Veldhoven, Macron, and East Africa: Some Notes on Recent Events

Veldhoven, Macron, and East Africa: Some Notes on Recent Events

| Written by Dr. Fikrejesus Amahazion | 

1] In Veldhoven, located in The Netherlands, the Mayor, Jack Mikkers, is involved in an ongoing hearing about his decision several months ago to cancel an annual meeting of YPFDJ members which was scheduled to take place in the municipality. Mikkers claims he took the decision in order to ensure safety and security after the outbreak of violence involving a small group of demonstrators protesting the event. However, this claim raises considerable questions and is plagued with discrepancies, including its apparent contradiction with the local police authorities’ assertion that the situation was “often under control” and the fact that his decision, in effect, punished the victims rather than the perpetrators of violence.

Notably, Mikkers’ decision to cancel the peaceful, family-oriented gathering fits a growing pattern of cancellations and bans of cultural, community, and public speaking events organized by Eritrean diaspora communities in Canada, the US, and across Europe. The cancellations and bans raise important questions about tolerance and mutual dialogue, a topic addressed nearly 200 years ago by John Stuart Mill in his essay, “On Liberty.” According to Mill, “He who knows only his own side of the case knows little of that. His reasons may be good, and no one may have been able to refute them. But if he is equally unable to refute the reasons on the opposite side, if he does not so much as know what they are, he has no ground for preferring either opinion. … Nor is it enough that he should hear the opinions of adversaries from his own teachers, presented as they state them, and accompanied by what they offer as refutations. He must be able to hear them from persons who actually believe them. … He must know them in their most plausible and persuasive form.”

2] Earlier this year, Emmanuel Macron was elected as the new leader of France. During the recent G-20 summit in Hamburg, Germany, Macron was asked a question about why there was no Marshall Plan for Africa. Initiated by George C. Marshall, US Secretary of State, the Marshall Plan, officially known as the European Recovery Program, was passed by the US Congress in March 1948. The program extended over $13 billion of assistance to Western Europe, which was still in tatters after World War II, ultimately helping avert a humanitarian disaster, restoring agricultural and industrial productivity, and spurring long-term economic recovery and growth.

To return to Macron, he explained that Africa had “civilisational” problems, and added that part of the challenge facing the continent was the countries that “still have seven to eight children per woman.” His response was highly problematic for several reasons. First, Macron’s numbers are incorrect, since there are very few countries in Africa where women are having “seven to eight” children. According to 2016 estimates, there is only one country in Africa where the fertility rate is 7, Niger (with a fertility rate of 6.62), while several countries have a fertility rate of approximately 6. In fact, in contrast to Macron’s comments, the average fertility rate for Africa is approximately 4.Effectively,Macron’s comments perpetuate outdated images of African women being poor, living in hovels, having too many children, being illiterate and ignorant, and lacking agency. Furthermore, in attributing Africa’s problems to population, Macron fails to understand the complexity of the relationship between population and development. Demographers and economists have often presented differing and shifting views and findings on the topic. Generally, growing economies need growing populations, increasing the supply of both workers and consumers, although the precise nature of this relationship is, of course, complex and variable (Gamble 2014; SPERI 2014). Ultimately, socio-economic growth and development depend on a wide range of factors beyond population dynamics, including investment, trade, education, and the quality of political and economic institutions.

Macron’s comments are also problematic because they reduce a continent of over 50 countries and great diversity, complexity, and tumultuous history to a single, basic entity. To suggest that the various challenges and issues found across the continent can be attributed to one or two causes is overly simplistic and myopic.

As an African, I would be the first to acknowledge that many problems in our communities and nations are largely of our own making. Personally, as well as for many Africans, these problems are often the source of deep angst, regret, sadness, and bitterness. As Oscar Wilde observed, “Misfortunes one can endure: They come from outside, they are accidents. But to suffer for one’s own faults — ah! There is the sting of life.” However, Macron’s comments, focusing solely on internal factors, conveniently overlook the deleterious and residual effects of colonialism, and foreign intervention.

For example, consider France’s neighbour, Belgium, and the Congo. The wealth of the former derived largely from its exploitation of the latter. In 1960, when Congo finally became free, it could have become a wealthy, developed country. Recall that it possessed vast potential, particularly under the visionary leadership of Patrice Lumumba, one of the most promising figures in Africa. Importantly, the country was also rich in resources. However, according to Canadian Prime Minister John Diefenbaker, Lumumba was a “major threat to Western interests,” and he was targeted for assassination by the CIA and Belgium, eventually being murdered in horrific circumstances. Subsequently, over the next several decades, the West would support the kleptocrat and tyrant Mobutu Sese Seko. Today, the country is beset by numerous and significant challenges and issues.

Alternatively, consider environmental degradation, one of the greatest challenges in Eritrea, a low-income, developing country in the Horn of Africa. The problem actually dates back to the country’s period under colonialism and foreign administration. Remarkably, due to universal land systems, agricultural expansion, and deforestation policies successively implemented by the Italians, British, and Ethiopians, Eritrea’s national forest cover decreased from 30% in the late 1800s to a meagre 5% of the country by 1960 (Fiore 1952; MoA 1994; Renato 1911).

