December 24, 2021
The aims of the leadership of Tigray in the war in Ethiopia are, first, to save the people of Tigray from a genocidal onslaught including forced starvation and, second, to establish an all-inclusive government for Ethiopia as a whole. There is no intention to install a government in Addis Ababa led by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). Instead, we want the people of Tigray to govern themselves within a multi-national federal system.
Eleven months ago after the first round of fighting in which, the people of Tigray were facing a coordinated campaign of destruction from the governments in Ethiopia and Eritrea, the leadership of Tigray, including the TPLF and others, met together to decide how to respond. The Central Command was established to serve as the highest decision making body with regard to the war effort. The Central Command under the regional government of Tigray is leading the whole war effort including the activities of the TDF (Tigray Defense Forces) up to now. I am a member of the Central Command but the views I am expressing here are my personal views and should not be taken to reflect the views of the Tigray Government and Central Command.
In June, after our forces liberated most of Tigray, the Central Command issued an eight point proposal for talks with the Federal Government of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, which we hoped would lead to a ceasefire and a peaceful settlement. Abiy did not respond to those proposals and continually rejected the efforts of international interlocutors. He refused to meet our non-negotiable precondition which is ending the war crime of starvation by permitting humanitarian aid and restoring essential services.
Although the starvation of our people is not on your television screens, it is real. Every day, children and their mothers are perishing of hunger. Our people are dying needlessly from treatable diseases because our hospitals have no medicine. Abiy made it perfectly clear that he intended to crush the sprite of resistance to subjugation in Tigray through a starvation siege. In this context the Central Command took the decision to pursue the war, joining forces with other groups to establish a United Front. This includes organizations from Oromo, Somali, Afar, Agaw and others. The biggest of these groups is the Oromo Liberation Army. There was and still is a desire to include other political forces including Amhara political forces as well.
We are fighting to protect the principles of the Federal Constitution of Ethiopia, starting with the cherished affirmation that sovereign legitimacy resides in the nations, nationalities and peoples of Ethiopia. Abiy, on the other hand, is fighting to overturn the constitution. The Amhara elites continually talk about an Ethiopia that is greater than its people. They are ready to kill for this ideology and they are sending thousands of young people to die for it. These elites claim legitimacy for their group only, looking backwards to the era when Ethiopia was an Amhara-ruled empire. We have experienced this kind of ultra-nationalism in the past and it neither secured national territorial integrity nor protected the central government from collapse. Instead, the project of a centralized Ethiopian empire led to war and destruction in all corners of our country. This was why the 1995 Ethiopian constitution, which remains in place today, defines the country as the voluntary unity of its peoples within a federal system.
The Tigray Central Command pursued the war in order to compel the government to negotiate on equal terms and, failing that, to replace it with an all-inclusive Transitional Government. Foreign and domestic political forces were apprehensive of a “repeat of 1991”, referring to the military victory of the TPLF and its coalition partners in that year. We made it clear that the political landscape both in Tigray and Ethiopia have changed so much so that there is no option for such a scenario. Moreover, Tigray cannot shoulder the responsibility for reconstituting the Ethiopian state, especially so without any agreed domestic political arrangement and clear international support.
Our political discussions within the United Front and other political forces which were yet to be part of the coalition were proceeding more slowly than our military advance, which reached the outskirts of the city of Debre Birhan, just 145 km from Addis Ababa. The prospect that we would march into the capital city caused panic mainly among the internationals and to some extent Ethiopians as well. We understand that fear. We also want those who are dismayed about the safety of the capital to understand the intolerable suffering and the threat of continuing genocide that the Tigrayan people are living under every day.
This was the reason for our decision to march towards Addis Ababa. We hoped the political developments, both international and domestic, would catch up by then as well. This did not happen.
We appreciate that many around the world, including the U.S., the European Union, and the international media, have exposed the grievous violations against our people and demanded that they stop. We were hopeful that the matter would be raised at the UN Security Council which would act on its obligations to uphold fundamental norms about humanity and act energetically to promote a peaceful resolution of the conflict. But China and Russia consistently blocked any efforts. It appears to us that they did so because they saw the war in terms of the balance of geo-strategic power, and sacrificed principles for political point-scoring, abandoning people to die out of their narrow mindedness.
Regrettably, Western nations’ actions did not go beyond rhetoric. They appealed for a cessation of hostilities and for humanitarian access, but in practice these were empty gestures. They did not use the diplomatic and economic tools in their hands. Worse, the rhetoric of western governments and the silence of the African Union gave Abiy the pretext to adopt slogans of anti-imperialism and pan-Africanism which in turn allowed China and Russia, along with Iran, Turkey and the UAE, to sell arms. Tigray got words, Abiy got weapons.
