This article is part of our special report Civil society’s role at the heart of EU-Africa relations.
African civil society groups want to be part of drawing up a new ‘strategic partnership’ between the EU and the African Union, in a bid to overhaul a process which many believe is deeply dysfunctional.
More than two thirds of civil society organisations from Africa and Europe believe that cooperation between the two continents “does not work well” or “not at all”, according to a survey of over 360 representatives of civil society organisations from Africa and Europe by VENRO, the umbrella organisation of German development NGOs, in October.
“A deeper partnership has to be more than a process between governments. It must be built on human relationships, and enable dialogue and participation,” argues a VENRO policy paper published ahead of the delayed EU-Africa summit, which is pencilled in for December.
The paper urges the German government, the current holder of the rotating EU presidency, to prioritise health, participation of all generations, climate justice, peaceful societies, fair economic and trade relations and fair digitalisation in the new partnership.
The European Commission presented its draft for a ‘partnership’ with Africa in March on the eve of the COVID-19 pandemic, promising to “build a more prosperous, more peaceful and more sustainable future for all”, around five proposed partnerships on energy, digitalisation, inward investment, peace and migration.
African civil society activists say that the EU-Africa relationship has long been unequal and dysfunctional, with the EU dictating the terms on trade, economic relations and migration, amongst other issues.
Yet despite their criticisms of the EU, many African activists say that the African Union has failed to punch its weight and be assertive when dealing with Brussels.
“The AU has also failed to overcome the dependency syndrome and to come up with a coherent cooperation strategy for the EU,” says Jane Nalunga, director of the Southern and Eastern Africa Trade Information and Negotiations Institute.
“Our governments in the AU showed so much silence it was deafening,” adds Lungisa Huna, Director of the Rural Women’s Assembly. “They’ve not had much to say. Many of the issues are structural issues.”
A seat at the table
In the meantime, many African governments are ambivalent or openly hostile towards civil society groups in their countries.
At an event held in Berlin by VENRO, Jestas Nyamanga, Tanzania’s ambassador to the EU and Africa, Caribbean and Pacific community, questioned whether civil society groups were really representative of their populations, accusing them of behaving like an alternative to elected governments.
That point is refuted by Chika Onyejiuwa, executive secretary of the Africa Europe Faith and Justice network.
“African leaders don’t speak for their people. They don’t have the interests of their people at heart and that is why the resources of their countries are stashed abroad. They don’t like dissenting voices (from civil society organisations) because you are simply challenging the status quo,” he says.
“European civil society should appreciate the challenges facing African civil society, especially in terms of access to resources and the complicated operating environment,” explains Jane Nalunga.
Despite European and African activist groups having a lot of common goals, “there is a power imbalance based on access to resources like finances, information and spaces for engagement. This has sometimes led to a skewed relationship between the two sides,” adds Nalunga.
That appears to be reflected in the survey finding that 71% of respondents were hardly or not at all familiar with the ‘Africa-Europe Partnership’ initiated by the AU and the EU back in 2007.
Civil society is the key, said French MEP Chrysoula Zacharopoulou, adding that the delay to the EU-AU summit could be a ‘silver lining’ by giving extra time to reset the agenda.
Other panellists at the VENRO event said that the nature of EU-Africa co-operation has meant that it has been driven by politicians, not civil society, a dynamic that urgently needs to change. “Civil society is the conscience of the people,” said Abu Brima, Director of the Network Movement for Justice and Development.
In a communique launched at the VENRO conference, African civil society groups expressed concern at the EU’s “failure to address the big issues facing Africa, primarily the corporate capture of food systems, and the damage this is doing to our environment, our soils, lands and water, our biodiversity, our nutrition and health.”
The 2020 EU Strategy with Africa was “concentrating on creating a conducive environment for large scale private sector business interests,” the communique added.
[Edited by Sam Morgan]