Europe must relinquish the illusion that it possesses superior values

The incessant lectures on democracy and human rights are underlain by the assumption that Africans are caretakers of what belongs to others

In an interview this week, France 24 journalist, Marc Perelman, asked President Kagame whether his decision to help fix Europe’s immigration problem – in the UK and potentially in Denmark also – isn’t aimed at appeasing Europeans to tone down their criticism of him with regard to human rights and democracy. Similarly, in the lead-up to the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) held in Rwanda in June, most European media claimed that by agreeing to hold the event in Rwanda, Europe was giving legitimacy to a dictator, Kagame, who apparently doesn’t measure up to “commonwealth values.”

Togo and Gabon were also castigated for not deserving membership due to the so-called values.

The twin issues of Europe’s responsibility to confer legitimacy to African leaders and its supposedly superior values invite closer scrutiny.

The British Commonwealth of Nations was founded in 1926 as a platform for discussing affairs of “newfound lands” represented by colonial administrators. This history of pillage and plunder of the British Empire doesn’t need elaboration. Suffice it to say that it serves as an essential reference and starting point for any genuine discussion of the values upon which the organization was founded.

It was Britain’s thirst for legitimacy and relevance after the Americans told them to pick their bags and leave the colonies that pushed them to rebrand the organisation to drop any reference to the British Empire and presumably also to distance themselves from colonialist values. The fact that they stated that henceforth membership would be among “equal and free” member states speaks volumes about their own admission of what the founding values were. In this regard, the British media is certainly right to claim that Kagame can never live up to such values.

What Kagame can, however, do is that he can help relieve Europeans of the burden of this history, if only they have the humility to accept the idea that they too need to learn from others whose perspectives are valid.

“We are all committed to the values of the Commonwealth; no question. But it’s not for one group to define and measure who lives up to them [the values]” President Kagame told the mainly British media present at the press conference held to close CHOGM 2022.

Kagame has been consistent in this message, which was a key theme in his engagement with President Macron. The French president was smart enough to concede that his administration has set a new tone in its relations with Africa based on mutual respect. Macron even went as far as acknowledging the resistance from some of the elite in France who are not ready to engage Africa on such terms due to this very historical baggage. In the same way, this history conditions Africans to an inferiority complex; it does the opposite to Europeans. The superiority complex clouds their minds and explains their current failure to grasp the consequences of a changing world.

Consequently, the Europeans speaking through their media are convinced that it is them who confer Kagame legitimacy as their ancestors did for colonial chiefs. In their view, Kagame has to appease them in order to get legitimacy. The superiority complex has clouded their minds so much so that the beneficiaries of a history of plunder and pillage find no irony in virtue signalling, lecturing their victims on “values” that include human rights.

Who owns the colonial state?

The incessant lectures on democracy and human rights are underlain by the assumption that Africans are caretakers of what belongs to others. As a result, mutually reinforcing behaviors have emerged to the detriment of governance in Africa. African leaders act in a way that appears to validate the assumption: they act as caretakers without responsibility to alter the state and its institutions in ways that serve the interests of Africans. In turn, foreign actors in government, NGOs, academia, and think tanks have taken up the responsibility to provide oversight over Africa to ensure that nothing changes fundamentally. They clamour for policy space and complain over political space when they are squeezed out of this oversight role by any leadership that seeks to transform the state in the interest of Africans. This self-appointed oversight role is most obvious during elections when they send election monitors to determine the credibility of the election and of African leaders whose legitimacy would depend on the reports of this non-voting outsider constituency. In other words, even the elections are theirs and Africans are mere caretakers.

This possessiveness on the part of the Europeans (to say the least of the nagging and stalking of the mediocre who claim expertise on African matters but remain irrelevant in their own societies) suggests that they do not recognize independence even when they can’t come out and state it. Otherwise, it ought to be obvious that their actions are aimed at sabotaging the very independence they claim to have bequeathed to Africans more than 50 years ago and that their supervisory role neither promotes democracy nor human rights. On the contrary, the righteous indignation expressed when African leaders dismiss their lectures suggests that they believe that Africa belongs to them and the African caretakers are not allowed to transform it; that Africans may be granted approval from the ‘real owners’ to pursue cosmetic alterations.

These mutually reinforcing attitudes that suggest that Africa belongs to Europeans have meant that, naturally, there is an insufficient sense of ownership on the part of most African leaders to transform their states. It follows therefore that African governance has continued to retain different forms of colonial governance.

Ironically, this failure to transform the state to serve the interests of Africans has often been evidenced by the external constituency insisting to have more say in the running of African affairs. If the state is theirs, and if only they know how best it works, the argument goes, then only they can run it effectively. In other words, rather than promote democracy and human rights, the role of external supervision is to act as a subtle reminder that the colonial regime was a valid alternative to self-governance. It is no wonder that some Africans suggest that Africa was better off during the colonial era and justify entitlement to continued western tutelage. It serves the delusion that Europeans possess superior values when evidence points to the contrary; it explains the narcissism that fuels Europe’s tendency to lecture when they should be learning, to demand when they should be appeasing.

The Africa that Africans want cannot have it both ways. It cannot be independent while accepting that colonisers dictate how the state is run. Similarly, it cannot accept membership in colonial institutions without assuming the obligation for dismantling the value systems responsible for the suffering of Africans and replacing the logic of plunder and savagery with more humane values that can drive healthy and mutually beneficial relations. 

In other words, ownership is key. If the colonial state is yet to be African, it is because there has not been an adequate sense of ownership. Indeed, if the Commonwealth is a colonial institution, it is because it insists on a single group defining for the rest what their values should be. Both can be saved. But only by Europe relinquishing the illusion that it possesses superior values.

Which begs the question: Who is legitimizing whom?

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