The best that can be said for those supporting Abiy is that his backers believe they are protecting the Ethiopian state from collapse. They are misinformed. They are saving a government in name only. Our forces encounter this on the battlefield: the Ethiopian National Defense Force is kitted out in uniforms and has modern equipment, ranks and units, but it fights like a rag-tag horde of feudal levies, backed by an air force and drones supplied by foreigners. Administrative structures have collapsed across the country. Salaries are not paid, schoolchildren are sent to harvest the fields. The foreign ministry has been replaced by campaigns on Twitter and Facebook. The peace and security architecture for the Horn, which was painstakingly built by Ethiopia’s diplomats and peacekeepers in partnership with the African Union and United Nations, has been summarily demolished.
In fact, Abiy is implementing the blueprint of Isaias Afwerki, dictator of Eritrea. This is to build a trio of autocrats: Isaias, Abiy and the Somali president Mohamed Farmaajo. For Ethiopia this means a dictator in Addis Ababa ruling over a weak and fragmented state, all under the heel of Eritrea.
The Ethiopian state under Abiy Ahmed and his Amhara interlocutors is being used as a Trojan Horse for the unbridled and oversized ambition of Isaias Afewerki, who he himself is serving as an agent of the Middle Eastern countries. I would like to make one thing clear, if the resistance in Tigray is crushed by the combined forces of the Ethiopian federal government, Amhara forces, and their backers in the Middle East (Turkey, UAE, and Iran) the floodgates for Isaias to implement his blueprint will be open. The region of the Horn of Africa will be run as per the dictat of the Eritrean dictator. Is the international community, Africa and the region willing to live with the impending scenario? If the answer to the question posed is no, the time to act is now.
The Ethiopian government has begged and borrowed and sold its assets to get arms from foreign powers who have little knowledge about the country and less goodwill. No amount of jingoistic rhetoric can conceal that Abiy has made Ethiopia into a beggar. Those who are putting coins on his plate today will want him to sing for them tomorrow.
Where Middle Eastern powers have poured in their weapons and money, and the international community has recognized a government in name only, we do not see stability. In Libya, Syria and Yemen we see the reality of state collapse. The government becomes a client of its biggest paymasters and the country becomes locked in unending conflict. We need to save Ethiopia from this fate.
The U.S. government expressed its serious concern over the maintenance and continuity of the Ethiopian state. It stated its intention to bring a rapid resolution to the war through negotiation. Washington DC openly opposed the advance of the TDF to Addis Ababa, threatening the government of Tigray with sanctions if our forces approached the city. On the other hand, the U.S. expressed no strategy (at least to us) to end the war except appeasing Abiy Ahmed with flattery. The policy of appeasement has not brought any solution before and it will not bring fast resolution of the conflict and save the Ethiopian state either.
In my opinion the fastest way to end the conflict has now evaporated.
In this context, the TDF is fighting absolutely alone. It has no international allies and no military or other material assistance from abroad. Tigrayan people do not even receive humanitarian aid. The Tigrayan people are few, impoverished but gallant and with a strong sense of identity. We have a long and proud history of fighting against invaders of our land and we are repeating the heroic feats of our predecessors.
Our forces did not advance on Addis Ababa. In the last two weeks, the effects of swarms of drones on the TDF advanced positions and supply lines has been substantial. Personnel of Eritrean armored divisions are in daily combat within the ranks of the ENDF. Eritrean forces still occupy substantial parts of Tigray. In these circumstances, with long and vulnerable supply lines to our forces, and no effective international political process for a negotiated settlement, the Government of regional state of Tigray through the Central command decided to withdraw to defensive positions to consolidate our forces. A withdrawal under drone fire is a difficult military operation which we have accomplished successfully. We are undefeated.
Over the last few days, the Ethio-Eritrean coalition forces attempted to penetrate our lines, from south, west and east. They were repulsed with heavy losses. After these setbacks the regime in Addis Ababa announced that it had completed “phase one” of its operation and would not be continuing its attacks. This statement, coupled with the previously announced position of the National Regional Government of Tigray for a ceasefire, opens an opportunity for the international community, led by Kenya, to press for a cessation of hostilities and initiate peace talks.
If this does not happen, the war will continue not only in Tigray but in other places in Ethiopia as well. There will be more loss of lives; economic destruction and whatever political and social fabric that might have persisted up to now will be destroyed which means saving the Ethiopian multinational federal state as we know it becomes very difficult.
Now the regime of Abiy Ahmed could be preparing to initiate an “inclusive dialogue” controlled and monitored by itself. He is trying hard to make the world believe him he has “defeated the rebels” and would offer them to be part of this inclusive dialogue, as individuals not as the TPLF. Some in the international community might support his idea as well.
