Africa: Historically African states were not regarded as legitimate, or legal entities by the colonial masters Image Credit: Jose L. Barros/Gulf News

Last week, I followed closely the news of three Western leaders — Joe Biden of the US, Justin Trudeau of Canada and Emmanuel Macron of France — offering apologies for past massacre committed against non-whites in their countries. In the case of Macron, the massacre didn’t actually take place in France but in Rwanda.

Too late for apologies, I thought. But better late than never anyway. But surely not enough, not even in the vicinity of enough. For the Western world, there have been enormous historical injustices and unspeakable horrors inflicted on others, non-western, to answer for.

On Tuesday, a visibly emotional US president Joe Biden marked the 100th anniversary of the Tulsa massacre, in which hundreds of Black people were killed by a white mob on May 31, 1921. On the same day, Canadian Prime Minister Justin apologised too.

His apology followed the discovery of a mass grave in Kamloops, British Columbia, in which 215 children were buried at a former Indigenous residential school, the infamous government-funded Christian schools run by the Church since the 19th century.

A history of abuse

From the mid-1800s until the 1970s, more than 150,000 native Canadian children were required to attend those schools as part of a government programme to ‘assimilate them into Canadian society’. They were forced to convert to Christianity and not allowed to speak their native languages. Thousands of these children beaten and abused, and up to 6,000 are said to have died, Canadian historians believe.

Three days before Biden and Trudeau spoke, another western leader, French president Emmanuel Macron, asked Rwandans to forgive his country for its role in the 1994 Rwandan genocide in which about 800,000 ethnic Tutsis and Hutus died. He was visiting the genocide memorial in Rwanda’s capital Kigali. He said France had not heeded warnings of impending carnage and had for too long “valued silence over examination of the truth.”

As he uttered his shy apology in Kigali, Macron made clear to reaffirm the French commission’s stance that his country, which had troops in Rwanda at the time as part of the United Nations ‘peacekeeping’ force, was not participant in the genocide, although many reports later said European force looked the other way as the killing started. The UN force was only interested in ‘saving whites’, witnesses told the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda years later.

I was surprised that Rwandan leaders praised Macron’s speech. I thought they would tell him his apology was not accepted. Perhaps they were being diplomatic. I am certain they know that Africa deserves more than a clumsy apology for one massacre, while omitting hundreds of years of unspeakable horrors committed by European nations, in which France played a leading role.

It is high time Europeans acknowledged their crimes against Africans and offered compensation for what they did to Africa, particularly during the decades of the so-called ‘Scramble for Africa.’

Between 1873 and the end of the 19th century, Europe, especially Britain, Germany, and France, was reeling under what was called the Long Depression, a severe economic crisis that engulfed most industrial states of that era.

The riches of Africa and other places, such as the Middle East and the far East, offered Europe a perfect solution — underdeveloped societies that not only represented open markets for their products but also a treasure of raw material and precious metals.

The Berlin Conference

So, 13 European nations met in Berlin in 1884 to divide Africa between them, creating in the process artificial states that lacked any common cultural or linguistic or ethnic links.

Historical records show that the participant nations believed that “Africa did not belong to anyone, and so could be claimed.” (In recent times, the same was claimed about Palestine when the British, in the Balfour Declaration of 1917, offered it to the Jews to establish their homeland)

African states were not regarded as legitimate, or legal entities by the Berlin conference. Historically, that was not the first time Europeans divided the world amongst themselves. Four centuries before the Berlin meeting, Pope Alexander VI in his 1493 papal edict divided the world between Spain and Portugal, giving them ‘permission’ to invade “barbarous nations” and bring “their people into the true faith.”

By 1885, the Scramble for Africa was at full speed. It lasted until 1914 when the occupation, division, and colonisation of most of Africa by seven Western European powers was completed. It began with the occupation of the Kongo by King Leopold II of Belgium.

Joseph Conrad’s 1902 novel, Heart of Darkness, is probably the first account of the bloody history of Congo under Leopold’s rule, and Africa in general. The novel is vastly racist and seamlessly stereotypical in its description of the Africans (savages, cannibals, etc). But more than a hundred years ago, it shed a light on the crimes of imperialism.

Millions of Africans died at the hands of the European colonials. In his 1999 book, King Leopold’s Ghost, American historian Adam Hochschild says that the Belgians killed 10 million people in the Congo, in what he called as ‘the forgotten holocaust.’

Africans were tortured, had their hands chopped off, executed in Leopold’s pursuit to tighten his grip on the country.

Africa, which remains until today a scarred continent because of the colonial crimes, needs more than a passing apology by a passing politician. Europe must first open up their classified archives so the world can know the extent of the crimes committed against Africa.

A massive development programme is needed, similar to the US Marshal plan for post-World War II Europe. Then perhaps, an apology can be accepted. And that is of course is the first chapter.

Other ‘scarred’ places, such as the Arab world, the Subcontinent, and East Asia will have to demand justice too.