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France and Germany want to deviate from the past in Africa – but it remains to be seen whether they can.
Both countries this week admitted responsibility for their role in the murder of hundreds of thousands of people in Rwanda and Namibia over the course of the 20th century. According to analysts, this decision reflects efforts in Europe to reset relations with key partners in Africa.
French President Emmanuel Macron told an audience in Rwanda on Thursday that his country has “a duty to face history and recognize their part in the suffering that has been inflicted on the Rwandan people”.
In the 27 years that have passed since approximately 800,000 ethnic Tutsi were killed in a genocide that occurred in just 100 days, France has not apologized for the determined support of the Hutu-led government responsible for the crime. There was no formal apology from the French President on Thursday.
Within a few hours of Macron’s statement, Federal Foreign Minister Heiko Maas openly noted that his country was responsible for the mass murders of tens of thousands of people from Namibia’s Herero and Nama minorities during the colonial occupation of the country at the beginning of the last century.
“We only have one word for the German colonial occupation between 1904 and 1908 in Namibia: genocide,” Maas said in a statement, adding that Germany had agreed to provide 1.1 billion euros to finance projects over the next 30 years in sectors such as agriculture and health.
France’s recognition came when Macron appeared in Kigali alongside President Paul Kagame of Rwanda. The Rwandan government was angry at Paris’ reluctance to acknowledge that it was ignoring apparent human rights violations on the ground by cultivating economic ties with political leaders across Africa as their countries gained independence. Earlier this year, the Rwandan government even published a 592-page report describing France’s role in the genocide in Rwanda.
In the 1990s, France saw Rwanda as an opportunity to counter the influence of English-speaking nations such as Uganda, Kenya, and Tanzania due to its French-speaking populations. At the time, Paris offered relentless support for the militant nationalist Hutu regime led by Grégoire Kayibanda, which took power in 1962 and oversaw the Tutsi massacres in the years that followed.
“Macron’s statement about French culpability in the events surrounding the genocide in Rwanda relates less to an ‘Africa’ policy as a whole and more to repairing the damage between France and Rwanda,” said Michael Jennings, an international development reader of SOAS University of London, noting that Paris has long been concerned about the shift of influence away from France when Rwanda joined the Commonwealth, despite having no historical links with Britain
Competition for the influence of other great powers adds to the urgency in France. In recent years, Russia has made a rapid foray into countries long dominated by former European colonial powers to sell planes, weapons and safe mining projects. And China’s lending to African nations stands out: Beijing even built the shiny new headquarters of the African Union in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa.
However, analysts said Macron’s move was essentially a diplomatic victory for Kagame, whose government has come under increasing criticism for its growing authoritarianism over terrorism in its government following the arrest of Paul Rusesabagina, the protagonist of the Oscar-nominated film “Hotel Rwanda” Country charged.
Rwanda will hope that France’s desire to maintain good relations will play a supportive role in diverting criticism of the ruling Rwandan Patriotic Front from donors, Jennings said.
Germany’s own admission of guilt stems from the fact that Berlin is trying to expand its role in sub-Saharan Africa by raising aid funds and contributing more troops to a UN peacekeeping mission in Mali.
In Namibia, however, there are questions as to whether Germany’s recognition and reparation should go further.
The Ovaherero Traditional Authority (OTA) and the Nama Traditional Leaders Association (NTLA) – groups of the two minorities massacred by German troops – rejected Berlin’s compensation scheme this week. They say it aimed to prop up the South West Africa People’s Organization (SWAPO), which has dominated politics since independence in 1990 and is controlled by the Ovambo ethnic group.
Vekuii Rukoro, who heads the OTA, told the Namibian newspaper that the € 1.1 billion compensation was nowhere near enough.
“That is not enough for the blood of our ancestors. We’ll fight to hell and back. We’ll go to bed with the devil if we get what we deserve, ”he said.