This process will not work. Any inclusive dialogue should be done by neutral bodies with the participation of the major political forces in Ethiopia sponsored and supported by the international community. The mechanism could be worked out with the assistance of experts on the field. We hope that African countries will rise to the challenge of hosting and facilitating the conference.
There must be a political solution to the war in Ethiopia. Whether this includes Abiy or not is secondary. What is important is that the human crisis facing the Tigrayan people is averted and that the settlement to this war should usher in stability, democracy and development.
My vision for this is as follows.
Tigray must stand on its feet and must have cast iron guarantees that the genocidal assaults of the last year will never, ever happen again. We shall rely on ourselves, as we have shown we can do, but we also rely on Africa and the international community to ensure that we are not alone if we ever again face enemies determined to destroy us.
Ethiopia is a nation of nations, and the only way forward for the country is to recognize this. There can be no return to empire-building or the domination of one group over another
Tigray is an ancient civilization, a place where Christianity has deep roots and where the peaceful coexistence and symbiosis between Muslims, Christians and Jews goes back fourteen centuries. Recognizing and preserving this is the foundation stone for stability for Ethiopia, our neighbors in the Horn of Africa, and the countries on the other shore of the Red Sea.
Tigray is an African nation. We have contributed to the birth of African civilization and we have contributed to the vision of an Africa that is stable, secure and independent from external powers, whether they be Europe, America, the Middle East or Asia. Tigrayans are proud of our contribution to Ethiopia’s diplomacy and peacekeeping which was a pillar of stability and development in the Horn of Africa region. We are proud of our contribution to regional economic integration including water, electricity and transport infrastructure joining neighboring countries.
The entire international community, including Russia, China, and all the countries in the Middle East, have a responsibility to humanity that should override whatever policy differences they may have with America and Europe. That same common responsibility extends to protecting a cultural heritage, by halting the war against a people who have been the custodian of this unique intersection of faiths and cultures.
The Horn of Africa is a region where the world’s great powers all have legitimate interests. The world needs maritime security, seeks to stamp out violent extremism, and wants to avert the specter of massive distress migration driven by conflict, famine and state collapse. We in Tigray recognize this. Given our proximity and history we want to be constructive player by securing our national interest and legitimate national interest of other player in the sub region. The world should not allow a repeat of Syria, Yemen or Libya in the Horn at the western flank of the Red Sea. This is not a zero-sum game. Ethiopia should be the place where these international and regional interests converge in a multilateral pact.
All Ethiopians need a ceasefire and political negotiations. Our political goals are clear and we have reiterated our proposal for a ceasefire. This may start with a freeze in combat—a cessation of hostilities. It must then develop into a full and permanent ceasefire, which is a complicated military operation requiring professionalism on both sides. An essential component of a ceasefire is third party monitoring and verification. Africa has extensive experience in this and we are confident that our African brothers will be able to provide the necessary expertise and capacity.
Ethiopia is unique but it is also an African country where Africa’s principles and wisdom are much needed. Over the last thirty years, beginning when I had the honor of serving as chief of staff of the Ethiopian National Defense Forces, Ethiopia has become an integral part of Africa’s peace and security architecture, extending our services in diplomacy and peacekeeping across the continent in a spirit of brotherhood and solidarity. We now call on our African brothers to reach out their hand in that same spirit.
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Stories That Shaped 2021
2021 was a year of suffering and struggle, repression and resistance — one in which the contradictions in global capitalism sharpened, and peoples’ movements rose up in force to confront them.
As we reflect on the past year, we look back on five crucial struggles that we have covered on our Wire service. From nascent movements to established political projects, from bitter defeats to great triumphs, these struggles taught us invaluable lessons, expanded our political horizons, and kindled our hopes for a new world.
Farmers Against Neoliberalism
In 2020, the Parliament of India, led by far-right Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), introduced a set of bills designed to privatize the Indian agricultural sector and dismantle long-standing government protections in the name of so-called market efficiency. Collectively, these “farm bills” were an all-out attack on the livelihoods of India’s farmers in service of foreign capital and national agribusiness oligarchs.
In response, India’s organized farmers took to the streets in unprecedented numbers. Theirs was an organized expression of democracy and disruption — nationwide strikes, blockades of roads and railways, boycotts and barricades of corporate targets, and, supporting it all, a collective system of mutual aid for those putting their lives on the line. India’s women played an indispensable role, resisting the forces of capitalism and patriarchy. Farmers and activists across the world, inspired by the radical determination of their comrades in India, expressed their solidarity.
The struggle lasted for over a year, and the state killed some 700 farmers in the process. But the movement proved overpowering. In December, the farm bills were repealed.