Ultimately, one cannot speak of the challenges faced by African countries today without mentioning or understanding their complex histories. Last, although some point to the “positive” aspects of colonialism, another, telling perspective comes from Captain Cook’s journal entry on Tahiti, stating, “It would have been far better for these poor people never to have known us.”

Beyond overlooking colonialism, Macron also neglects to mention the often ineffective and harmful role of foreign advisors and international institutions in Africa. A major irony of African development history is that the theories and models employed have largely come from outside the continent. No other region of the world has been so dominated by external ideas and models (Jaycox 1993:9; Mkandawire and Soludo 1999: 35). In some countries, ministries were literally partitioned among different donors. This had many implications. Not only did it tax the attention of the nascent African bureaucracies, but it also made the learning curve extremely costly. In the extreme cases, African policymakers were actually excluded from the learning process as donors kept the evaluations of the programs to themselves, either through exclusive distribution of the relevant documents or because of language barriers (Mands 1993: 36).

One of the most instructive cases of the harmful role of foreign advisors and international institutions in Africa is the series of structural adjustment programmes (SAPs) implemented by African states (Harrison 2005). The 1980s and early 1990s wave of neoliberalism that spread across the developing states of Africa meant that many countries underwent long periods of structural adjustment (Hanson and Hentz 1999). SAPs, as prescribed by international financial institutions, sought to “correct” the misguided African socio-economic development policies of the previous two decades. They called for many reforms to change sub-Saharan Africa’s socio-economic policies and presented new trade liberalization programs for improving domestic production and external trade (Kimanuka 2009; Kirkpatrick 1995). The SAPs and proposed reforms were persistently promoted as being the catalysts necessary for long-term growth and improvement, and they primarily focused their attention on securing macroeconomic stabilization (UN ESC 2011).

Quickly and aggressively, the SAPs weakened the direct control of African states while attempting to promote growth-oriented market economies. However, African countries actually began to suffer as a result of policies calling for the reduction of subsidies on food, medicine and education and eliminating social institutions, government programs, currency exchange control, and SOEs. The level of decline and deep economic crises during the 1980s and 1990s within sub-Saharan Africa caused observers to refer to the period as two “lost decades” (Stone 2004). The international economic environment was increasingly hostile, particularly with declining terms of trade leading to heavy servicing of debts (Kimanuka 2009; Kirkpatrick 1995). For example, Africa’s debt crisis actually worsened from the period 1980 to 2000; sub-Saharan Africa’s total foreign debt rose from US$60 billion to US$206 billion, and the ratio of debt to GDP rose from 23 per cent to 66 per cent. In 1980, loan inflows of US$9.6 billion were comfortably higher than the debt repayment outflow of US$3.2 billion. But by 2000, only US$3.2 billion flowed in while US$9.8 billion was repaid, leaving a net financial flows deficit of US$6.2 billion (Bond 2005). Ironically, Africa was (and still is) repaying more than it receives, or using its loans to pay-off its debts.

In terms of hunger and food supply, it is quite the paradox that the strategies implemented to deal with the problems in Africa, far from solving them, have often led to their aggravation. Countries that were self-sufficient in food crops at the end of World War II – many of them even exported food to industrialized nations – became net food importers. Hunger similarly grew as the capacity of countries to produce the food necessary to feed themselves contracted under the pressure to produce cash crops for export, accept cheap food from the West, and conform to agricultural markets dominated by multinational merchants of grain.

3] Finally, what to make of the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) and Ethiopia’s recent calls for peacekeepers and restrain between Eritrea and Djibouti? Ethiopia, you will recall, can hardly be associated with restrain or stability, particularly when the country has been plagued by instability and rocked by widespread mass protests for the past several years. The government in Addis Ababa, which won 100 percent of parliamentary seats in its broadly discredited last national election, has been widely and consistently criticized by an array of international rights groups for its broad range of human rights abuses including its harsh repression of minorities and journalists, press censorship, draconian anti-terror laws that are utilized to silence all forms of dissent, and brutal crackdowns upon opposition groups and protestors.

In fact, recently 38 Members of the European Parliament wrote a letter to the High Representative of the EU for Foreign Affairs calling for action against the Ethiopian regime in connection with its brutal crackdowns and use of sexual violence.

Moreover, it seems far-fetched that Ethiopia is genuinely concerned with peace, stability, and adherence to the rule of law, especially in light of the fact that the country has signed agreements to end its own conflict with Eritrea in 2000, yet has still failed to fully and unconditionally implement provisions of its final and binding agreement nearly two decades later. Ethiopia continues to militarily occupy swathes of Eritrean territory, in violation of its agreements and international law, while it has also engaged in repeated military incursions into Eritrea (and other neighbouring countries), as well as making regular belligerent, threatening calls for war and military action.

Likewise, the statements by IGAD, the East African regional bloc, can hardly be taken seriously as it has long been plagued by a lack of credibility, dysfunction, and ineffectiveness. IGAD’s inability to respect basic and explicit provisions in its own Charter and its ongoing failure to even conduct proper or regular transitions of leadership within the organization – thus essentially becoming a mechanism for Ethiopia to extend its influence throughout the region – raises significant questions about how it can realistically address any potential issues between Eritrea and Djibouti. It is hard to forget that under IGAD’s watch, Ethiopia illegally invaded and occupied Somalia in 2006, developments which analysts and regional observers broadly agree helped to increase and spread terror and instability throughout the region.