Recently I’ve been trying to give my brain a break from marinading in China-Africa issues by reading the biologist Merlin Sheldrake’s mind-bending new book Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds & Shape Our Futures. He points out that scientists in the 19th century scoffed at the concept of symbiosis, insisting that any relationship between plants and fungi had to be either defined by conflict or parasitism. Ha, I thought, how revealing that European scientists couldn’t imagine mutually beneficial relationships – after all wasn’t Europe’s entire relationship with Africa historically defined by conflict and parasitism?
It’s a joke that will make our readers in European development circles wince, but really – the joke makes itself (and indeed – the first European explanation of symbiotic plant-fungus relationships used the metaphor of slavery.)
This week, Center for Global Development Policy Analyst Gyude Moore published a compelling new article that calls for greater cooperation between Europe and Africa. He argues that the two, with their geographical proximity and shared commitment to multilateralism, find themselves stuck between an increasingly belligerent United States and China.
I agree with Moore that redefining the Europe-Africa relationship around greater economic and political cooperation would offer much-needed global stability and solve many problems in both Europe and Africa.
However, I’m not very optimistic, for two reasons. The first is provided by another featured article today: Samuel Ramani’s fascinating account of how great power competition is destabilizing the Sahel. Among others, he blames France for consistently supporting authoritarian regimes in the name of stability, which then fuels increasing instability. The fact that this well-documented dynamic is still such a feature of France’s African presence in the 21st century makes me doubt that European leaders have the bandwidth for deeper cooperation.
The second reason is best summed up by the 2018 call by the then-president of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker that Europe should stop thinking of Africa through the ‘prism of development aid.’ No complaints from me – ditching the prism would be great. But it doesn’t address the role the prism plays in Europe – after all seeing Africa as the site of European development efforts psychologically insulates the European public from a different way of seeing it – as a crime scene.
This week we saw the extraordinary spectacle of the daughter of the assassinated Congolese leader Patrice Lumumba suing the Belgian government for possession of her father’s tooth. It is his only remains, kept by the Belgian police officer who dissolved his bones in acid after he was tortured and killed in 1961 by Belgian, CIA and MI6 personnel.
While Belgium’s King Philippe has expressed his “deepest regrets” for the colonization of the Congo, which led to the deaths of about 10 million people, he stopped short of actually apologizing.
Any real transformative cooperation between Europe and Africa will take a much more thorough reckoning with not only Europe’s legacy in Africa but how that legacy is explained by Europeans to Europeans. The very idea of Europe will have to shift – a tall order. The recent Black Lives Matter protests that led to the removal of colonial statues in several cities was a first step. But it’s only a step – a real meeting between Africa and Europe will take a journey.
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