Still, the fight is far from over. India’s farmers are committed to building on their victory and have made additional demands of the government. They face further threats as the instruments of imperialism threaten to undermine their victory. This year, we celebrate the farmers of India. They demonstrated that the masses — organized, mobilized, and willing to engage in radical disruptive action — have the power to shape their own destiny.
Palestinians Against Settler-Colonialism
For Palestinians, the ‘Nakba’ — which translates as ‘catastrophe’ and refers to the original ethnic cleansing of 750,000 Palestinians from towns, villages and cities in 1948 — isn’t a story from the past, but an ongoing and brutal project of colonization.
In April 2021, for example, the Israeli government attempted to forcibly evict some 2,000 Palestinians from the neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah in occupied East Jerusalem. When the residents resisted with a powerful campaign to #SaveSheikhJarrah, the Israeli state responded with brutality, attacking the Palestinian people in the streets and in their places of worship.
A few days later, the Israeli government launched a vicious military assault on Gaza, in which at least 260 Palestinians lost their lives. In response, the Progressive International urged the world’s progressive forces to fight for an end to the Nakba, boycott the apartheid regime — a demand also endorsed by over 700 Global South leaders — and divest from its war machine through internationalist anti-militarist organizing.
Later in June, as the new Bennett–Lapid government took office in Israel, world leaders and the mainstream press celebrated the end of the Netanyahu era. Unsurprisingly, however, the administration didn’t just continue, but doubled-down on the repression of the Palestinian people. In October, it labeled a number of Palestinian human rights groups, including Al-Haq and Defense for Children International — Palestine, as “terrorist institutions.”
But Palestinian civil society refuses to be silenced. As Shahd Qaddoura of Al-Haq, the oldest Palestinian human rights organization, wrote: “Until Palestine is free and we can finally enjoy our right to self-determination, our voice of justice will remain loud”.
Gig Workers Against Exploitation
Around the world, digital technology is creating new ways to reap value from workers, plunging them into ever more precarious working conditions. Nowhere is this “gigification” clearer than for app-based delivery workers. During the pandemic, delivery work amounted to an “essential service” protecting people from exposure to the virus — but it was the major platforms that derived the benefits of this essential work. This is beginning to change. A growing movement of delivery workers worldwide — from Shanghai to Tbilisi, Mexico City to Taiwan — is struggling for an end to exploitation, for the right to unionize, and to challenge the cold grip of algorithmic control in their lives.
80,000 food delivery workers in Taiwan, for instance, have been protesting intransparent new salary calculations by the likes of Uber Eats and Foodpanda. They call for a national union to organize and fight exploitative business models in the so-called gig economy. In Georgia’s capital Tbilisi, on the other hand, delivery workers are classified as “independent contractors” and, as such, face a complicated process to organize legal strikes. But instead of giving up, the drivers made a virtue out of their status: they collectively stopped work by just turning off the app — wreaking havoc on the company and demonstrating the potential of self-organization by delivery drivers.
Latin America Against Neo-Fascism
The left is on the rise in Latin America. From Bolivia to Peru, Chile to Honduras, the people are fighting to reclaim democracy against the forces of right-wing nationalism at home and imperial intervention from abroad.
Following the triumphant mobilization against the right-wing, foreign-backed coup that toppled the Movement Towards Socialism in 2019, the people of Bolivia have reclaimed their democracy and sought justice for the victims of the coup regime.
In Honduras, the election of Xiomara Castro brought renewed hope that the country may finally escape the shadow of the US-backed coup of 2009.
The people of Venezuela continued to defend the victories of the Bolivarian process against suffocating sanctions and other imperial regime change efforts, including the plundering of its gold reserves by the UK legal system.
And to close out the year, Progressive International member Gabriel Boric triumphed over Pinochetista José Antonio Kast, paving the way for the radical transformation of the Chilean Constitution initiated by last year’s ‘social explosion’.
Profound challenges remain. A devastating electoral loss in Ecuador was the exception to the regional trend. In Colombia, mass Indigenous and peasant-led resistance was violently suppressed by the Washington and London-backed Duque government. And even the victories represent the beginning, not the culmination, of a long historical process of reclaiming sovereignty across Latin America.
After a year of grand victories and defeats, in 2022 we turn our sights on Colombia, Brazil, and beyond.
People Against Dispossession
The struggle for decolonisation against imperialism is perhaps the most defining fight of our time. Where colonialism and capitalism violently converted the common land of the many into the private property of the few, decolonisation has long sought to reclaim that land for the benefit of the people to whom it rightfully belongs.
This is a struggle for sovereignty, for land, for food, and against environmental destruction. And, despite the imperialists’ attempts to relegate colonial history to the past, the struggle for decolonisation continues around the world today.
In Kenya, the Wakasighau, a people who were uprooted from their native Kasighau region and exiled by the British at the onset of World War I, are still fighting for a return of their land.
