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Speeches

H. Frendo: Europe and Africa, A Historian’s Perspective

Address to the International Leadership Conference
Valletta, Malta - November 5, 2011

 

It is with some trepidation that I venture briefly to approach such a sensitive and complex and necessary subject to highlight as European-African relations. There is no given point in time at which history ends. Because life is never static, much less fossilized, new premises and theses are continually forming. The discourse on Europe-Africa relations has changed even within the last decade.

Being myself a former colonized subject and a subject of colonialism, not least in my own country – which has seen one foreign domination after another for centuries, longer than most African countries, until independence finally arrived in 1964 – and having lived and worked in various African countries both north and south of the Sahara, I may be in a somewhat better position to empathize with the phenomena and dilemmas which still haunt this crucial but slowly changing relationship.

It is perhaps ironical that in a part of the world where the human species originated, let alone the Soap Stone bird of Matabeleland and suchlike, a number of European powers should have sought domination and exploitation, camouflaged by a civilizing mission, otherwise known as modernization and development. Broadly European-driven exploration and discovery, science and industry, renaissance, reformation and revolution, enlightenment and romanticism, gave way to imperialism and occupation as the rival competition for markets, resources, and indeed territory, escalated.

The tables then began to turn especially after the Second World War. In ways not unlike the anti-French uprisings on mainland Europe inspired by the very French notions of liberty, fraternity, and equality, so too throughout Africa and elsewhere, similar democratic norms preached in theory but rarely practiced on the ground by the imperial European powers bolstered nationalist movements aspiring idealistically to liberation, freedom, and progress. This is what the British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan was trying to say in justification of decolonization, four years after the Anglo-French driven debacle in Suez, Egypt, when on February 3, 1960, he told the Houses of Parliament of the Union of South Africa:

“The wind of change is blowing through, and whether we like it or not this growth of national consciousness is a political fact. We must all accept it as a fact, and our national policies must take account of it.”

Only four months earlier, on November 5, 1959, at the height of the ideological-military post-war divide known as the Cold War (the death of which was announced by presidents Bush and Gorbachev in Valletta in December 1989), the Guinean president Sekou Toure had told the General Assembly of the United Nations:

“It is not Africa which should be asked whether it belongs to one camp or another; it is rather to the two camps, to the East and to the West, that we must put the question which we consider as fundamental and of paramount importance: yes or no, are you for the liberation of Africa?”

Liberation, equality, fraternity, freedom, progress. But of course, as we all know, the proof of the pudding is in the eating.

One gnawing problematic was coming to terms with the would-be meaning of a nation-state. This is what after the First World War, US President Woodrow Wilson was trying to address when, as one of his Fourteen Points, he proposed that state boundaries should respect the nationalities within them – thus, the Kurdish people were to be grouped within the same state, Kurdistan. This can be problematic – Balkanization had long been spoken of derogatively before – so much so that even the Organization of African Unity, now the African Union, was prone not to encourage messing around with existing state frontiers, however arbitrarily these may have been drawn up in Berlin in 1884 or otherwise. But it is less than a year ago that in spite of, or perhaps because of, all its problems an African state, the largest one so far, agreed internally, not without difficulty and after a referendum, to allow its onetime southern part to form an independent nation-state of its own. Expecting Europe to advise or assist if and as required is all the good, but ultimately there is no European blueprint for successful governance in Africa or anywhere else. In a critique of forced assimilation, one little-known Fabian scholar, who was once proposed unsuccessfully to direct UNESCO, Alfred Zimmern, put it like this:

“Nationality is an element that springs from the deepest side of man’s nature; you can destroy it by severing men from their past and from the immemorial traditions, affections, and restraints which bind them to their kin and country, but you cannot replace it; for in the isolated shrunken individual, the cut flower of humanity with whom you have now to deal, you have nothing left to work on.”

He was writing in London in 1918. The world, including both Europe and Africa, has much changed since then; but there is a lingering worth in his warning. The aftermath of oppression will still remain – the bitter memories and the inbred intolerance which are so often the fruit of persecution, and the habits of servility and wire-pulling, of intrigue and agitation – but, he wrote, nations cannot achieve true freedom through diplomacy or even through war: “They must win it for themselves in the region of the spirit.” A spirit with which one would associate moral giants of the caliber of Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu in South Africa.

