Another Tigray? The Horn of Africa nears the brink again

A few months past, the Horn of Africa experienced an immensely costly conflict, the calamitous consequences of which are only gradually coming to light. Initially, Ethiopian prime minster and Nobel laureate Abiy Ahmed intended for a simple “law-enforcement operation” against the seditious Tigrayan Peoples Liberation Front (TPLF), who had fortified their native Tigray region in the northeast of Ethiopia. Soon after, as observers and press were allowed back into Tigray, reports of mass atrocities clearly refuted his narrative. At the same time, the aftermath of this war already threatens to affect different fronts. 

The Tigray war has had major spillover effects for Ahmed, enflaming both a long-frozen border dispute with Sudan as well as aggravating Egypt’s opposition to an Ethiopian Nile dam. It is crucial for policymakers and observers not to avert their attention and let these disputes engulf the Horn of Africa in yet another humanitarian disaster. To that end, a clear-eyed look at the current disputes is sorely needed, especially in a media landscape highly polarised by contradicting narratives. It is crucial to dispel bellicose narratives and policies, adopt countervailing actions, and mediate the ongoing disputes in whichever way possible.

Al-Fashaqa

The disruptive effect of the Tigray intervention was felt beyond Ethiopian borders. In large part due to Ahmed having dispatched his Eritrean allies and militias from the Amhara region into Tigray. It is a shared animosity that united these actors, despising the TPLF due to the atrocities it perpetrated during a 30-year rule over Ethiopia (1991-2018).[1] Thus, the conflict devolved into genocidal warfare against the whole of Tigray, including forced starvation and mass killings[2]. Tens of thousands of Tigrayans had to flee this carnage,[3] finding shelter in neighbouring Sudan. Amhara militias advancing towards its borders caused alarm in Sudan. Specifically, Khartoum was concerned about the status of a long-disputed border area called al-Fashaqa. By virtue of a 2008 agreement, ethnic Amharans from Ethiopia were allowed to farm in this region, while Khartoum retained formal sovereignty. This compromise was necessary as two contradictory colonial-era treaties gave both sides a claim to this triangle-shaped area of around 12 km2

In response to the threat emerging from events in Tigray, Khartoum decided to strengthen its defensive posture. It did so by reasserting full sovereignty over al-Fashaqa, expelling resident Amhara farmers in late 2020. In Addis, however, Khartoum was perceived as opportunistically breaking the status quo of 2008, while its forces were distracted in Tigray. Tensions increased further as Khartoum received an influx of fleeing Tigrayans. Addis subsequently accused Khartoum of also giving asylum to suspected TPLF leaders, seeing this as a prelude to a Sudanese intervention in Tigray. Khartoum fired back, accusing Addis of supporting rebellious militias operating on Sudanese territory to regain al-Fashaqa. 

GERD

With tensions already being thoroughly enflamed between Addis and Khartoum, their acrimony further spilled over into a regional dispute that has plagued the Horn of Africa since late 2010. It is at that time that a still TPLF-ruled Addis Ababa decided to start construction on the Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD). It would staunch a Blue Nile stretch flowing through its western Benishangul-Gumuz region, just before entering Sudan. Despite offering huge hydroelectric potential for Ethiopia, it is downstream countries like Sudan and Egypt that would have their water security jeopardised by the dam.[4]

Although initially rejecting Addis’ right to exploit its natural features entirely, an Egypt swept up by the Arab Spring was unable to enforce its stance when Addis unilaterally started construction on the GERD. The current generation of leaders, Abiy Ahmed and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, have so far held on to intransigent positions, preferring boisterous and threatening speeches to compromise. 

The GERD dispute saw al-Sisi renew Egyptian engagement in Eastern and Central Africa in search of allies, especially along the White Nile. This Nile-tributary originates in the Great Lakes region and gives its name to the so-called “White Nile Alignment” that has been assembled by Cairo.[5] On top of its African allies, multiple Arab states have also assured Cairo of their “absolute support” in the GERD dispute.[6]

This extensive international backing together with his quest for domestic approval and the saliency of water security, has driven al-Sisi to take a hard-line stance vis-à-vis Addis. Although having had to accept the completion of GERD as a fait accompli, he set a clear red line with the unilateral filling of its reservoir. Instead of choosing a cooperative tone, al-Sisi has chosen a domineering one to get his wish, declaring “no one can take a single drop of Egypt’s water”. 