For the people of Indonesia’s Pakel Village, the struggle against land-grabbing and environmental destruction has lasted more than 100 years — first against the Dutch colonial government, then against Indonesia’s post-independence rulers.
On the Philippine island of Panay, the Indigenous Tumandok people are engaged in a decades-long struggle against dam construction projects.
In India, tribal people from the Hasdeo Forest embarked on a historic foot march to the state capital to save their lands and livelihoods from a mining project by the Indian multinational Adani group.
In Australia, the Aboriginal Wangan and Jagalingou Nation is waging a determined fight to stop an ecologically and culturally destructive coal mining project.
In Brazil, indigenous peoples have occupied the capital Brasília to resist the government’s land grabs and ecologically destructive mega-projects, and to fight for their territories and the right to life. And the country’s Landless Rural Workers Movement (MST) — one of the largest social movements in Latin America with an estimated 1.5 million members — struggles against the eviction of 450 families living in the Marielle Vive camp in Valinhos, where they have transformed abandoned land into a thriving community.
In Colombia, guard leaders of the Peasant, Cimarrona and Indigenous communities organize their members around the defense of their respective territories and spaces against brutal repression by the Duque government.
Each of these struggles is part of a planetary war for the lands, rights, and livelihoods of Indigenous peoples against the global forces of colonization and mechanisms of primitive accumulation.
This article was first published by Progressive International.
The Charles Mugane Njonjo Kenyans Suffered
There is a resistance to imagining people who have committed heinous acts as being capable of expressing humanity, and conversely, of those who show such humanity in private of being capable of committing monstrous acts.
The Elephant’s Publisher, John Githongo, has penned a touching tribute to the late Charles Njonjo, whose death was announced at the beginning of the new year. In it he describes the man he knew as a steadfast friend and counsellor, who was “particularly dismissive of tribal chauvinists”, insisting they “held Kenya back in fundamental ways” and who even urged him to resign when his anti-corruption office was effectively downgraded during the Mwai Kibaki regime by being moved from the Office of the President to the Ministry of Justice.
However, the jovial, principled, kind-hearted man he describes will be at odds with the man many Kenyans experienced – a ruthless, ambitious member of what was known as the Kiambu Mafia, itself a gang of Kikuyu chauvinists who surrounded Jomo Kenyatta and used the state to corruptly amass vast fortunes. The Njonjo the public knew, and that history will remember, did not resign when the government he was a part of murdered people like Pio Gama Pinto or JM Kariuki, when it committed massacres against its own people in places like Kisumu and the former Northern Frontier District. In fact, as Attorney-General and Minister for Legal Affairs, he legitimated the theft and oppression of the Kenyatta regime.
The eldest son of the late Josiah Njonjo, a paramount chief and one of the foremost collaborators with British colonial rule in Kenya, Charles Njonjo did not fall far from the tree. He was famous for aping the mannerisms of the British upper classes, something he had been conditioned to do from his school days. “My father had a horse and on weekends, when we were given off days, he would send a servant to bring it to Alliance early in the morning. I would ride it home and back to school in the evening. The servant would then take it back home,” he once recalled. The Kenyan press would sardonically bestow upon him the title of “Duke of Kabeteshire”.
The Njonjo the public knew, and that history will remember, did not resign when the government he was a part of murdered people like Pio Gama Pinto or JM Kariuki.
Njonjo was openly contemptuous of Africans, once proposing recognition of, and exchange of ambassadors with, the apartheid regime in South Africa, and even declaring he would not shake hands with Luos for fear of contracting cholera. He was uncomfortable being flown by black pilots and was said to have slowed down Africanization of the judiciary, then effectively a department in his Ministry.
Clearly, there is nothing that says public monsters cannot be loving human beings in private. And throughout history, many of the world’s tyrants have tried to use humanizing private moments to counter their brutish public image. For example, Stephanie Pappas wrote in 2016 in a piece published by Live Science that “as Hitler strong-armed his way to dictatorship, profiles of him rusticating in his residence in Obersalzberg, Bavaria, portrayed him as a cultured gentleman, beloved by dogs and children”. She noted that he managed to expand his appeal beyond “the beer-soaked halls of Munich to the rest of the country” in part through portrayals “as a good man, a moral man, and the evidence for that com[ing] from his private life”.
And therein lies the danger. The public is wont to see things in black and white, discarding nuance. As such there is a resistance to imagining people who have committed heinous acts as being capable of expressing humanity, and conversely, of those who show such humanity in private of being capable of committing monstrous acts. When my boss describes his friend, I have no doubt he is doing so as an honest reflection of his own private experience of the man he knew and loved. But we must be careful that his characterization adds to, rather than erases, the equally valid experience of many others who saw him in a very different light.
