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The Diplomatic Tensions of Colonial History and its Opportunities for Africa

Hamish Sneyd | Middle East and North Africa Fellow

Image credit: Bartholomew via Wikimedia Commons

The recent passing of Queen Elizabeth II has renewed debate throughout Africa and the world on the role of monarchy in the modern world as well as its synonymous history of colonial conquest and devastation. This has been ever-present in Africa where activists and governments have long pushed for the former European colonial powers to acknowledge, apologise, and compensate for the atrocities of colonialism. Colonialism has had ongoing and multifaceted ramifications for modern Africa which continue to be felt through African states’ development and their struggles with neo-colonialism. Recent acknowledgements and apologies from the former colonial powers signal a growing trend and potential leverage point for African states to generate tangible benefits for the continent.


European colonialism in Africa was defined by genocide, enslavement, cultural dismemberment, dehumanisation, resource extraction, along with countless other atrocities afflicted on the people, cultures, and environments of Africa. The legacy of colonialism has naturally weighed heavily on the relations between African states and the former colonial powers. African states have championed for tangible reparations and official apologies, though often unsuccessfully. Numerous former colonial powers have, to varying degrees, avoided formal apologies and substantial reparation payments to their former African colonies.


The complex legal ramifications and sheer scale of compensation claims have made most European states hesitant to formally apologise for their colonial impact in Africa and other parts of the world. Formal apologies and compensation to former colonies also face strong resistance from many of Europe’s political elite who refuse to apologise and downplay their state’s role in the colonisation of Africa.


Compensation from the former colonial powers is not unprecedented. Italy made a formal apology and US$5 billion investment deal with former colony Libya in 2008, while Germany has also recognised and compensated Namibia for its genocide of Herero and Nama tribespeople who rebelled against colonial rule between 1904 and 1908. The Netherlands has also set a positive example for colonial apologies through the creation of a government fund to support efforts to tackle climate change in former colonies, including Indonesia, as an apology for its role in colonial oppression and slavery. These examples are the exception not the rule of former colonial powers’ engagement with Africa, though they highlight the tangible outcomes of activism targeted toward European accountability for their colonial actions.


The growing trend of former colonial powers acknowledging the wrongs of the past and their ramifications for the present could act as a leverage point for African countries. This is particularly relevant for those affected by British and French colonialism, as the two European states held the largest colonial territories in Africa and maintain the largest influence in the contemporary international system with strong vested interest in Africa’s development and international affairs.


Britain’s new king inherits a diplomatically fragile situation when it comes to Britain’s relations with African states as the wounds of British atrocities in former colonies such as Zimbabwe and Kenya remain unacknowledged by the government or royal family. This resentment could be drawn upon as previously done by Kenyan activists who successfully attained compensation for British crimes committed in the Mau Mau rebellion.


France is also in a fragile position as it undergoes an ambitious campaign to normalise France-Africa relations, particularly with its 20 former colonies. France has long maintained a web of influence in continental affairs known as Françafrique, often in the support of corrupt governments and dictatorial leaders such as Chad’s long-term ruler Idriss Déby, who upheld France’s security and energy interests through oppressive means in return for French political support and development aid. These imbalanced relationships, along with France’s overall presence in Africa have come under sharp criticism from former colonies such as Benin, Senegal, and Mali. Benin and Senegal continue their respective campaigns for the return of cultural artifacts stolen by French authorities, while Mali experiences strong anti-French protests after a decade of unsuccessful French military intervention against Mali’s growing insurgent groups.


This is against the backdrop of France’s highly publicised and contentious relationship with Algeria, stemming from France’s fierce colonial occupation for which French President Emmanuel Macron has refused to apologise. A similar dynamic has also occurred in Franco-Rwandan relations, though with more success, as France acknowledged its inaction in the Rwandan genocide, after previous French presidents showed little interest in doing so. The Algerian and Rwandan cases present opportunities for other African states affected by former colonial powers, particularly when considering France’s geopolitical motivations to retain influence on the continent through such actions.


Britain’s and France’s presences in Africa are at an impasse as this discontent of former colonies fuses with the rising influence of alternative development partners such as Russia, Turkey, and China. France’s efforts to acknowledge past atrocities are undeniably caused by its decreasing influence. This presents great opportunities for African states, particularly in North Africa, to utilise their agency and leverage their colonial histories in pursuit of tangible economic benefits. Advocacy for African states to adopt a big power strategy and maximise development outcomes for the continent could be centred on calls for former colonial powers to be coerced into paying restitution for past abuses and their ongoing implications.


The potential of these tangible outcomes should create added motivation for African states who hold advantageous negotiating positions amidst resurgent European influence and the rise of alternative partners. Colonial resentment as a tool of diplomatic engagement would be of great benefit for African states capable of balancing between large powers with strong interest in Africa. With this established, the potential dominance of colonial resentment among the diplomatic tools of African states would be foreseeable and justified.


Hamish Sneyd is the Middle East and North Africa Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.

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