News Analysis

African leaders displayed an exceptional degree of unity at the European-African summit held in Lisbon, Portugal, on Dec. 8-9. The trade issues, which prompted the first meeting of its kind in seven years, were overshadowed by European attempts to prevent the participation of Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe.

Although the West has demonized Mugabe since his government’s land reform program began in the 1990s, throughout Africa he is viewed first and foremost as a hero of the anti-colonial struggle. Mugabe’s claims of interference in Zimbabwe’s domestic affairs by Great Britain, its former colonial master, by funding and advising the political opposition, resonates with many Africans who resent neocolonialism.

The European Union (EU) had to withdraw its threat to bar Mugabe from the summit after southern African heads of state threatened to stay away if he was excluded. Not coincidentally, Great Britain’s Prime Minister Gordon Brown was the only European leader to boycott the meeting because of Mugabe’s attendance.

African heads of state also united to rebuff the EU’s attempts to force negotiation of so-called Economic Partnership Agreements (EPAs) by the end of this year. Current trade deals, which expire Dec. 31, give African countries tariff-free access to the European market under World Trade Organization rules. African leaders, seeking to protect their nations’ industry and agriculture, reject obligations spelled out in the EPAs to open up their markets to foreign investment.

As the British newspaper the Guardian explained, Africans “accuse the EU of neocolonial bullying and diktat, aiming to open vulnerable African economies to predatory European businesses.” In the face of this unified African resistance, some European leaders have urged the EU not to impose tariffs, despite the looming expiration of current deals.

The solidarity exhibited on the African side is testament to the vitality of the African Union (AU). Initiated only six years ago to replace the historic but often ineffective Organization of African Unity, the AU plans to follow the direction of the EU in creating a continent-wide common market and currency.

The formation of the AU also has encouraged African heads of state to increasingly speak with a cohesive voice. Whereas in the past, individual African countries would be tempted by the capitalist powers to negotiate separate trade deals, the African leaders attending the Lisbon summit refused to be divided.

As the AU Chairman, Alpha Oumar Konaré, proclaimed at the opening session: “Africa doesn’t want charity or paternalism. We don’t want anyone doing things for us. We want to play in the global economy but with new rules.”

The backdrop to the sudden European rhetoric about equality and partnership with Africa heard at the summit is the rapid and remarkable emergence of China as a political and economic power on the continent. Only one year ago, in November 2006, nearly all the African heads of state gathered in Beijing for the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation Summit, an event marked by optimism and celebration, in stark contrast to the Lisbon meeting.

African-Chinese trade has exploded five-fold over the past half-decade to more than $50 billion last year. While the EU remains Africa’s top trade partner, “the Chinese are catching up fast,” in the words of The Economist.

Indeed, China’s role in Africa has become a topic of obsession in the corporate media, which always portrays the relationship in the most unfavorable light. The anti-China bias of the U.S. ruling class is clear in articles ranging from ongoing front-page pieces in The New York Times on Chinese investments to a frantic exposé titled “Enter China, the Giant” in July’s Vanity Fair.

What the mainstream media does not report, however, is that in many ways China is viewed by Africans as a development model. By pursuing a centrally planned, socialist economy, China has rapidly industrialized over the past several decades while lifting multitudes out of poverty and ignorance.

For African countries underdeveloped by colonialism and kept so by the commands of neoliberalism, the Chinese model — and the long-term investments, favorable loans, and practical guidance offered by Beijing — is an attractive alternative. As even the Times noted, “Despite their historical ties to Africa, Europeans have found it difficult to compete with China, which finances giant infrastructure projects and offers investment without conditions.”

So, as China and Africa strengthen their relations, the EU is urgently trying to maintain its dominance in its own backyard. It is a historic irony that Lisbon has taken the lead in this effort, as Portugal was the first European country to directly trade with Africa and, only three decades ago, the last to abandon its colonies there, defeated by Marxist liberation movements.

Besides China, Africans are increasingly turning to other socialist and progressive partners — such as Venezuela, Brazil, and India — for cooperation in the economic and social realms while building upon longstanding links with Cuba.


Dennis Laumann
Dennis Laumann

Dennis Laumann is a Professor of African History at The University of Memphis. His publications include Colonial Africa, 1994-1994, Second Edition (Oxford University Press, 2018). He is a member of United Campus Workers-CWA.