Perhaps more importantly, we must ask about the value of seeking to humanize those who dehumanize others. I don’t mean this in the sense that we should regard them as alien or sub-human but that we actively consider how portrayals of the joy and comfort they brought to a few can be used to downplay the pain they have caused to the many. If Githongo’s obituary helps soften the image of the man who once famously warned us that we could be put to death for imagining the demise of the president, then it would do Kenya a great disservice. But if it makes us appreciate that even supposedly “good” men in private can do really bad things when in power, it could be a great asset, especially in an election year when we will be assailed with exhortations to vote for “good” leaders.
We must ask about the value of seeking to humanize those who dehumanize others.
It may lead us to have conversations about the systems we have and whether they prevent or incentivize nice people to become tyrants, and to keep in mind the words of the 19th century American attorney and orator, Wendell Phillips: “The hand entrusted with power becomes, either from human depravity or esprit de corps, the necessary enemy of the people”. This, above all, is the lesson of Njonjo.
France in Africa: New Face of Colonialism or a Repentant Posture?
Aymar N. Bisoka, David Mwambari and Sabelo J. Ndlovu-Gatsheni write about the recent Africa-France summit. The scholar Achille Mbembe was recruited to prepare a report for the summit by speaking to African youth. This blogpost asks what was the real meaning of the summit behind the official pronouncements.
At the beginning of 2021, French President Emmanuel Macron approached the Cameroonian historian and political scientist Achille Mbembe to prepare the New Africa-France Summit, which was to take place in Montpellier, France, on 9 and 10 October 2021. The most immediate context of a forthcoming election in France itself in which the French president might be using this occasion to win the Afro-descendant votes should not escape our minds. Unlike previous summits, this one was to welcome a new generation of young Africans from Africa and its diasporas to an open and direct dialogue with Macron. For the first time in history, the summit between France and African countries was held with no African head of state.
As part of the preparation for the summit, Mbembe had to lead a series of discussions in twelve African countries and the diaspora, ahead of the actual event, around themes of common interest. According to him, the aim of these discussions with African and diaspora youth was to “directly and openly question the fundamentals of this relationship [and] to redefine it together.”
Four days before the summit started, Mbembe submitted a 140-page report containing thirteen proposals for a ‘refoundation’ of relations between France and Africa. These proposals focus on an Innovation Fund for Democracy, a House of African and Diasporas Views, migration, employment, intercontinental economic transparency, the transformation of development aid, the voice of Africa on climate change, the narrative on Africa, the rethinking of the relations between Africa and Europe, the restitution of stolen works of art, among others. During the summit itself, twelve young people were selected to discuss with Macron and mount a critique on the issues arising from the proposals contained in the Mbembe Report.
What is the real meaning of this summit beyond the organisers’ pronouncements? How can we understand the controversies and discourses that came out of it? Was this summit simply a way for France to improve its image that has deteriorated sharply over the past four years?
Placing the summit in its historical context
The historical context of this summit is firstly, colonial and neo-colonial (Françafrique) and secondly, a context of increased global connections in which the Afro-descendent population has increased with France and cannot be ignored. Thirdly, it is also a context of insurgent and resurgent decolonization of the 21st century, which has also seen the escalation of activism – by African youth – targeting colonial symbols of domination in general, and those of French interests in particular. Therefore, a key question arises: Was the summit organised to respond to recent events on the African continent or in France, and to push France to open-up to debates that are uncomfortable but essential?
On the African continent, Senegalese youth protests that vandalised French interests in March 2021 are still fresh in the minds of French policymakers. The youth on the streets spoke loud and clear when they attacked French shops, petrol stations, supermarkets and you can guess that their names did not feature on the French list of the desired invitees to dine with Marcon at the summit. The invited youth were mostly the educated, youth with a pre-existing and official platform and means. There were few, if any, of the young protestors like those who revolted against French interests.
Other recent events in Africa include protests in Mali against the French military presence and the move to hire Russian militias to combat terrorism where the French have failed. On the day the summit was to start in October, Mali’s Premier accused France of training ‘terrorist groups’ and summoned the French ambassador. Youth also attacked French interests in Northern Mozambique, resulting in the deployment of forces from the SADC region and Rwanda.
These are a few examples to show that popular pressure on France informed Macron’s choice of inviting young participants instead of the heads of state to the summit. Throughout his presidency, Marcon has also defended the establishment of the ECO to replace the controversial CFA currency that is part of the French colonial heritage that West African protestors have rejected. French monetary imperialism has been subjected to heightened opposition from African youth.