Ahmed, although having lost many international backers due to his Tigray campaign,[7] is nevertheless forced by domestic considerations to take a tough stance in the GERD dispute. Foremost among them is the centrality of the dam for Ethiopians’ national pride. Seeing as the dam would guarantee energy self-reliance, it has come to symbolise the country’s independence in general. The issue of warding off foreign domination is crucial to the Ethiopian psyche, it being the only African country to successfully repel attempts of colonialism. Ahmed’s stance is further cemented by the ethnic turmoil plaguing Ethiopia. As the Oromo people, who constitute Ethiopia’s largest ethnic group, increasingly feel alienated by his consolidation of power within his Prosperity Party, Ahmed is ever more reliant on Amharan support. This alliance has forced him to take a resolute stance in al-Fashaqa and in turn also in the GERD dispute. 

Where to go from here?

History has taught us that issues as sensitive as water security have to be dealt with extreme prudence, as no leader would allow another country to deny it access to such a vital resource. An example where such an issue was solved through an equitable and mutually beneficial agreement is the Diama Dam over the Senegal river in West Africa. However, due to multiple disputes and mutual distrust simmering in the Horn, achieving such a solution will take a concerted effort by both regional and international actors. Leaders must eschew inflammatory rhetoric and zero-sum stances in negotiations. Although the most recent effort by African Union Chair and CAR President Félix Tshisekedi broke down due to Ethiopia rejecting a bigger role by international actors (EU and USA), pressure has to be kept up. Third-party negotiators (EU, USA, and the AU) have to recommit themselves even during this time of Covid-induced overstretch. The livelihoods of the affected people must be put first, before any self-serving geopolitical interests. 


Sources

[1] The Eritrean-TPLF rivalry has its roots in the brutal war the TPLF waged against Eritrean during 1998-2000, when it still ruled in Addis.

[2] Especially in the south-eastern sector of Tigray, around the capital Mekele, where local Tigrayans were expelled or slaughtered to make room for settlers from the neighbouring Amhara region.

[3] The number of Tigrayan refugees fleeing into Sudan is estimated to be as high as 60’000, according to the UNHCR (18.01.2021).

[4] Egypt’s dependency on the Niles water is at a whopping 90%, since it is its only fresh-water source. This overwhelming reliance informs Cairo’s result stance when it comes to any attempts at regulating the natural water flow of the Nile.

[5] The White Nile Alignment includes Sudan, South Sudan, Uganda, Tanzania, and the DRC. See Michaël Tanchum: “Europe-Mediterranean-Africa Commerical Connectivity: Geopolitical Opportunities and Challenges”, Med Dialogue Series (31), Nov. 2020.

[6] Arab allies supporting Egypt and Sudan in the GERD dispute KSA, Bahrain, Yemen (Hadi-government), and Oman.

[7] Former international backers that cut aid to Addis: US, EU, multiple UN bodies. This leaves China as Ethiopia’s only strong international ally.

Illustration

“Border tensions mount between Sudan, Ethiopia”, Ayin Network, 26.01.2021

How the environmental crisis is already affecting us and who really bears the consequences

We are all concerned about our future and that of our planet. The many issues related to climate change are known to all of us, but we see them primarily as a problem of the future. We do not necessarily pay primary attention to the acute effects and profound emergencies that the climate crisis is already triggering.

The climate crisis is a very complex problem that is unlikely to be solved quickly. It is an issue that will affect us all. However, the current situation is highly unbalanced and unjust: Those who cause climate change and those who suffer the consequences are two different groups of people.

