GP Short Notes

GP Short Notes # 525, 30 May 2021

Europe in Africa: France and Germany take responsibility for the past in Rwanda and Namibia
Anu Maria Joseph

What happened?
On 27 May, French President Macron asked for "the gift of forgiveness" from the people of Rwanda in his speech at Kigali Genocide Memorial while he was visiting Rwanda. He said France bears an "overwhelming responsibility" over the 1994 Rwanda genocide, though it had never been an accomplice. He also said: "France failed to heed the warnings and overestimated its ability to stop something that was underway". Rwandan President Paul Kagame responded: "his (Macron's) words were something valuable than an apology, they were the truth." He called it an "act of tremendous courage".

On 28 May, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas officially recognized the mass killings in Namibia (then German South-West Africa) during 1904-08  as 'Genocide'. He said: "We will now officially call these events what they were from today's perspective: a genocide." Also, Germany has pledged to provide USD 1.3 billion for the reconstruction and development of the communities to recognize the suffering caused. He said: "In the light of the historical and moral responsibility of Germany, we will ask forgiveness from Namibia and the victims." 

The Namibian government officials referred to the recognition as a "first step" towards reconciliation. But on the same day, Herero Paramount's chief, Yekuii Rukoro, replied: "This is a sellout job by the Namibian government. The government has betrayed the cause of people". He also said reparations should be collectively given to descendants of victims rather than as financial programs. Sima Luiper, one among Nama people, said: "Germany must come to Nama people, and Herero people, and ask for forgiveness, and it's up to us to decide if that apology is genuine or not". 

What is the background?
First, the genocide in Rwanda in 1994. In Rwanda, the minority Tutsi community were targeted by the Hutus after the assassination of Hutu President Habriamana in 1994; the violence resulted in the killing of 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus. France supported the Hutu led government and its policies that suppressed the RPF (Rwandon Patriotic Front) led by the Tutsis. It failed to recognize the warnings of an impending genocide. Operation Turquoise, the French-led military intervention backed by the UN in July 1994, failed to act, giving numerous Hutu perpetrators a chance to escape legal prosecution. 

Second, the genocide in Namibia during 1904-08. Over 100,000 Hereros and 10,000 Namas people were killed as a part of an 'extermination order' in the then German South-West Africa, during the German colonial rule for rebelling. People were driven to the Omaheke desert and abandoned; many died of dehydration and hunger. Thousands were poisoned, persecuted, imprisoned in concentration camps and died of diseases and abuses.

Third, the post-genocide bilateral relations. The RPF government, led by Paul Kagame in 1994, deteriorated the relationship between France and Rwanda. The French President Emmanuel Macron assigned a Commission of French Historians led by Vincent Duclert in 2019 to investigate France's involvement. The report concluded the "overwhelming responsibility" of France on the genocide caused by the policies adopted by President Francois Mitterrand. On 7 April, Macron announced plans to make the Duclert Report public. On 19 May, he spoke at the Paris Summit on Financing Africa, where he announced his decision to visit Rwanda to re-establish the relationship.

Germany, since 2015 has been negotiating with Namibia. The objective was to "find a common path to genuine reconciliation in memory of the victims". However, Namibia rejected the compensation for using the term 'financial aid' instead of 'reparations.' In 2018, Germany returned skulls and other remains of the Namibians, which were taken for scientific racial experiments. Now Germany has officially issued an apology. The government of Namibia has officially accepted the apology, but the descendants of the Herero and Nama people demand direct reparations. They rejected the offer as they say it would not be enough to replace the land and culture once they lost.     

What does it mean?
First, the apology and visit from France and Germany. It signals an effort to correct the past and also a sincere effort to re-establish the relations. This should be welcome. Second, the response from Rwanda and Namibia. Since Rwandan President Paul Kagame has accepted the apology, it would mean an end to the controversies and a turn for new beginnings. But for Germany, even though the Namibian government has accepted the apology, demand for direct reparations from the Nama and the Herero community means more work needs to be done for reconciliation. Since France and Germany have taken the first crucial steps, they should stay the course. 

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