structured by the endless repetition of the same gestures and the same words. In this mode of thought there is no place for the adventure of humanity or the idea of progress ... That is Africa’s problem."2

Giving Europe a Reputation as Child Snatchers

To gauge the scale of Africa’s astonishment at this language, one has to imagine an African leader coming to the London School of Economics or the Sorbonne and telling the continent’s leading intellectuals that Europe has remained in a time warp of never-ending religious wars, ideological dictatorships, and ethnic cleansing. Not many Africans still believed in Europe setting the agenda of global political debate in any case, but Sarkozy’s speech seemed to prove to them that not Africa but Europe, in this case France, was stuck in an “endless repetition of the same gestures and the same words” toward the African continent.

This was not the only French faux pas in Africa. Furor ensued when it was announced that visa applicants from some African countries would now be required to provide genetic proof of a family relationship to visit their relatives living in France. And in October a group of French aid workers working for the humanitarian agency l’Arche de Zoé  were arrested at the airport of Abéché in eastern Chad while trying to smuggle over a hundred Chadian children, disguised as injured Sudanese orphans, out of the country. The culprits had advertised to possible foster parents in France that they would save child victims of the war in Darfur, but once at work in Chad, according to journalists accompanying them, they blackmailed Chadian families into handing over their children. But a Chadian court later found them guilty of child abduction and sentenced them to forced labor before they were extradited to France to serve their jail sentences there. Chad is party to Africa’s most complex humanitarian disaster  with hundreds of thousands of Sudanese refugees on its soil and a Sudan-supported insurgency in the same area. But now a French aid agency has achieved what Pan-Africanist or Islamist propaganda had failed to do: give Europeans a reputation as child snatchers.

Chadian public opinion was especially incensed at a comment made by Sarkozy shortly after the arrest of the French aid workers, namely that he would bring them home “no matter what they have done.” Opposition figures argued this proved France’s disdain for Chadian efforts to build up the rule of law and to end the existing culture of impunity and arbitrary justice. Officially such efforts are the centerpiece of European development aid in Africa, and in Chad the trial of l’Arche de Zoé was welcomed not only as a manifestation of justice, but also as a precedent for Chadians themselves seeking judicial redress in their own affairs.

The only thing, it seems, that Europe can still do better than others in Africa is military intervention. The EU force, EUFOR, in Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) has widely been seen as a success since its presence during the 2006 elections prevented a violent clash between the supporters of main contenders Joseph Kabila and Jean-Pierre Bemba. Sadly, after EUFOR left, Kabila proceeded to drive Bemba into exile and kill large numbers of his followers in a bloody battle in the capital’s center in March 2007.3 A second, much bigger EUFOR force was then proposed by France to secure the Darfur refugee camps in eastern Chad—and, simultaneously, to stabilize the volatile civil war in this region and in the northeast of the Central African Republic, where Sudanese-sponsored rebels had been beaten back by French special forces.

But the Chadian mission ran into trouble long before it got off the ground. Many EU countries, including heavyweights Britain and Germany, refused to participate from the outset. The disapproval of Germany was especially disappointing for Paris, as Germany had been the lead nation in the DRC mission. The l’Arche de Zoé problem in Chad gravely concerned the European military, who feared that the deployment of EUFOR might be impossible in the face of hostile local public opinion. The reticence of potential troop contributors was only reinforced by rebel threats to treat European troops as an enemy. It was not until January 2008 that France saved the mission by agreeing to provide the necessary troops, equipment, and air transport.

Given that in neighboring Darfur the United Nations has even greater problems with the new joint UN-AU mission called UNAMID, which officially took over from the existing African Union force on January 1, 2008, the European Union can still be optimistic regarding Chad. At least EUFOR-Chad will have capable battle units and helicopters, which UNAMID in Darfur does not have. But whether EUFOR-Chad will actually work on the ground remains to be seen, especially as France is now going to do most of the work—la Grande Nation has a history of constantly meddling in the internal politics of Chad and the Central African Republic. It appears highly likely that this will be the last European military mission in Africa in the foreseeable future.

Africa is sick of being seen primarily as a problem, and this is why African alienation from Europe is growing so fast. The issue of Zimbabwe’s controversial president Robert Mugabe’s presence at the EU-Africa summit in Lisbon in December 2007 was revealing in more than one respect. No EU-African summit had been held since 2000 because Europe refused to allow the Zimbabwean president to attend. This time, Portugal, the host nation, said that the African side would decide who should come from Africa. Britain’s prime minister Gordon Brown then said he would not come if Mugabe came. Europe and Africa faced each other down, and Europe blinked first: Mugabe came, Brown stayed away, and the summit would probably not have been any more compelling if attendance had been the other way round. For many Africans, Mugabe has become an issue of principle. His brutality toward his own people is not condoned, but no one wants to hear this from the Europeans.

One of the attractions of China as a partner for Africa, not just in business but also in politics, is that China sees Africa not as a problem but as an opportunity . In recent months China has signed massive investment agreements with South Africa and DRC—in South Africa it is taking a 20 percent stake in the Standard Bank, Africa’s largest banking group, for 5.5 billion US dollars; in Congo it is taking up as yet unspecified mining concessions in return for 6.5 billion US dollars worth of infrastructure investments that DRC will partly repay using Chinese loans. No European firm or government has entered into business agreements of this magnitude in Africa.

European businesses complain that Chinese state firms enjoy state backing and risk mitigation that they lack, but this only goes to show that European governments do not back up their rhetoric regarding investment opportunities on the African continent. Europe also prefers to stick to its dependence on Russian natural gas and Middle Eastern oil instead of expanding its involvement in the burgeoning African oil and gas sector, as the United States is doing.

The long-term consequences of Africa’s drifting away from Europe (in geopolitical terms) are not yet clear. Africa continues to undergo high population growth and rapid urbanization, and the new generation of urban youth is increasingly alienated from its own traditions and also from links to former colonial powers. It sees itself as part of the world, and New York, Dubai, and Shanghai are reference points just as valid as London and Paris.

In many crucial ways, African dependence on Europe will continue but will come under increasing pressure. Almost all African countries use a European language to conduct state affairs, business, education, and the administration of justice. The constitutions, legal frameworks, and education systems of many African countries are still modeled on those of their respective former colonial powers, even though some countries with long histories of political turbulence are finding it necessary to jettison parts of the colonial model and adapt to current challenges. But if African-European interaction continues to decline, even on the level of cultural and personal contacts, the colonial heritage will cease to be a living part of African identity and the European-style institutions still governing Africa will enter a crisis of legitimacy that could lead to political upheavals on a scale not yet foreseeable today.

Dominic Johnson is Africa editor of the German daily Die Tageszeitung.

1) These numbers may be underestimated as press reports from Senegal suggest a higher number of fatalities for the sea crossing between West Africa and the Canaries. See e.g.: “140 jeunes gens du Fouladou périssent en haute mer” Sud Quotidien, October 22, 2007, or “Sénégal: Emigration clandestine dans la région de Kolda—L’Afrique organise un forum sur le drame,” Wal Fadjri, January 3, 2008, which mentions a case of 172 deaths by drowning in September—two cases not picked up in European reports.

2) Unofficial English translation and French original available at: .

3) “Enquête spéciale sur les événements de mars 2007 à Kinshasa,” Report by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, published by the UN Mission in Congo .

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