The Sahel: a major victim of climate change

The acute consequences of climate change are already being felt throughout Africa, especially in the Sahel.[1]In this region, more than 3.5 million people have already been forced to flee their homes due to flooding and desertification, and 24 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance.[2] Due to temperature increases and changes in precipitation, deserts are forming and rivers are overflowing, forcing the local population to flee. These environmental changes are particularly drastic because the economy of these countries relies heavily natural resources. Climate change threatens agriculture, livestock, mining, but also tourism. These are all livelihoods for the resident population whose economic, social and existential security is now constantly threatened by the consequences of climate change. In addition, their status as developing countries complicates the situation. Access to funding, aid and research projects is severely limited and there is a risk of institutional failure due to additional local armed conflicts. The paradox is that Africa is currently experiencing the greatest effects of climate change yet has one of the lowest greenhouse gas emissions.

The Complexity of the concept of ‘Climate Refugees’

Not only in the Sahel, but also in South Asia and Latin America, people are suffering from the effects of climate change. For the population, migration is often the last and only option. These people are mistakenly referred to as ‘climate refugees’. This term is critical because there is no international agreement on the exact definition of it. There is widespread disagreement on who should be considered a climate refugee and how to resolve the crisis. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) favors the wording “persons displaced in the context of disasters and climate change.”[3] The disagreement over the formal definition of ‘climate refugee’ is very problematic, as those who are forced to leave their home due to natural disasters are not officially considered refugees and thus are not protected under international law. International law does not protect them since they are not forced to flee because of their nationality, religion, or political beliefs. As climate change-affected states are often also developing countries who suffer from violent armed conflicts, several issues overlap and make this definition even more difficult. 

What is certain is that the number of climate refugees has risen sharply in recent years and already exceeds that of armed conflict refugees. At this time over 65 million[4] people are affected, creating one of the greatest humanitarian challenges of this century. This issue requires global political coordination and the affected states cannot and should not bear the consequences alone. 

In fear of the impact of migration on Europe and North America, many financial resources are currently being invested in the migration crisis. This short-term solution may placate the problem, but it won’t solve it. In the long term, there is also a need to invest in concrete solutions to climate change and to comply with global agreements on the environment and greenhouse gas emissions. The UNHCR has an important role to play in being responsible for protecting climate refugees, promoting policy coherence in areas of climate change, research, and activities in the field.[5]

An artistic appeal against climate change

In addition to the UNHCR’s commitment, the Coalition for Art and Sustainable Development (COAL) offers another interesting approach. Their goal is to make the acute problem of the climate crisis visible through art. They call on artists to address the issue of climate change and draw attention to it. Art has the unique potential of opening a personal perspective and addressing our feelings through a visual language. It can lead us to further our understanding of the abstract construct of climate change and strengthen our empathy for the fate of many of those affected. Annually, COAL awards a prize to contemporary artists working on environmental issues. In 2019, the prize was awarded to Lena Dobrowolska and Teo Ormond-Skeaping for their work “You never know, one day you too may become a refugee.” It addresses migration policies in Uganda. The country, which has one of the highest poverty rates in the world but has taken in over 1.3 million refugees is a model for climate refugee policy.[6] In their artistic practice, the artists present a fictional reality of a white middle-class family forced to flee to Africa or South America. In their work, art makes itself apparent as a new tool for educating and raising awareness. They show how art can fight the environmental crisis in a sensitive and peaceful way.


[1] This affects parts of Senegal, Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, Nigeria, Chad, Cameroon, Sudan and Eritrea.

[2] Climate displacement in the field, Climate Refugees.

[3] Climate change and disaster displacement, UNHCR.

[4] “The Refugees the world barely pays attention to”, NPR, 20th June 2018.

[5] Climate change and disaster displacement, UNHCR.

[6] Coal Prize 2019.

Western Sahara – the forgotten conflict

There are three things that cannot be questioned in the Kingdom of Morocco. The King, Islam and the affiliation of Western Sahara to Morocco. Although the United Nations continues to call for a democratic referendum on the independence of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic, which, by the way, was promised by Morocco in a peace treaty, facts have been created in recent months. The most recent example is that the United States has recognized Moroccan authority over Western Sahara. This makes the USA the first major power to officially back the Moroccan kingdom in this conflict. 

Western Sahara, Moroccan Sahara and Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic?

