This article is part of our special report Civil society’s role at the heart of EU-Africa relations.
As policy-makers in Brussels and Addis Ababa plough ahead with plans for what is billed as an ambitious ‘strategic partnership’ between the EU and Africa, civil society groups complain that they have been repeatedly shut out from having any influence over EU-African relations.
“We have never been asked to participate (in AU-EU summits) and we don’t know the agendas,” Million Belay, co-ordinator of the Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa, told EURACTIV on the sidelines of an event organised by VENRO, the Association of German development NGOs.
That needs to change says Belay and fellow civil society leaders, who also insist African governments need to take more ownership of the ‘strategic partnership’, because there is a prevailing sense that the blueprint has been drawn up by Europe for Africa.
“We have no idea how the agenda was developed. I would suspect that the EU has had a big hand. I feel that it has not been drawn up by Africa – a heavy European hand,” adds Belay.
“The challenge remains for us as a civil society movement to advocate for change and for political leaders to take account of the struggles facing local people,” adds Lungisa Huna, director of the Rural Women’s Assembly.
“People are tired of waiting – they want to see change and we as the people on the ground want to be part of these negotiations.”
But Belay and his colleagues have had only mixed support from African governments.
“The relationship between civil society and government (in Africa) is very difficult,” says Belay, adding that “I don’t expect African countries to be consulting with CSOs”.
That poses the question of whether the process is just a top-down exercise between political elites.
“There is a chance for African civil society who have been really marginalised from this process,” says Emmanuel Yap, who represents the Coopération Internationale pour le Développement et la Solidarité, an organisation of Catholic development agencies.
Yap sees an opportunity to raise the issue of transparency and the participation of grass-roots activists.
“We see that under the German presidency, the German civil society is listened to. We should seize this opportunity, and the onus is on the EU to use their imbalanced power relations to get civil society voices heard,” he says.
Yet there is still a sense that inequality is entrenched in the EU-Africa dynamic.
“There is a fundamental lie in the EU-Africa partnership,” says Chika Onyejiuwa, executive secretary of the Africa Europe Faith and Justice network.
“The EU is a unified entity – it presumes that it is negotiating with Africa on an equal basis. That is the fundamental lie. Any agreement is polluted by the fundamental lie.”
The relationship “is becoming more unequal”, he warns. “How come the agenda and postponement was dictated by the EU.”
“You are talking about a partnership but do not ask me my interest.”
That point is echoed by Million Belay who remarks that “the EU-AU is not a relationship between equal actors.”
Changing the agenda
One of the main priorities of African governments from the process is to secure improved trade terms that will enable them to develop domestic and regional manufacturing with a view to increasing exports.
“The trade imbalance is the economic structure that sustains it. It is this system that has become entrenched – it hasn’t changed from what it was during the colonial period. Words are changing but the substance has not changed,” says Chika Onyejiuwa.
With the summit now set to be held in December, the pressure is now on the African Union to be more assertive.
“The agenda can be changed. Civil society in Africa and Europe must be consulted and be part of the process – so we can work out the mutual interests of our two continents,” says Onyejiuwa.
“How can it be that we don’t talk about improving value chains in Africa, or sustainable food systems in Africa?”
“If you develop the value chain then the jobs will be there,” he adds.
In the meantime, agriculture should be key priority of African leaders.
“I am quite shocked that agriculture or sustainable food systems are not on the agenda – over 70% of Africans are small scale farmers. It’s our main source of GDP and most Africans live in rural areas, and our agriculture is in shambles. Agroecology should have been on the agenda,” says Million Belay.
That will mean taking promoting small-scale farming rather than focusing on increased investment and access for agribusiness giants.
“We cannot continue to have big agribusiness feeding our people the wrong kind of food– we want to have food and seed sovereignty,” adds Lungisa Huna.
In that vein, campaign groups have launched the ‘Our Land is Our Life’ platform, which seeks to promote African rural development and agroecology, combat land grabbing and monitor the use of EU investment activities.
“This platform is also about promoting solutions, such as agroecology,” says Emmanuel Yap.
“But the problem is that there is a lack of funds and subsidies for industrial agriculture in Africa which is destroying agriculture in Africa.”
“COVID has made us realise that we have to rethink how we organise our food system and I think Europe is now realising that. That is why the movement for food sovereignty is more important than ever,” he says.
“Hopefully the EU will listen more – we have launched our campaign to get our demands heard,” he concludes.
[Edited by Sam Morgan]