“I take off for Kigali; I have a deep conviction that over the next few hours, we are going to write together a new page in our relationship with Rwanda and Africa”, Macron tweeted on May 26. During a joint press conference with President Kagame in Kigali, the French President added, “For the last four years, France has not lectured anyone,” Macron said in reference to his time in office, thereby distancing himself from the traditional patronizing attitude of the Élysée towards Africa. Macron said he is setting the stage for a new generation of French and African youth that will relate on the basis of mutual respect. But Macron added that his efforts to steer a new path for Europe and Africa pose significant threats and “risks.” He is right, and here’s why.
Ever since Africans got political independence, they have clamoured for respect. They understood that, as a colonised people, they had no basis to demand respect from their colonisers since to be colonised is to lose one’s dignity. This is why this demand accompanied formal independence. However, Europeans, from whom the demand was being made, were not quite ready. And so, just like the cosmetic independence they had given, they extended respect in form but not in substance.
In the 1990s, Europeans were eager to perform sensitivity towards this clamour for respect. It was wrong to refer to these countries as “third world”, and it was an outdated terminology that belonged to the cold war days and not in the civilised era of democratisation. These were developing countries.
Moreover, the relationship would no longer be that of donor and recipient. It would be that of development partners, signaling mutual respect and a shared goal. These were some of their performances. However, last December, the Europe-Africa High-Level Group of Personalities met for the 5th time and, once again, the issue of respect was at the centre. It seems Africans are tired of cosmetic respect. They want substance.
“Let’s not ask what can be done for Africa,” President Kagame told Europeans, suggesting that the quest for mutual respect should replace that question with another: “What can Europe and Africa do together for mutual benefit, which neither can accomplish alone?”
Kagame is of the view that if Europe is being sincere about their desire to overcome a dubious past with Africa, then they must confront this question as a means of a new relationship of “clarity” and “mutual respect and accountability.”
Exploitation in the guise of charity
However, clarity doesn’t seem very attractive to the West. For one thing, clarity would expose the truth about charity: that it is a veil of exploitation. For another, it would remove the deception around who is helping who.
Consider this. “African countries received around $19 billion in aid but over three times that much($68 billion) was taken out in capital flight, mainly by multinational companies deliberately misreporting the value of their imports or exports to recuse tax,” according to a recent report the UK-based Global Justice Report titled “How the World Profits from Africa’s Wealth.” The report shows that “African governments received $32.8 billion in loans but paid $18 billion in debt interest and principal payments, with the overall level of debt rising rapidly,” and that “an estimated $29 billion a year was stolen from Africa in illegal logging, fishing and the trade in wildlife and plants.”
France’s colonial pacts with many African countries still stand to this day. Consider the fact that 14 African countries deposit half of their foreign reserves in France’s central bank, an amount that is “larger than the GDPs of all except two,” as Warah pointed out in “What is AU doing to liberate the former French colonies?” These “Francophone” West African countries cannot access the money they deposit in France’s central bank; they can’t withdraw more than 15% of their money in any given year; otherwise, they would be penalised. “If they need more,” Warah reveals, “they have to ‘borrow’ it at commercial rates.”
But there’s more. “The pact further ensures that France or French companies receive priority when it comes to buying or investing in the natural resources of these countries. France also has the exclusive right to supply these countries with military equipment and to militarily intervene in them — this explains why French troops are always the first on the ground when a Francophone African country experiences conflict,” she writes.
To give up charity is to give up exploitation and the prerogative for “an attitude of adult supervision,” which sits side by side with Europe’s claim that it seeks a relationship with Africans based on mutual respect.
“There cannot be a mutually respectful partnership premised on the unspoken assumption that one party lacks values, or has defective values, while the other party is a fully-formed moral agent,” Kagame had told the gathering of the Europe-Africa summit last year.
In other words, Europeans have not just been asking themselves what to do for Africa; they are also answering. By answering, they dictate to Africans how they should manage their affairs, which Macron, during his visit to Kigali, insisted has not been happening during his time in office.
Charity, therefore, remains a stumbling block in the quest for a mutually respectful relationship between Europe and Africa. Africa says Europe cannot usurp its agency that demands mutual respect through trade and investment. Europe, however, insists on charity. “He who does not feed you can demand nothing from you,” goes the oft-quoted statement by Thomas Sankara. Both parties know that the gi receiving of charity provokes and invites disrespect, supervisory interference and, most importantly, preserves the relationship of exploitation and control. Ultimately, it’s about perspectives: mutual relationship in trade and investment would be costly for Europeans.
The trade that Africans want, for instance, is different from the kind Europe has been imposing on them through the WTO, which is as imbalanced as the relationship between Europe and Africa. For these reasons, Europe is not ready to abandon an approach that has served it so well simply because Africans want to be respected.
Africa has a chip to play
In the past, Africans didn’t have much leverage to enforce their demand for genuine respect. For this reason, it always settled for cosmetic rather than substantive forms of respect. However, the shifting global alignment in general and China’s strong footprints in Africa introduced a chip that Africans can use in this regard. It is, therefore, not surprising that the Chinese have been saying that, unlike the West, they respect the choice of Africans. For long, they have been saying what Macron now says his government has been doing, at least for the past four years – not lecturing Africans. This terminology of respect on the part of the Chinese is not an accident.
However, they didn’t have to say this: their very presence as an alternative was a sufficient chip for Africans to use in their quest for respect with an unrepentant Europe that had been deceptive and exploitative for far too long, especially since to give up charity was to give up exploitation; to end dependency is to cancel the invitation to disrespect.
In other words, the status quo has kept Africa in a straitjacket of exploitation and interference, with charity covering it up in humanitarian garb. Consequently, since independence in the 1950s-1960s, Africa’s share of global trade has hovered around a measly 3%. But now it has the chip to play; it can leverage itself out of it, mainly because it remains an attractive market and investment destination.
Africa’s resilience “defies global slump,” according to the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD). It is not just the Chinese, either. It’s Turkey, Russia, and Qatar, among others, who are part of the shifting economic global realignment whose focus is squarely on Africa. Whether Africa will play that chip is quite another issue. Smart leaders in Europe know this. So do those in Africa. Macron knows that Kagame is not the kind of leader to waste a chip. It is why Macron is trying to save Europe from itself. However, the greed of the French elite is preventing it from seeing what Macron is seeing. Macron said this himself. He spoke about the “risks” he was taking due to the perception back home in French, mainly from the elite who had warned him that his posture of humility towards Africa in general and Rwanda in particular was “weakening” France when, in his view, he is “strengthening” it. In other words, Macron is telling his compatriots to see the forest, not just the trees. However, they don’t seem ready mainly because, as Kagame observed, “The veneer of moral superiority …that made a foreseeable genocide in Africa seem tolerable” remains strong in France and the rest of Europe.
If Macron faces risks for respecting Africans, how about the Africans demanding respect? Although the nature of the risks has changed from the times of Sankara and Lumumba regarding their fate for insisting that Africa be respected, it would be naïve to believe that those resisting change to the status quo have entirely abandoned their methods.
However, the leverage Africans now have brings new dynamics for managing the risks. At any rate, what’s clear is that Africa’sliberation is going to involve more African leaders telling their European counterparts the truth that the status quo can no longer hold and that, for the latter to save their own societies, both are going to have to take some risks. Otherwise, it will be a double tragedy that Africans will have left such a powerful chip, capable of altering the fortunes of generations, unplayed.
This article was first published in the July 2021 issue of the Pan African Review Magazine, African Liberation Special.