By Farid Omar
The December 2007 Lisbon summit that brought together European Union (EU) and African Union (AU) member states hoped to launch a new “partnership” between the EU and Africa by tackling key issues such as development, good governance, peace, security, migration, energy and climate change.
But many analysts agree that the key agenda behind the so-called “new partnership” is the EU's primary concern for the unfettered access to Africa's vast mineral resources. In confronting China's growing influence in Africa, the EU is bent on retaining its strategic economic interests in the African continent while at the same time, pretend that it would embark on initiatives that would enable Africa, a key trading partner, achieve its long sought democratic goals.
The talk on democracy, good governance, human rights, peace and security is all none sense given the fact that EU member states continue to pay a blind eye to flagrant human rights violations by key African allies. It also smacks of double standards for certain EU countries like the UK that selectively focus their attention on perceived human rights violations in a country like Zimbabwe, a nation considered hostile to EU interests while they deliberately ignore repressive policies in other African countries closely allied to the West.
Gordon Brown, the British Prime Minister, chose to boycott the summit to protest against the presence in the Lisbon talks, of President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe. Mugabe was allowed to attend the summit after African leaders threatened to boycott the event if the EU insisted on barring the Zimbabwean leader from attending. It was a rare show of solidarity among African leaders tired of EU's paternalistic approach in its long standing economic relations with Africa.
Ironically, Brown and other EU leaders didn't see any problem with the attendance of the likes of Meles Zenawi of Ethiopia and Yoweri Museveni of Uganda, two leaders whose nations are known for gross human rights violations directed at oppositional forces seeking a democratic alternative in these troubled nations.
Worse still, the EU continues to prop up hardcore, despotic African regimes that primarily serve western interests. EU member states back, finance and arm totalitarian regimes in places like Nigeria, Guinea, Ethiopia, Uganda, Egypt etc suppressing in the process, genuine democratic forces in the continent that are seeking viable alternatives to EU- bankrolled dictatorships.
Zenawi for example, is known for his brutal suppression of opposition leaders, journalists and human rights activists in Ethiopia who voiced their concern in the possible rigging of the hotly contested 2005 elections in which the opposition are widely believed to had garnered enough votes to unseat Zenawi.
In retaliation to public protests, Zenawi's response came in the form of brutal state repression that led to the deaths of hundreds of street protesters in less than a year and the illegal detention of key opposition leaders and activists.
Human Rights Watch and other northern-led NGOs have documented gross human rights violations in the largely Somali -inhabited region of Ogaden in Eastern Ethiopia where Ethiopian forces are facing fierce resistance from the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF), a seccesionist rebel movement seeking independence from Ethiopia.
In this isolated region, Ethiopian security forces have reportedly targeted civilians while the government has been accused of orchestrating an economic blockade aimed at causing mass starvation in the region.
In Somalia, Ethiopian forces that have occupied the war-torn nation at the behest of the US, have been accused by rights groups including Human Rights Watch for shelling civilian positions in Mogadishu, causing the worst humanitarian disaster in Africa that has led to the displacement of one million people.
Disturbingly, Gordon Brown and other EU leaders are unperturbed by this troubling trend in both Ethiopia and neighbouring Somalia and have kept their silence on the ongoing atrocities committed by a close African ally.
Uganda, a key Western ally, is equally a flagrant violator of human rights. Its forces are accused of displacing innocent civilians in its long war with the Lord Resistance Army rebels in the north. The Museveni regime is known for suppressing opposition leaders and his government technically rigged Uganda's 2006 elections through draconian measures such as state restriction of the opposition's ability to effectively organize and the mass intimidation of the opponents of the regime.
Further,Ugandan is among the seven countries in the region that invaded Congo in 1998 and its troops are implicated in grisly atrocities directed at innocent civilians and the mass plunder of Congolese resources during the five year long civil war.
Yet Gordon Brown and the EU have their eyes set on Zimbabwe and totally ignore Uganda, Ethiopia and other regional allies complicit of gross human rights violations within their borders and in neighbouring countries.
The UK and the EU continue to provide Uganda, Ethiopia and other despotic regimes in Africa with economic and military aid. And all this despite widespread state repression in member AU states that are not only closely allied to western nations but duly protect EU interests through tyrannical measures that infringe on fundamental individual and collective rights.
In early 2007, security forces in Guinea opened fire on anti-government protesters, killing 130 people in cold blood during mass rallies organized by Trade Unionists opposed to President Lansana Conte's repressive policies. Conte, a close ally of France, seized power illegally in a 1984 military coup and has ever since, ruled with an iron hand, silencing his opponents through coercion and state violence.
Despite vigorous opposition to his dictatorial rule, Lansana has largely remained in power through sustained support from France and other EU countries that continue to prop-up the ailing dictator.
Unlike the anti-West Mugabe, Lansana Conte is not a target of the EU and France as the European body and Guinea's former colonial masters are determined to protect Conte. This is because the Guinean dictator is a close EU ally duly implementing stringent neo-liberal economic policies that protect western interests at the expense of the impoverished masses in Guinea.
Democratic forces in Africa need to challenge the EU's stance on Africa by exposing double standards and condemning the propping up of despotic regimes that serve EU economic and strategic interests. The social movements in the continent should strive to build a democratic, Pan-African alternative through popular education, mass political action and initiatives that empower the impoverished masses, women and all other marginalized sectors of society excluded from the political process.
The elite-driven, top down approach evident in the proposed EU-Africa partnership would not free the people of Africa from poverty, war and underdevelopment. Rather, the people of Africa must pursue a home grown, bottom up, revolutionary approach relying on a democratic, all inclusive civil society driven process that would usher in a new era of political and economic renewal for Africa.