In addition, recent global events like the #BlackLivesMatter movement instigated debates amongst French intellectuals who aligned with their politicians to dismiss the claims by Afro-descendants in France to have racism directly confronted. These elites dismissed demands to challenge racism in France as irrelevant to France’s past or present, claiming that the French state is based on anti-racist ideals of republicanism. Macron himself declared these are ‘certain social science theories entirely imported from the United States’.
Other prominent intellectuals joined in to argue that contemporary theories on race, gender, and post-colonialism were a threat to the French identity of liberté, égalité, and fratenité. These assertations were made ignoring a long tradition of French-speaking scholars like Aimé Cesaire, Léopold Sédar Senghor, Frantz Fanon, Cheikh Anta Diop, Valentin-Yves Mudimbe, Fabien Eboussi Boulaga, Souleymane Bachir Diagne, Françoise Verges or more recently Norman Ajari, Pape Ndiaye, Nadia Kisukidi, even the academic director of the summit itself, Achille Mbembe, and many others whose works on post-colonialism have critiqued French society.
In fact, debates on the question of identity in France have shown that non-white communities’ lived experiences show that liberté, égalité, and fraternité are empty slogans and merely a façade to the reality of French society. For instance, issues of police brutality against non-white communities, especially the Afro-diaspora, did not feature prominently in the summit, although they concern the community whom Macron might want to lure in next year’s elections.
The summit claimed to break ties with the colonial past, but it was hardly the case as the major problems that continue to strain the relationship between France and its African colonies were not even addressed. Yet, the voices of young people were present on stage and they asked questions, made arguments that have long existed in post-colonial literature. Articulating these views in front of the sitting president and in France was a significant moment. For example, there was a speaker from Burkina Faso civil society who asked Macron to stop patronising Africans, and that a change of vocabulary was needed to move from aid to partnership. Nevertheless, even partnership is not radical enough; the correct demand must be for reparations and restitution. Such a demand would constitute a total turn in what mainly were political and diplomatic debates.
The other unique feature of this summit was the fact that they asked Achille Mbembe to take on the task as intellectual scholar for the forum. Was this a radical gesture by the president to engage an African intellectual – a one-time outspoken critic of France’s policy in Africa, rather than another politician? Mbembe traveled around the continent to listen and record divergent voices about Africa’s relationship with France. Mbembe’s involvement in the 2021 summit leads us to ask three questions we explore below.
Firstly, the gesture to endorse an African intellectual with ties to France was intriguing. Was this a sign that the French establishment are taking African intellectuals seriously? It was indeed curious for Mbembe to accept this task with its high risks of being accused of doing the clean-up work for an imperial power which has never left Africa and is increasingly being exposed for its continued neo-colonial, exploitative relations with the continent.
Secondly, Mbembe’s involvement and young civil society activists who voiced criticism can also be viewed cynically as part of the French strategy to divert attention to real issues, namely CFA monetary coloniality, the presence of its troops in Mali and France interference with the monetary reforms spearheaded by ECOWAS. Or was it to collect data on the changing pattern of West African consciousness and capture the new vocabulary of African youth as part of an effort to monitor debates, listen to frustrations, then re-align French interests across the continent accordingly? Or can this be a case of a ‘cognitive empire’ needing data to sharpen its tools and recruit new allies? Doubtless, though, is a popular demand for Europe in general, and France in particular, to embark on de-imperialisation as part of an essential pre-requisite to redefine relations.
Thirdly, the much-publicised summit was held in France. The selection of these young participants was preceded by a preliminary consultation with France. Even if it is argued that these debates had started during previous meetings on Macron’s visits to the African continent, the summit in Montpellier was a platform to send a message to Macron’s electorate that he cares about minority issues, and to African youth that France cares where their governments have failed, and to other world powers competing for Africa’s resources, that France is in a leadership position and in touch with ‘authentic’ issues.
The counter-summit was an eye-opener. A collective of associations, unions, and political parties organised a counter-summit to denounce the Françafrique (the term used to describe the continued and unabated influence of France, its government, and businesses, over its former colonies). Their objective was to unmask ‘the hidden face’ of the ‘New Africa-France summit’ and to challenge France’s policy in Africa. For most of the detractors, the summit was simply a publicity stunt to restore the image of France, which has deteriorated sharply in recent years, particularly in the eyes of African youth.
It is indeed true that several events of the last three years were behind the demonstrations against France in Africa and, therefore, Emmanuel Macron had an interest in a charm offensive to try and restore the image of his country in many regions of the continent.
The counter-summit registered the participation of significant political figures such as Mireille Fanon-Mendès-France, daughter of Frantz Fanon, and Miriam Sankara, the wife of the African hero, Thomas Sankara from Burkina Faso. For those attending the counter-summit, Macron’s announcements for a change in France-Africa relations over the past four years were being challenged as nothing but the usual operations of colonial seduction to give neo-colonial relations a new lease of life.