Western Sahara refers to the entire territory highlighted on the map and was occupied by Spain until 1975. After the withdrawal of the Spanish troops, Morocco, under King Hassan II, declared its claim to the whole territory as part of the Kingdom of Morocco. By means of the “Green March” Moroccan soldiers but also civilians occupied large parts of Western Sahara. The Sahrawi independence fighters (Polisario) retreated into the red marked areas and proclaimed the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) in 1976. Until this day the green area is controlled and de facto ruled by Morocco which has referred to the entire territory as Moroccan Sahara ever since 1975. 


Constant dripping wears away the stone 

As late as 1985, SADR was admitted to the African Union (AU) and thus recognized as a sovereign state. How and why was Morocco able to assert its claim in only 35 years against the will of the UN, the AU and the EU? And what does this development say about the major security situation in North Africa and the Middle East? 

Morocco has been very disciplined in pursuing its “Moroccan Sahara” plan – diplomatically, economically, and militarily. The Moroccan government has deliberately not given any economic gifts to Western Sahara and its Arab population: it has almost entirely suspended trade as well as economic aid. The kingdom also made life difficult for Western Sahara on the military level: although there has been a ceasefire for the last 30 years, the Sahrawi Liberation Front “Polisario” was constantly kept on its toes, so that the latter had no funds at all to make urgently needed investments in infrastructure. 

However, Morocco’s diplomatic strategy deserves a special mention. Since Western Sahara was admitted to the AU in 1985, Morocco has subordinated all of its foreign policy moves to the goal of gaining recognized authority over the country. To this end, the kingdom even temporarily withdrew from the AU (it became a member again in 2017). In its treaties with the European Union and Spain, Morocco has also always been careful not to have to make any concessions regarding the Sahara issue. The North African state has thus succeeded in making the conflict disappear almost completely from the international scene, which has allowed the country to pursue its own interests in the area undisturbed. For a few years now, Morocco has been relying on another diplomatic tool: over the past year, various larger and smaller African and Arab states have opened consulates to Morocco on Western Sahara territory in the occupied cities of al-Dakhla and Laayoune. Undoubtedly, these consulates serve more as symbolic political statements than to perform consular functions. 

The enemy of my enemy is my friend

The recognition of Western Sahara as Moroccan territory by the United States has advanced Morocco’s claim. But the price for this is high because in return Morocco is normalizing relations with the real archenemy of the Arab states: Israel. The next few years will show whether Moroccans really approve of this move because hostility toward Israel is deeply rooted in some parts of the population. Traditionally, the Moroccan king chairs the Al-Quds Committee, which aims to monitor the situation of the holy sites and coordinate activities to liberate Jerusalem. Many Moroccans will wonder if greater recognition of the Moroccan Sahara is really worth a rapprochement with Israel. On the other hand, Morocco has a different relationship with Jews than most Arab states since King Mohammed V and his unbending support for his Jewish subjects during the Vichy regime.

This deal, which Trump’s Middle East adviser Jared Kushner spearheaded, is also interesting in terms of its geopolitical significance. The Trump administration declared Iran its No. 1 enemy and has spent the past four years trying to isolate the Persian state politically. In cooperation with Saudi Arabia, it achieved the normalization of Israel’s relations to the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and now Morocco. Israel and the Arab states mentioned above have one thing in common: Iran as the biggest enemy in the region. In return, the Arab states accept that an Arab-speaking population (the Sahrawi) will be incapacitated. It is almost the same states – mainly monarchies like Saudi Arabia, UAE and Jordan – who already aligned with Morocco at the very beginning of the Western Sahara conflict.

However, Morocco has taken advantage of the geopolitical sabre rattling in the Middle East to advance its own interests in Western Sahara. A referendum on the independence of this area will almost certainly not take place anymore.


References
  • “Marocco normalisiert Beziehungen mit Israel”, NZZ, 12th December 2020.
  • “Marocco wants compromise, not war, in Western Sahara”, Foreing Policy, 12th January 2021.
  • “Pour Robert Malley, le deal Maroc-USA-Israël n’a pas de sense, tandis que Biden compte soutenir les Accords d’Abraham, le Desk, 25th January 2021.

Mali – is foreign involvement truly for the greater good?

