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Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi addresses the Africa Day reception in Beijing, capital of China, on May 25, 2021. (Xinhua/Shen Hong)


China came to Africa with clean hands

By Ogoti Bokombe

In recent times, there has been a spate of regrets, half-apologies and revelations of the ‘truth’ by some European countries for the atrocities and dehumanizing colonial rule in Africa. Their colonial legacies continue to impede Africa’s rise with a persisting stranglehold on African countries’ social, cultural, economic and political structures.

With the new scramble for Africa, world powers are contriving on how to reset relations with their former colonies to confute the surge in Chinese influence which threatens to erase their colonial legacies. Unlike former colonial powers who are bent on reasserting their post-colonial influence in Africa, China came to Africa with clean hands. This from my observation has necessitated the burgeoning of a ‘remorse enterprise’ seeking reconciliation, reestablishment of social and cultural bonds with the aim of appealing to the hearts and minds of the African people and repel China’s diplomacy that heralds to build a global “community with shared future for mankind”.

There has been hesitation on the part of former colonial powers to show penitence for their historical misdeeds in colonial Africa, which imposed social, economic and political destruction behind the curtain of their justified mission to “civilize” a superstitious and backward continent. However, this hesitance is roped in the fear that apologies will attract demands for reparations and compensations from the victims of brutal injustices.

The hesitance is also due to the questions on the legality of reparations based on the argument that current governments cannot be held accountable for past misdeeds; thus a question on intergenerational justice or responsibility.  Further, international law is yet to explicitly confer the expectation for reparations.

The post-colonial era is full of symbolic gestures establishing ‘remorse diplomacy’ with former colonies establishing truth and reconciliation commissions, wiring financial compensation to the victims, undertaking reconstruction and development programs and formal apologies with the aim to reset friendly relations with their former colonies.

In June 2020, in a letter to Congo’s President Tshisekedi, King Philippe of Belgium regretted his country’s brutality during her colonial rule over the Democratic Republic of Congo. This symbolic gesture was catalyzed by the Black Lives Matter protests in Brussels. This was also after an admission by Belgium in 2002 of her responsibility in the killing of Congo’s independence leader Patrice Lumumba and the admission of a Belgian police officer of having kept Lumumba’s tooth which is set to be returned to his family six decades after Lumumba’s assassination.

In May 2021, Germany apologized for her atrocities on the Herero and Nama people of Namibia between 1904 – 1908 which left over 70,000 Herero and Nama people killed after revolting against land alienation by Germany. Accompanying the apology was an offer to fund reconstruction and development projects in the affected areas to the tune of USD 1.3 billion, an offer terms as ‘an insult’ by local chiefs who demanded payments for reparations.

France’s profile in the ‘remorse diplomacy’ handbook contains reconciliatory acts towards Rwanda and Algeria. A French government-commissioned report headed by Vincent Duclert concluded that France was not directly complicit to the Rwandan Genocide but due to the colonial attitude, it was blinded to “foreseeable genocide” borrowing from the title of another Rwandan government-commissioned report by a US-based law firm Levy Firestone Muse.

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The Duclert commission found that France ignores the warning of the impending massacre, backed a genocidal regime as “France armed, advised, equipped and protected the Rwandan government” then headed by Habyarimana seeking to extend her post-colonial influence on Rwanda. This, therefore, apportioned onto France’s “overwhelming responsibilities” for the genocide in 1994 that leftover 800,000 Tutsis killed in 100 days.

French President Macron, recognized France’s role in the genocide and hoped for forgiveness with an aim to reset relations with Rwanda but failed short of issuing direct apologies.

On the other hand, President Macron in January 2021 declared that there will be “no repentance nor apologies” for the Algerian war (1954-1962) that ended the French rule adding that France will only undertake “symbolic acts” towards promoting reconciliation.

Closer home, in 2013 the United Kingdom after legal battles with former prisoners in London occasioned a compensation payment of £13.1 million 5,000 people tortured and imprisoned during the Mau Mau rebellion in Kenya, and also offered “sincere regrets”. The United Kingdom also offered to fund the construction of a memorial museum in Nairobi. This gesture sparked further legal claims from 44,000 other Kenyans.

From this ‘remorseful’ trend that has fallen short of clear justification of its intent, Africa faces a new scramble where her former colonial powers are repositioning themselves in retaliation to the Chinese overturn of their colonial legacies.

Different from the collective efforts that characterized the partitioning of Africa as organized by German Chancellor Bismarck in the Berlin Conference (1884-1885) attended by the European powers, the “remorse diplomacy” seems to be based on bilateral efforts. However, for Africa to claim her rights, the states should through multilateral structures advocate and negotiate for sustainable reparation processes that will protect them from the geopolitical competitions of the 21st century.

Africa’s independence is yet to be fully realized, with continuing marginalization in global trade systems and the haunting ghosts of the continent’s colonial past. African states should manipulate this ‘remorse diplomacy’ to obtain public goods such as the COVID-19 vaccines whose accessibility is impeded by persisting nationalism and vaccine apartheid by the global north.

Ogoti Bokombe – Policy Analyst on International Affairs.

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