For example, the reform of the CFA franc, in favour of the future West African currency ECO, still guarantees a central role for France in the monetary policy of West African countries. Also, the announced end of Opération Barkhane is, like other previous military operations in Africa, part of a strategic redeployment towards maintaining French influence through military cooperation and the action of Special Forces.
Macron’s France has therefore never introduced a break in its African policy but, on the contrary, continues to increase its neo-colonial influence in Africa strategically to fight against growing criticism, particularly from young protestors. These are the reasons why this summit was considered as a symbolic renewal of old Franco-African summits, by using topics such as ‘Youth and actors from the diaspora, entrepreneurship, culture and sports’ to continue to revive the same colonial practices of France in Africa.
The counter-summit of a hundred organisations and supported by several political parties and unions succeeded in organising itself around a message which clearly showed what the meaning of “putting an end to the coloniality of France-Africa” had to involve. The meetings, debates and events they organised on the side-lines of the official summit showed a great mistrust towards Macron, based on their deep knowledge of existing contradictions between France’s discourse and its actions in Africa.
It emerges from these debates that this is not the first time a French president has promised to put an end to France-Africa coloniality, including president Nicolas Sarkozy (2007-2012) and president François Hollande (2012-2017). These presidents always talked about cosmetic change and a change of style in their relationship with Africa, but not the kind of rupture that the counter-summit participants were asking for.
An example of changing styles over time is how from President Charles de Gaulle (1959-1969) to Jacques Chirac (1995-2007), France had a personal relationship with African presidents, in order to maintain its influence on the African continent. The style then changed with Sarkozy and increased with Francois Hollande, with more emphasis and focus on ‘democratisation’, but still insisting on positioning a relationship with politicians and the Élysée (the official residence of the French president). More recently, the gradual disappearance of former dictators in some African countries has not allowed the Élysée to establish personal and deep relations with certain African presidents. Therefore, it was necessary to change the former way of doing things, in order to maintain, above all, the influence of France in Africa.
Sarkozy, who did not appreciate the need to change the old model of the France-Africa relationship, paid dearly in a lawsuit related to his relations with President Muammar al-Gaddaf. Macron thus had no choice but to try and refigure the relationship in a different way. Yet, this does not mean that the core of France-Africa coloniality has altered in any way.
This is what the counter-summit meant in demanding a sign from Macron, showing that there really was a will for radical change. This would consist of France’s commitment towards five very specific points: (a) ending its military presence in Africa, (b) ending the neoliberal trade policy of France and the EU in Africa, (c) stopping support to presidents who remain in power in an undemocratic manner and French interference in the internal political and economic affairs of African countries, (d) cancelling the odious and illegitimate debts of African countries, (e) respecting the freedom of movement and settlement of people as well as putting an end to expulsions of asylum seekers from France in accordance with international treaties.
Some post-colonial thinkers, including Mbembe, argue that we should not only see cynicism in France’s declaration of its desire to improve its relations with Africa. Sometimes the will is there, but differences still appear on the issue of what a healthy multilateral relationship means. Though, we would argue, that beyond cynicism, there is above all an issue of ideological and cognitive incapacity which is at stake in the official French political imagination.
For those who follow topical issues in French politics, there is still in its political world a kind of nostalgia for the French empire, power and influence in the world, which ultimately makes imperialism a criterion of the greatness of a state. According to Achille Mbembe, this deep rationality implies that “France is struggling to enter into the ‘decolonial’ world that is coming” . For this reason, the counter-summit argued that the official summit organised by Mbembe was unable to break with this imperialist baggage which is at the very foundation of the French state.
The empire and its technologies of domination
The cognitive empire sustains colonial relations. It continues to invade the mental universes of its targets. It maintains surveillance over new knowledge which is not informed by colonial and capitalist interests. What sense do we make of the fact that the summit took place within a context in which conservative politicians in alliance with conservative intellectuals were mounting a push-back against critical race theory, intersectionality theory, post-colonial theory, and decolonial thought? These are frameworks that emerged from the battlefields of history and struggles against racism, enslavement, colonialism, capitalism, and patriarchy. It is these frameworks that the current insurgent and resurgent decolonisation of the 21st century is building on, with students, youth and other progressive forces at the forefront.
The new world now has a critical language with which to propose and imagine a future beyond racism, colonialism, capitalism, and patriarchy. The counter-summit was inspired not just by rethinking but unthinking all toxic colonial relations. Summits have been well-known techniques of sugarcoating colonialities. The long history since the 1958 referendum in France has amply demonstrated that colonial relations do not need reform but abolition for any genuinely new relations between France and Africa. What is needed is a double rupture—which is simultaneously epistemic and systemic.
This article was published in the Review of African political Economy (ROAPE).
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