Since the 19th of August 2020, when a military coup forced the democratically elected but unpopular president Ibrahim Boubacar Keita to resign, Mali has been struggling to return to stability. The coup was the culmination of weeks of mass protests against the president who was accused of corruption and mishandling a spiralling security situation in the northern and central regions of the country. However, it was but one of the many symptoms of a crisis rooted far deeper. 

Mali has been in turmoil since 2012, when ethnic Tuareg rebels and loosely aligned terrorist groups seized the northern two-thirds of the country after the fall of the Gaddafi regime in Libya, leading France, the former colonial power in the region, to intervene to set them back. In 2013 the UN MINUSMA[1] mission was established to help stabilize the situation. As the government and international actors sought to restore peace in the north, a power vacuum was created in the central region, which soon became a launchpad for jihadist attacks on neighbouring countries. The international intervention helped lead to a peace agreement in 2015, but very little progress has been made since then in disarming rebel groups. An attempt by the government to give the north more autonomy in exchange for disarmament has also proven ineffective, and extremist groups continue to be active in various parts of the country. 

Now, despite a transitional government having been put in place to oversee an eighteen-month period before elections are held, the situation remains highly unstable. Furthermore, an increased number of voices is calling for a dialogue with certain armed groups, in an attempt to reach an agreement. This move has strongly been criticized by external international actors, first and foremost France, and has been seen by many as proof of the growing gap between Mali and the former colonial power. France believes in fact that it is highly unlikely these groups will abandon their ideology and objectives, such as the imposition of shari’a on the state.

A multidimensional crisis 

Due to its geographical position, Mali has become the centre of external efforts to secure the region and counter terrorism, which has inevitably led to increased and consistent international involvement in the area. The fact that the new government is prepared to negotiate with armed jihadist groups, however, should make us question the nature of French and international involvement and whether it is in the country’s best interests. In this context, it is important to keep Mali’s colonial past in mind. 

Falling under French colonial role in 1892, Mali quickly became a country of marginalized subjects ruled by a controlling colonial administration that feared Muslim jihads. The French, in contrast to other colonizers, chose to implement their customs in all occupied territories, a strategy that proved to be particularly difficult in Mali, which was characterized by a diverse multitude of ethnic communities.[2] This resulted in cooperative groups being favoured by the French over others and intensified ethnic divisions. By the time Mali became independent in 1960, the new country was deeply divided. This fragmentation made it particularly difficult for the new Malian political elites to assert their authority over the whole country, which would eventually lead to the marginalization of the north. 

There is no doubt that other factors have contributed to the current situation as well, yet this is another reminder, of how strongly colonialism has affected the state of many contemporary African countries. Of course, there is no changing the past, but perhaps things could be different when looking at the future. 

Rethinking foreign intervention 

It is undeniable that violence in this area has been steadily increasing and that Islamic extremism poses a big threat not only to this region but to surrounding countries as well, with regional as well as international implications. However, the continued presence of international actors has not been as successful as imagined[3]. These powers may have the institutional framework and resources to face particular threats, but does this justify their involvement? At a certain point we need to ask ourselves: is this engagement really for the greater good of the country or is it just a modern form of imperialism?

In light of what we know about Mali’s colonial past, continued foreign intervention could be doing more damage than good. It could in fact lead to the following scenario: an alliance of national forces, including militant groups, with the goal of requesting the withdrawal of international actors. This would inevitably lead to Islamic militias gaining a foothold in the Sahel area[4] for the first time, something international actors are trying to avoid in the first place. It may be time for a change in strategy in view of the long-term goals that could bring stability to the area. 


[1] To date it remains the largest peacekeeping force in the world. 

[2] B. Oletunji Oloruntimehin, “The French Estate in West Africa, 1890-1918,” Journal of the Historical Society of Nigeria 7.3 (1974): 451.

[3] Foregn Policy: “Can Mali Escape Its Past?”, 21st August 2020.

[4] This term refers to the semi-arid stretch of land just south of the Sahara desert which includes Mali, Chad, Niger, Burkina Faso and Mauritania.

US meddling in Africa and the Middle East: Does foreign intervention make sense?

