10 February 2002

Africa: Europe sheds crocodile tears for Africa

opinion

The crocodile has a strange eating way. You can never quite tell whether the gigantic reptile is happy or not, as he tackles his meal. Why, he seems to shed tears even as he eats.

The estuarine crocodile that lives by the sea has particularly been known to enjoy human flesh. More often than not, he swallows you whole, tears slowly rolling down its eyes. It is as if the animal is saying to its prey, 'I'm very sorry to be doing this to you. Be assured my sympathies rest with you'

The English do not trust votes of sympathy of this kind. They call them crocodile tears. Why should the crocodile eat you and mourn at the selfsame time?

Does Europe shed crocodile tears for Africa? Tuesday this week, Belgium officially apologised to the Democratic Republic of Congo for her role in the killing of the country's first Prime Minister, Patrice Lumumba, who was murdered on January 17, 1961.

Belgium's foreign minister, Louis Mitchell, told his country's Parliament that Belgium 'regretted' the role her leaders of 1961 played in the death of Lumumba.

The other western country usually associated with Lumumba's death is the United States of America. Will she take the cue and repent too?

Lumumba, a former postal employee, galvanised the Congolese struggle for independence in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

He borrowed his political fire from the Pan-Africanist shimmering coals of Ghana's Kwame Nkurumah and Guinea's Ahmed Sekou Toure.

History has records of his bristling resentment for Western imperialism in Africa.

By the same token, the West resented him. He was a clear obstacle to their intentions to exploit copper in Katanga and diamond in Kasai.

If the style today is to label everyone the West disagrees with a 'terrorist', the fashion then was to call you a 'communist'. Lumumba was declared a dangerous communist. He had to be annihilated. He did not live long after his country's independence.

As curious young boys and girls, we heard all manner of frightening tales about the death of Lumumba. Maybe now that Belgium admits her complicity in this grave matter she can be persuaded to lift the lid off puzzle?

The story used to go that Lumumba was turned into jelly in a drum of concentrated acid. But they also used to say that he had been buried alive in a pit latrine.

Whatever the case, it is instructive that the apology comes when those who stage-managed the killing are long gone. They cannot pay for their sins.

If Belgium should be taken seriously in this generous gesture, what are the lessons to be learnt? Is it possible that this new spirit could be written wider? Patrice Lumumba is a metaphor for the African fight for freedom.

Shortly before his evaporation, he made a moving statement in which he condemned imperialists and their quislings.

In a speech that the BBC replays from time to time, we hear Lumumba's shrill voice saying that those who do not love his people's freedom are planning to kill him.

And they eventually did kill him. Is Belgium apologising for killing the spirit of Africa's struggle for freedom?

If Belgium apologises for killing an African freedom fighter, is it possible for Europe and America to apologise for their contribution to the wretchedness in the continent generally? Could the annoying subject of reparations for sins against Africa be revisited?

Walter Rodney tells us how Europe underdeveloped Africa. For over five hundred years, they steadily ferreted away the best of the sons and daughters of Africa into slavery. When they were not doing this, they were colonising the continent. From Algiers to Nairobi, freedom fighters were demonised, massacred. When they said independence had come, they installed stooges that only served their interests.

And so Jaramogi Oginga Odinga cautioned us in 1967 that we had not yet got Uhuru. We still haven't.

More ironically, the Europe that preaches good governance today is the selfsame Europe that sponsored some of the worst dictatorships in Africa. And so while Mobutu raped the Congo and Marcus Ngwema looted Equatorial Guinea, Europe looked the other side.

Sometimes the pretext was thrown away. Papa Valery Giscard D'Estang of France is remembered for his cronyism with the man-eating Jean Bedel Bokassa. They exchanged diamonds and wines freely in ornate and gilded palaces while the people of the Central African Republic muddled in hopeless poverty. Does France not owe Africa an apology?

Does France owe Algeria an apology for the fighters who perished in the bloody war of independence? Would they consider apologising for the liquidation of Ibin Lafaiya Samori Toure and for destruction of the Mandinka Dyula civilisation in the nineteenth century?

It is British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, who has described Africa as 'a scar on the conscience of the world.' He has been visiting the scar this week, in Nigeria, Senegal, Sierra Leone and Ghana.

Mr Blair's visit is largely seen as an expression of his faith in the 'New African Initiative' of Olusegun Obasanjo and Thabo Mbeki. The duo believes that Africa is able to re-define her relationship with the rest of the world. That a new Africa can raise her head high in the assembly of nations.

The situation on the ground could not have been more discouraging.

Mr Blair arrived in Nigeria in the wake of some of the most nauseating tribal clashes in Lagos where the Yoruba and the Hausa have recently slaughtered one another like they did in 1967, as a curtain-raiser to the Biafra war. A week earlier, hundreds more perished in a mysterious inferno linked to the military.

And all this at a time when Britain's arms sales to Africa are projected to quadruple in the next three years.

Nigeria worries you. You cannot help wondering whether the military is not rehearsing for another comeback. When they are not slaughtering one another in Lagos they are planning to stone to death women who have babies out of wedlock. When it is not this, the military is slaying villagers.

Amidst all that, the Obasanjo government appears quite powerless. Is the 'new African initiative' a high sounding nothing?

The happenings in Nigeria find replication in many parts of the Continent. What is the connection between this wretchedness and the colonial legacy? Such are the questions Europe should be asking, if she is truly remorseful about her history in Africa.

Eventually, people like Blair and Mitchell may want to be part of a comprehensive, deliberate, planned and sustained redemption plan for Africa. Sporadic bouts of stricken conscience and condescending fudge are unlikely to go beyond evoking images of mourning and feasting crocodiles. It is difficult to tell the two apart.

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