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Colonial history tugs at EU-Africa ties
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08:40, December 05, 2007

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Zimbabwe's president has a simple answer to why his country's rich farmland is wasting away as inflation soars: colonialism.

While critics in and outside his country blame Robert Mugabe's land seizures and other policies for Zimbabwe's crisis, Mugabe told attendees at a recent state dinner that Britain, the former colonial master, was crippling his country.

Applause was loud and long.

European and African leaders want to look ahead to better trade deals, meeting the challenge of immigration and other issues at a summit of continents this weekend. But the past continues to tug at their relationship, with colonial wounds still painful - and still carrying political weight.

Mugabe's rhetoric and a standoff with Britain over his attendance at the EU-Africa summit has been the hot issue ahead of the talks.

Meanwhile, French President Nicolas Sarkozy called France's colonial system "profoundly unjust" during a visit to Algeria on Monday - a rare conciliatory move by a country that has repeatedly refused calls by Algeria to apologize for a sometimes brutal colonial regime.

Sarkozy announced more than euro5 billion ($7.3 billion) in contracts with Algeria during his visit.

"The past exists. The future is to be built," Sarkozy said.

The past is often a rallying cry for Africa.

Senegalese President Abdoulaye Wade took Mugabe's side last week, calling the Zimbabwean president his "African brother" and praising Mugabe as a fighter for the dignity of Africa during a one-day visit to Zimbabwe.

Wade charged that Zimbabwe's problems stemmed from its harsh colonial history. Though Mugabe's forced land redistribution is condemned by the West, the country he inherited in 1980 was shackled by a system in which a white elite controlled much of its land and wealth.

Senegal's transition from French rule was easier, Wade said, but bound him to Mugabe.

Across Africa, a desire to move beyond the colonial legacy often runs up against the usefulness of colonial history as a unifying force. It is a rare shared experience on a gigantic continent with thousands of languages and unique ethnic groups, where governments range from kingdoms to multiparty democracies to Islamic states. If nothing else, they can all trace their very borders to the decisions of European colonialists.

Ade Adefuye, the Africa head for the Commonwealth Secretariat that oversees the association of former British colonies, argued that revisiting colonial disputes can be counterproductive - overshadowing attempts to work on more immediate problems like cross-border banking fraud, trade barriers and governance while failing to actually make up for past injustices.

"You can't wish away the relics of colonization," said Adefuye, a Nigerian. "As an African, I see that it has had more negative impacts than positive impacts, but we should at least make use of the few positive impacts - like language and common political systems."

But a bitter history of exploitation is not easily shrugged off. Many African countries have tense relationships with their former colonizers that continue to affect trade deals and foreign policy.

Last week, a Chad rebel group declared a "state of war" against French and other foreign armies. France has 1,100 troops in Chad, a former French colony, and has used them to bolster a president who himself seized power in the central African country as the head of rebel forces.

France is expected to contribute about half the soldiers of a planned EU peacekeeping force for the parts of Chad and Central African Republic that border Sudan's volatile Darfur. But that force and another backed by the United Nations for Darfur itself have been delayed by supply and political problems, leading to criticism that the West only intervenes when it clearly benefits Western interests.

In Cote d'Ivoire, any foreign passport is more welcome than that of France, the former colonial power. Yet France continues to be deeply involved in the country's long attempt to reunite following a coup attempt that sparked civil war in 2002. French army forces continue to patrol hotspots in the middle of the country.

Even Mugabe's detractors often say they understand the urge to fight back against a condescending Europe.

John Nagenda, a senior adviser to Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni and harsh critic of Mugabe, said Zimbabwe's problems are an extreme version of what many former colonies experience with their one-time occupiers.

"There's the master-servant relationship, even if it's not as direct as it once was," Nagenda said. "Many ex-colonial masters feel, consciously or unconsciously, that they are the final arbiters of issues in the country."

Source: China Daily/Agencies

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