It has gone down in history as the most rapid mass slaughter ever recorded: The genocide in the African state of Rwanda in 1994, where up to a million people were slaughtered by ethnic Hutu extremists[1] while the outside world watched what was going on – and did almost nothing to stop it. And yet out of that catastrophe, impetus arose for a new concept called „R2P“ – the “responsibility to protect”. The principle states that, when a state is failing to protect its own people from crimes against humanity, other states have a moral responsibility to protect the vulnerable and use military force if necessary.

The United States have a striking record when it comes to foreign interventions – especially in Africa and the Middle East. But is it sensible to intervene in foreign political affairs? Or does it only add fuel to the fire?

A long history of US interventions in foreign political affairs

Somalia 1992, Afghanistan 2001, Iraq 2003, Libya 2011: Just to name a few events in Africa and the Middle East that show how the US has fiddled with foreign political affairs for years. Even though the reasons for these interventions were not always the same – the conclusion one can draw from all of these interventions, definitely is: Wiping away pre-existing governing structures has always set off civil conflict and the detrimental impact of these interventions is still visible in every single one of these countries today. 

Why? Because the attempt to forcibly democratise a society with military means almost always created a power vacuum which was then filled by violent groups. The result: state decay and militia rule. 

US intervention in Libya: More Harm Than Good?

Let’s take America’s intervention in Libya as an example for the R2P concept: In 2011, Libyan rebels (propped up by a multi-state NATO coalition including the US) toppled their head of state Muammar Gaddafi, who had ruled the country for more than 40 years. In the US, he was considered a very controversial leader under whom freedom of speech was said to have been “severely curtailed”[2] and cases of abuse, torture, and killings by the state were also reported.

But just because Gaddafi was out of the picture, things didn’t get better. Now, almost 10 years after the intervention, Libya is still mired in a violent, domestic conflict: The country finds itself faced with a catch-22 as it is left with warring militias, an economy in tatters, and an infrastructure torn asunder. The icing on the cake: In the wake of the chaos that ensued after 2011, two rivalling administrations emerged in Libya. Khalifa Haftar, warlord and commander of the Libyan National Army (LNA) backs one of them: The House of Representatives. The other administration is known as the Government of National Accord (GNA), led by Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj and is internationally recognised.

The US had been silent about the subsequent chaos for years. But then, at the end of his term, former President Barack Obama finally admitted that the US intervention in Libya had not really been as successful as he thought it would be and that he simply underestimated the sweeping scope of unintended consequences that had flowed from the intervention. When asked about his worst mistake, Obama replied with „probably failing to plan for the day after, what I think was the right thing to do, intervening in Libya.” [3]

What the Libyan tragedy has explicitly shown is that acting within the framework of the “responsibility to protect” concept is not always the right way to go. Critics have come up with the principle of the “responsibility to rebuild” – which should definitely be taken into consideration if the US should decide to conduct a regime change in a foreign country again.

Because yes, wanting to protect citizens from atrocities is commendable and yes, humanitarian intervention has the potential to help meet global problems. But the US government’s expectations should be realistic, and ambitions should be bounded – because history has clearly shown that foreign-imposed regime change rarely leads to democratisation. The US should abandon its persistent fantasy of reordering the world – America should not be the world’s police.


[1] BBC: “Rwanda genocide: 100 days of slaughter“, 4th April 2019.

[2] Human Rights Watch 2010 report on Libya.

[3] The Atlantic: “The Legacy of Obama’s ‘Worst Mistake’  15th April 2016.

A stain on our post-colonial world: The western world’s condescending attitude towards Africa

When we hear the word “racist”, most of us probably think of an overtly aggressive, extremely prejudiced person – maybe a far-right protester marching through the streets with a «refugees not welcome» sign or a person insulting someone with a racial slur.

However, there is also a more subtle form of racism, which is not as obvious: Whether that’s white parents telling their kids to “eat up and think of the poor, starving kids in Africa”, or white, western celebrities pleading for donations “for Africa”. There are numerous ways in which we can see how a generalising and condescending perspective on Africa has taken hold in the western world.
By generalising that all Africans are poor people from an underdeveloped continent in desperate need of help, while all white westerners are rich, kind, and benevolent, we continue to uphold a deeply problematic world view. But why is it, that now, in an allegedly post-colonial world, this patronising attitude towards Africa continues to hold sway?