More pertinently and incisively, one editor, Bona Malwal, writing in Khartoum in the Sudan Times edition of December 8, 1987 under the heading “On Human Rights and the Freedom of the Press,” expressed an overriding challenge thus:

“If government repression is the usual cause of the demise of a free press in the third world, there are also more subtle elements at work. None of our societies can claim a liberal democratic past, or in most cases, a strong respect for the rights of individuals. The social and economic institutions of our past have been based on the family, tribe, ethnic, or religious identification. While we continue to value these elements of our identity, the very existence of the nation-state means that our loyalties have to stretch to encompass those who are not members of our families, tribes, or share our ethnic origin or our religious faith. This is not an easy transition to make and it took centuries to produce the far from complete level of national integration we see today in the West.”

There was then the riveting distinction between nation and state. The welfare of the nation, the Sudan Times emphatically held,

“should not be confused with identifying the nation with the interests of those who control the state. Quite the contrary, in our weakly-developed nation-state, with limited means of accountability and a still fledgling parliament, the press can uphold its finest traditions by defending the weak, questioning the strong, always showing skepticism, and never being afraid to challenge those in authority.”

These considerations apply well beyond the Sudanese borders, to its north or south, and they would have to be taken together with several Euro-African initiatives that have been put into place in recent years and not only after the Lisbon Treaty. These new mainly EU-driven frameworks for European relations with Africa, with a view to a better political, economic, and social future, are certainly not solely or simply in fields of humanitarian aid – although ECHO, the European Commission’s Humanitarian Organization, also dispenses an annual budget of some one billion Euros. Racism, intolerance, and repression, however, have never been of one color. In this day and age, not much will be gained by singing about killing the white man; cutting your nose to spite your face; or some ‘lady president’ plundering gold or diamonds while swimming in wealth as the people themselves are silenced by an omnipresent surveillance or reduced from relative material well-being, however unequal, to the brink of starvation, at the same time that manifest electoral preferences go unheeded in brutal fashion. Deng Xiaoping, a Communist no less, once said that a good cat was the one which caught the mice.

As the Arab Spring has shown heroically in the past year, post-colonialism certainly does not mean that it is anybody’s lot passively and indefinitely to accept being suppressed and abused, so long as that is done by a set of your own countrymen! It has been well said, however ominously, that those who live by the sword die by the sword, but there is also a safer way, the ballot box. Colonialism was a potent and lasting force, but we can hardly go on blaming it for everything for ever.

Although liberal democracy is not the only possible way forward, and there have been other functional, more communally-based benevolent versions of subsistence, we have seen a trend towards reasonably successful African democratic transitions in recent years, which could possibly serve as role models for others. I have mentioned South Sudan and South Africa, but look for examples at the turn-around in Mozambique after Machel, or Zambia for that matter. Sometimes the singer is more important than the song. More recently, there were elections and not always easily rendered reconciliations in, among others, Cape Verde, Ghana, Guinea, Niger, Togo, Benin, Liberia, Cote d’Ivoire, and Kenya.

The world remains transfixed by the popular and courageous Arab uprisings upsetting decades-long dictatorships, which had rather portrayed themselves as invincible dynasties. While European countries and the so-called West have helped and are committed to assist in various ways - mainly through the EU, multilaterally and bilaterally, in spite of the current financial uncertainty - nevertheless, these people-propelled changes of regime or of consensus by general election are and should be seen as essentially African initiatives and achievements. Naturally, challenge and difficulties abound but, as US Ambassador Daniel Patrick Moynihan once told the UN Security Council, “Life was not meant to be easy.”

The senior professor of history in Malta and an internationally published author, Henry Frendo is director of the Institute of Maltese Studies, chairman of the University of Malta’s editorial board and of Malta’s refugee appeals tribunal, and a governor of the Asia-Europe Foundation. He is reviews editor of the Journal of Mediterranean Studies as well as a member of the Council of Europe’s committee of experts on local government and of the International Association of Refugee Law Judges. He served with UNHCR in Europe, Africa, and Asia, and has been a visiting professor in European, American, and Australian universities. His book Europe and Empire: Culture, Politics and Identity in Malta and the Mediterranean (Midsea, Valletta, 860 pp) is being launched in December.