EU-Africa forum a wake-up call for African leaders

No Comments » April 6th, 2014 posted by // Categories: African Affairs



EU-Africa forum a wake-up call for African leaders

To avoid needless humiliation, the AU should own and host such meetings within the continent


European Commission President Jose Barroso (left) and EU Council President Herman Van Rompuy (right) welcome President Uhuru Kenyatta in Brussels on April 3, 2014. PHOTO | GEORGES GOBET
European Commission President Jose Barroso (left) and EU Council President Herman Van Rompuy (right) welcome President Uhuru Kenyatta in Brussels on April 3, 2014. PHOTO | GEORGES GOBET

The African corridors of power are awash with high-flown talk about “equal partnerships” with old and emerging global powers, and the mantra of “Africa’s ownership” of its development process.

But the mortifying treatment of some African delegates — including the refusal of travel visas to Europe by organisers of the Fourth Africa-European Union Summit in Brussels on April 2-3, revealed a continent still deep in the woods. (READ: Mugabe pulls out of EU-Africa summit over wife’s visa)

The events bring back to mind the words of my grandfather, who, drawing on the collective wisdom of the enchanted “Rwathia Hills”, would advise against the chicken syndrome — a reference to the proverbial African chicken that, even after it is untied and set free, has to be kicked hard to realise that it is surely free!

Africa’s unfinished business in the 21st century is to “decolonise its mind”— to borrow Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s apt title.

This week’s Brussels forum was the fourth in a series of summits mooted in 2000 to strengthen Europe’s “historical ties” with Africa in an increasingly uncertain multi-polar world.

In many ways, the summit was styled along other global partnerships to which Africa has been drawn in the last decade, such as the Tokyo International Conference on African Development, the Africa Forum on China–Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) and the India–Africa Forum.

The meeting also reflected the new age of Afro-optimism, when Africa is recognised as an axial actor in shaping the future of global economy. In over a decade, the image of Africa in global affairs has changed dramatically.

At the dawn of the new millennium, The Economist brushed off Africa as a hopeless continent (13/5/2000), echoing the afro-pessimism of the ages that defined Europe’s view of the continent — reflected in Joseph Conrad’s classic novel, Heart of Darkness. A decade later, the same magazine unveiled Africa as a rising and hopeful continent with “a real chance to follow in the footsteps of Asia” (3/12/2011).

Africa is, now, the new kid on the block, sought after by old and new economic powers. Tilting the balance of power and perception is Africa’s fabulous wealth of natural resources, an economy growing faster than any other continent (by more than 6%), the second most populous continent on earth with an estimated population of 1.033 billion people in 2013 and the second largest mobile market.


But as the adage goes, old habits die hard. Former colonial powers have retained almost intact the visions of their African empire, and continue to treat the continent as their backyard.

Even though the recent Africa-EU forum was jointly organised by the African Union and the EU as equal partners, Europe unilaterally determined which African leader was to or not to attend the meeting. Africa did not have similar powers to decide which European leader should or should not attend the forum.

The organisers went ahead to deny travel visas to certain blacklisted AU leaders, including Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe, Sudan’s Omar Al Bashir, Eritrea’s Isaias Afwerki and the delegation from the Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic.

In the past, this would have gone unchallenged by African leaders, who used to look to Whitehall or the Élysée for nods of acceptance. But no longer solely dependent on the EU — mired in its own economic crunch — as a development partner, Africa has grown increasingly assertive.

As such, the AU Peace and Security Council protested against the refusal of travel visas to some of its members, arguing that the EU has only the right to determine who in its own delegation should attend but not the composition of Africa’s delegation.

The AU organ reportedly urged a boycott of the meeting, forcing Europe to cede ground and waive the visa ban on Mugabe. Brussels also disavowed an earlier refusal of visa to President Uhuru Kenyatta’s head of security, Edward Mbugua. (READ: Kenya protests visa denial for Uhuru’s security chief)

This followed Nairobi’s threat to cancel its participation, and a deepening diplomatic row involving Ethiopia, Rwanda and Uganda which also threatened to pull out of the meeting in solidarity with Kenya.

However, Belgium declined to grant Zimbabwe First Lady Grace Mugabe, an EU visa to attend the event. Both presidents Mugabe and South Africa’s Jacob Zuma boycotted the summit.

“Time must pass wherein we are looked at as subjects, we are told who must come [and] who must not come… We have not attempted to decide when we meet Europe, who must come and who must not come,” said Zuma.

“It is wrong and causes this unnecessary unpleasantness…I thought the AU and EU are equal organisations representing two continents but there is not a single one of them who must decide for others,” he added.

Adding to Pretoria outrage was the EU’s one-sided decision to invite Morocco, which is not a member of the AU, to the forum, arguing that the summit was called the EU-Africa summit and not the EU-AU summit. Moreover, an earlier move to cancel 12 bilateral treaties with Europe has turned frosty South Africa’s relations with Brussels.

The EU summit is likely to cast a long shadow over a similar United States–Africa Leaders’ Summit slated for August this year in Washington DC. Even though attendance is by invitation, President Barrack Obama’s decision to invite 47 African heads of state and drop eight others from the guestlist — Central Africa Republic, Egypt, Eritrea, Guinea-Bissau, Madagascar, Sudan, Western Sahara and Zimbabwe — is likely to stoke controversy.

In many ways, the EU-Africa summit is a wake-up call to Africa to genuinely take charge of its own Affairs. Africa has to change its tact in dealing with its global partnerships. In order to avoid needless humiliation and to minimise costly and uncalled-for globe-totting to myriad and potentially conflicting and confusing summits on its own development, the AU should own and host such meetings within the continent.

Prof Kagwanja is the Chief Executive of the Africa Policy Institute.


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