February: Black History… or, African History Month?

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I do not know the exact origin of naming February “Black History Month.” Could it partly reflect Africa’s dark colonial days, perhaps?

It was Europeans who invented the divisive political terminology resulting in the Middle East, North Africa, Sub-Saharan Africa, and Black Africa — names that are still glued fast to the mental geopolitical map used by today’s leaders.

So why do we Africans accept a name with such racist overtones for a month supposedly set aside to honour our history? Why not rename February “Africa History Month”?

I am Egyptian-born, and therefore, an African. But a Black History Month has no room for me. Nor does it have room for the great Egyptian African civilization of my forebears. If the old European colonial powers profited from the divide-and-rule concept when they carved our so-called “dark continent” up among themselves, why then should we Africans accept the same kind of externally imposed history today?

Even now, Europe separates its relations with North Africa from its dealings with Sub-Saharan Africa. Economic affairs between the EU and North Africa are carried on within the framework of the European-Mediterranean Partnership, while Sub-Saharan nations come under the Lomé Convention, which governs the partnership between EU countries and their former colonies in Africa, as well as in the Caribbean and Pacific.

Would it not be more productive every February to highlight the fact that Africa, the cradle of human civilization, needs the help of rich nations like Canada through more equitable partnerships?

African countries have long expressed grave concerns about their low levels of economic development and the overwhelming poverty that plagues the entire continent. Some 44 per cent of the population, especially in Sub-Saharan Africa, lives well below the poverty line. African countries’ economic problems are further compounded by a massive debt burden to “first world” nations that has reached $350 billion.

Many analysts, including some from the worst-affected countries, even blame fellow Africans for their lack of human development, education, health care and democracy. Blaming the victims is a false, regressive strategy which, unfortunately, is claiming more and more credibility these days.

The fact remains that Europe is historically responsible for the prevalence of poverty and disease, the ongoing misery of warfare, and the spread of political and social corruption, all of which are widening the rifts among Africa’s 700 million people and those of the developed world.

These factors have combined through modern history to strip Africa of any significant political, strategic or economic clout, reducing its status to that of a raw materials provider, controlled by terms set in the affluent West. Moreover, the European colonial legacy of ill-defined and ethnically inappropriate borders remains a major cause of regional wars.

The UN currently has seven peace missions operating in Africa. These include: an observer mission in Sierra Leone, the Peace-Building Support Office in Liberia, an observer mission in Angola, a mission in the Central African Republic, the UN Political Office in Somalia, the Assistance Mission for Rwanda, and a UN office in Burundi — all countries ravaged by persistent civil wars. Grinding poverty, glaring inequalities in human development, the yawning gap between the affluent and destitute, and rampant human rights abuses, provide seemingly inexhaustible fuel for conflict.

Africa’s share of total world trade is less than two per cent. Last year, Tanzania’s minister for foreign affairs urgently appealed for the cancellation of all African debts. “We have a serious problem,” he said. “An average of 50 per cent of government revenue is spent on payment of debt and 50 per cent on salaries. In fact, in some instances, if not in most cases, people are being paid for not working, because you don’t have the capacity to give people the facilities to do their work.”

Africans realize that democracy is a difficult process requiring constant vigilance and nurturing, and that it is absolutely essential to good governance. For them, the issue is not whether to democratize but how, and how soon. They long for accountable and transparent systems, political liberalization, the rule of law and universal respect for human rights. But democracy alone will not be sufficient to assure all Africans of their rightful prosperity.

European exploitation of Africa was and still is racist, clear and simple. This is why it has not crossed anyone’s mind in Europe to apologize to all of Africa for centuries of colonial subjugation, plunder and exploitation. Instead, most of Europe is far more interested in signing treaties to ensure that legitimate African immigrants return to their countries of origin — so as not to create an “imbalance” in European society. (This concept is uncomfortably reminiscent of Hitler’s paranoia about the presence of Jews in Europe 60 years ago!)

Economics and politics aside, this is a clear and compelling moral issue: Europe must apologize to Africa for a long history of crimes committed and resources plundered — both human and material. More importantly, Europeans must learn to treat Africans as equals, for their mutual benefit. The EU can and should establish new or reformed policies on forgiving debts, promoting stable investment, increasing aid, and entering into genuine political, social and cultural partnerships with Africa.

Lagging African development is one of the greatest challenges faced by the world today. The continent’s unstable and often chaotic leadership has repeatedly stumbled in trying to find solutions to its grave economic, social, political and human rights issues. And looking not so far down the road, Europe will be hard-pressed to defend itself against the future dangers of overflowing African misery if it fails to extend a helping hand — now, rather than later.

We have more reason than ever before to rethink the naming of February, not as “black” history, but in terms of a renewed recognition for all of Africa.

Prof. Mohamed Elmasry is a professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Waterloo and national president of the Canadian Islamic Congress.

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