Colonialism by another name

AFRICAN countries have of late tried to show their robust and militant side in demanding equality with the rest of the world, especially the West. This has been illustrated in demands f

or a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council and other representative international bodies.

President Mugabe has added his weight to this macho figure of Africa by declaring that Zimbabwe will not be dictated to by the West on issues of governance and human rights.

This same Africa, which has started to throw its weight around is also keen to show the world how small it is when asked to sign formal trade deals with the West.

This is the contradiction of Africa where its leaders want, in spirit, Europe to treat the continent as an equal, yet they want anything but parity at the negotiating table on trade.

In Lisbon during the EU-Africa summit — dubbed the summit of equals — last weekend the European Union proposed a new trading arrangement to replace the current dispensation — allowing special treatment — which become illegal on January 1.

In its place, the EU has proposed a new package, Economic Protection Agreements (EPAs). They offer African, Caribbean and Pacific countries full access to EU markets while allowing them to protect about 20% of their own industries, including some of the most vulnerable. Exposure to competition from Europe would be phased in only gradually. It would be a gentle introduction to the world of free trade where Africa will have to compete on an equal footing with the rest of the world.

But Africa has said no to this arrangement. The continent says it requires special treatment. It cannot open its markets to European goods because that would kill off the still developing industries on the continent. African leaders argue they need more time to prepare their weaker economies for the impact of the end of preferential trade arrangements. South African President Thabo Mbeki and Abdoulaye Wade of Senegal led the charge to reject the trade proposals.

“It’s clear that Africa rejects the EPAs,” Wade told reporters. “We are not talking any more about EPAs, we’ve rejected them… we’re going to meet to see what we can put in place of the EPAs.”

Alpha Oumar Konare, head of the African Union Commission, said in an opening address: “Africa intends to draw up its own agenda and take responsibility for its own future rather than run behind others and try and catch them up.”

By rejecting the proposals Africa is sending out a clear message that it is content with playing catch up with the developed world. African leaders — including our own — have failed to exorcise the ghost of colonialism from their failed systems of governance. While the summit, the first in seven years, was supposed to put colonial history firmly in the past, it failed dismally on this front. Africa as a continent today cannot meet and agree on a plan that can be implemented collectively as Wade promised.

The leaders of this vast continent, while speaking cordially of their fraternal bonds are still in varying stages of political evolution. President Mugabe represents those who still find it convenient to blame colonial rulers for all the continent’s failures of the present. This group does not have its eyes on trade.

We do not expect the continent to reach consensus soon on the modalities of a trade agreement with Europe. Even if such a document is penned, there is bound to be disagreements on its implementation just as the continent’s leaders have quarrelled over issues like Nepad, the operations of the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights and conflict resolution.

The Zimbabwe government today regards the African Commission as a sinister creation of imperialists, even though President Mugabe appended his signature on the founding document setting up the charter. Its crime? It has condemned Zimbabwe’s human rights deficit. African leaders are good at signing documents at conferences and condemning the same when they return home. Is it not ironic that in Lisbon President Mugabe — known for human rights abuses together with other dictators on the continent — signed a democracy pledge in which they promised to “build a new strategic political partnership for the future, overcoming the traditional donor-recipient relationship and building on common values and goals in our pursuit of peace and stability, democracy and the rule of law, progress and development”?

African countries will soon discover that exchanging one form of colonial bondage for another is not a way forward. What we will probably see now is some states or regional groups forging their own arrangements with the EU. Africa will probably be the poorer for failing to grasp the trade nettle in Lisbon.

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