The White Saviour Complex: What it is, where it comes from and why it is problematic

“White Saviour Complex” describes the phenomenon of white people feeling the need to help people in, for example, African countries. This might not sound problematic at first glance, but it leads to an understanding of Africa as a barren and bleak wasteland, full of poverty-stricken, helpless individuals. The White Saviour Complex is also heavily contested because it can be traced back to European imperialism, one of the main reasons that some African countries grapple with economic instability today.

Now, don’t get me wrong. Privileged people wanting to reach out to the underprivileged – even when the privileged are white and the beneficiaries aren’t – is not inherently bad. But at the very least, the privileged should view the underprivileged as individuals and not one colossal entity. Alaso Olivia, co-founder of the “No White Saviours” advocacy campaign, put it this way: It is not about getting rid of white people, but about raising awareness of the fact that Africans are not helpless. She said: “We are trying to give our children a better education. We are developing our countries. We need aid, but it must not come with strings attached. We are saying that if you want to help, first listen to us and provide what we need – not what you think we need.”[1]

The White Saviour narrative can point to a dangerously backward way of thinking by depicting Africa as one place, uniformly full of dread and fear – which does an enormous disservice to a giant continent with huge linguistic, cultural, and religious diversity. So-called “white saviours” also seem to ignore the fact that some African economies are making rapid progress. In 2018, for example, Ethiopia and Egypt were under the fastest-growing economies worldwide and therefore didn’t have to rely on white westerners to step in and “help”.

Racial colourblindness and its interconnection to the White Saviour Complex

People who do not regard the White Saviour Complex as a problem tend to argue “Who cares whether you are a black or white person helping in Africa? As long as you do good – so what! Skin colour is irrelevant anyway.” But this mindset can also be problematic. Even though well-intentioned, thinking “I don’t see race – I just see people” does not help solve the problem of structural racism.

Think of it like this: Imagine you are walking past two houses in your neighbourhood and you see that one of these houses is burning. Saying “I don’t see a burning house – I just see houses” would be of no help at all, because the house continues to burn even if you are frantically trying not to see it. If you simply ignore the fact that one of the houses is on fire, you are choosing the easy option: To ignore the problem, because it would take a lot of effort to find out where the fire comes from, why the fire started in the first place, who is in the burning house and think of concrete ways in which you could help. And while you ignore all of these things and claim that you don’t see the burning house, the fire is getting worse and worse.

This “no race, no racism, no problem” mindset doesn’t solve the problem of racism. In creating a ‘colourblind’ public sphere, a metaphorical tiny plaster is put on a wound that is actually a deep and bloody one. The problems that accompany the social construct of race do not simply vanish because the category has been removed from public discourse. As the British author Reni-Eddo Lodge once said: “We must see who benefits from their race, who is affected by negative stereotyping of theirs, and on whom power and privilege is bestowed (…) Seeing race is essential to changing the system.”[2]

So, what needs to be done?

We must work together to eliminate Eurocentric as well as Americentric world views from our minds in order to dismantle established power structures in the long term. A beginning can be the continuous engagement with world affairs outside of Europe and America – just as much as reflecting colonial history and connecting it to current circumstances. We need charities that give a greater say to Africa’s trained individuals with the motto “African solutions to Africa’s problems”, as well as – and this is probably the hardest problem to tackle – a profound mentality transformation in the western world.


[1] The Guardian: “Charity at heart of ‘white saviour’ row speaks out”, 3rd March 2019.

[2] The Guardian, “Why I’m no longer talking to white people about race”, 30th May 2017.

African art restitution – a vital step towards decolonisation

In a post-colonial world, the issue of colonialism and its consequences may seem to belong to the past, as society has moved on and everyone generally agrees that colonialism was a very dark chapter in world history that should never be repeated again. However, this does not in any way mean that this complex issue has been resolved, as is exemplified by many different matters, including the issue of art restitution.  

Since the 1960s many African countries have been advocating the restitution and legal transfer of objects and artifacts that were stolen during colonization and are now displayed in many European museums. However, this request has been mostly ignored by European governments and cultural institutions, who argue that restitution is unnecessary, complicated, and legally challenging. 

Many have claimed that the artworks in question would not be safe in these countries, as they lack the infrastructure and resources to safeguard these precious objects. Others have used the “How far back will you go?” argument, underlining that many items in Rome were also taken from somewhere in Greece or Ancient Egypt, thereby normalizing these kinds of actions. 

It has been estimated that 90 to 95% of Africa’s heritage is held outside the continent.[1] The British Museum in London alone contains about 73’000 objects from sub-Saharan Africa, whilst France holds at least 90’000, most of which were stolen during its colonial rule over a big part of this region.

One item in particular that has been at the heart of the restitution debate is the Benin Bronzes, a set of unique plaques in wood and ivory that were looted from the Kingdom of Benin by the British in 1897. These artefacts, which where revered and reserved for ancestral altars, are now a constant reminder of a violent past and a stolen future. There are countless other examples.

Empty words and promises will not solve the issue 

Despite French President Macron’s promise in 2017 to “allow for the temporary or definitive restitution of African cultural heritage [held in French museums] to Africa”[2], three years later not much has changed. The situation in many other European countries is not very different, with many actors barely acknowledging the issue. 

So why are we still seeing so much resistance in recognizing Europe’s dark colonial past?

Accepting the need of returning African artifacts would reignite the conversation on the many structural problems African countries face today because of colonialism, a topic that still makes many European countries uncomfortable. The many structural and economic disparities between the two continents can in many cases be directly led back to colonialism. By delivering empty promises and general statements on the issue of restitution, they can seem morally correct, whilst everything more or less stays the same. 

By denying restitution these institutions are continuing to support a narrative that depicts Europe as more progressive and Africa as less developed, thus indirectly justifying colonization and dehumanizing non-western cultures. In today’s post-colonial context this narrative is no longer acceptable. Africa should be given a right to reclaim and define its cultural heritage, and Europe has an obligation to support this. 

Responsibility needs to be taken and art restitution is the first step towards this. Words are not enough – it is time European governments and institutions take concrete action in a crucial step towards turning a page on their troubled relationship with colonial history.


[1] “France urged to return looted art and amend heritage laws”, CNN, 2018. 

[2] Speech made by the President of the French Republic, Emmanuel Macron at the Université Ouaga, November 29th 2017.

Angola – where the Cold War still is a silenced reality

Those who like investigating the meaning of countries’ flags will certainly be fascinated by the flag of Angola. The latter presents two parallel and horizontal stripes (red and black) which serve as background for the iconic, golden symbols of communism: the hammer and the sickle shown with the support of a star. 

On the one hand, it is quite easy to imagine that Angola, a colony of the Portuguese Empire until 1975, was directly involved in the Cold War between the communist block and Western society during the late 70s and throughout the 80s. On the other hand, it seems harder to understand the reason why Angola’s flag still possesses communist elements nowadays. 

However, this aspect becomes clearer if one considers the socio-political situation of Angola in the last decades. In the country, the Cold War between sustainers of communism and supporters of the Western model never ended and since the very beginning, it turned into an authentic civil war between the two opposite sides.  

Even though in the biennium 1990-1991 the Soviet Union collapsed and hostilities between the communist bloc and Western society ended, in Angola, the civil war did not finish and continues to negatively affect the life of the Angolan population, which suffers from brutalities, extreme poverty, and hunger. 

It is certainly possible to find many on-site criminals from this sad history. Nevertheless, it is particularly important to point out the following argument: the deplorable situation of Angola was and is completely ignored by the international community. No international actor sincerely stood up for Angola and warned the world of the Angolan catastrophe. Everything was covered in 2002 by a fake end of the civil war and now everything is concealed by the silence of the international community. 

This silence must finish now, the Angolan crisis must become central in international debates immediately! The international community must intervene to stop the spiral of hatred and violence that is destroying Angola and its population.