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Genocide in Africa: Germany and France Seek Forgiveness

This week, Germany and France made historic gestures seeking forgiveness in Africa after Berlin acknowledged its former colonial empire committed genocide in today's Namibia and Paris took responsibility for its role in not doing more to stop the 1994 Rwanda genocide.

(CN) --- Germany on Friday said it officially recognizes it ordered a genocide against two African ethnic groups at the start of the 20th century in what today is Namibia and set up a $1.35 billion aid fund to help mend the horrors of the past.

Germany's historic step to acknowledge its genocidal acts against the Herero and Nama peoples came a day after French President Emmanuel Macron made a symbolic trip to Rwanda to seek forgiveness for his country's role in allowing the 1994 Rwandan genocide to occur.

The repentant acts by Germany and France can be seen as gestures by European leaders to win back trust and goodwill in Africa, a continent divided up between European colonial powers at the Berlin Conference in 1884, spurring frantic and brutal European colonialism, including the killing of at least 70,000 Herero and Nama people by German imperial troops between 1904 and 1908.

Both groups rebelled against rapacious German settlement of their ancestral lands, prompting German Lieutenant General Lothar von Trotha to issue an extermination order. The genocide was carried out with mass hangings and shootings, driving people off their lands and forcing them into concentration camps.

“We will now officially call these events what they were from today’s perspective: a genocide,” said German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas in a joint statement with Namibia's government.

A United Nations report in 1985, known as the Whitaker Report, listed the Herero and Nama massacres as the 20th century's first genocide.

Maas said Germany wants to find a “path to genuine reconciliation in remembrance of the victims.” German President President Frank-Walter Steinmeier is expected to offer Germany's state apology to the Namibian parliament this year.

Germany said it will spend 1.1 billion euros ($1.35 billion) over 30 years on improvement projects in Namibia relating to land reform, rural infrastructure, water supply and professional training. Germany said Herero and Nama communities will be involved in selecting the projects.

However, the German government said the deal cannot be seen as opening the way for reparations and a “legal request for compensation.”

Germany and Namibia have been in talks since 2015 about possible reparations and a formal apology for the genocide. Previously, German officials called the massacres a genocide, but Friday marked the first time the federal government in Berlin officially recognized it as a genocide.

German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas addresses the media during a statement at the Foreign Ministry in Berlin, Germany, Friday, May 28, 2021. (Tobias Schwarz/AP)

Although the move was welcomed by the Namibian government, Germany's recognition and aid pledge fall far short of demands by Herero and Nama groups, who are minorities in Namibia. They are deeply skeptical that Namibia's ruling party, SWAPO (South West Africa's People's Organization), will use the German funds to help their communities. SWAPO is dominated by the Ovambo ethnic group.

The Herero and Nama groups are demanding Germany pay reparations, just like it has done for Jews since the Holocaust, and help them regain lands taken from them by German settlers. Much of Namibia's agricultural land remains in the hands of white settlers.

“This is an insult,” said Inna Hengari, a parliamentarian with Popular Democratic Movement, an opposition party, in an interview with The Namibian newspaper. “The discussion was never about projects but reparations. Germany has not been negotiating in good faith.”

Herrero and Nama groups sued Germany for reparations in federal court in New York City, but that legal avenue seems likely to fail after lower and appellate courts said there was no case against Germany based on their U.S. claims. The groups argue they can sue Germany in the U.S. on the notion that the bones of their ancestors killed in the genocide ended up in the basement of the American Museum of Natural History in Manhattan.

The bones of Herero and Nama genocide victims are a deep source of shame and controversy for Germany. Many bones were sent back to Germany and were used for studies by German scientists seeking to prove the supremacy of whites. To ease reconciliation with Namibia, in 2018 Germany returned the bones of members of the Herero and Nama tribes.

Namibia was called German South West Africa during Berlin’s 1884-1915 rule. It then came under South African rule before gaining independence in 1990.

In the Battle of Waterberg in August 1904, around 80,000 Herero, including women and children, fled and were pursued by German troops across what is now known as the Kalahari Desert. Only 15,000 survived.

At least 60,000 Hereros and around 10,000 Namas were killed between 1904 and 1908.

On Thursday, Macron made a symbolic gesture to accept France's responsibility for not doing more to stop the Rwanda genocide. But he stopped short of an official apology, saying France was not complicit in the genocide.

His trip to Kigali, the capital of Rwanda, came after panels of historians found that France and its president at the time, Francois Mitterrand, failed to try to prevent the genocide, though the historians found no evidence that France actively supported and participated in the mass killings.

“Standing here today, with humility and respect, by your side, I have come to recognize our responsibilities,” Macron said in a speech at the Kigali Genocide Memorial, where the remains of 250,000 victims are interred. An estimated 800,000 Rwandans were killed between April and July 1994.

He said France must acknowledge the “suffering it inflicted on the Rwandan people by too long valuing silence over the examination of the truth.”

Rwandan President Paul Kagame welcomed Macron's speech and sentiments.

“His words were something more valuable than an apology. They were the truth,” he said at a joint press conference with Macron.

However, Egide Nkuranga, the head of Ibuka, the main survivors’ association, was disappointed that Macron did not offer a “clear apology on behalf of the French state.”

A recent report commissioned by Macron was released in March and blasted France's role in Rwanda. The report accused Paris of being blind to the bloodshed in Rwanda, where it had close ties to the ethnic Hutu regime behind the massacres.

Kagame led the Tutsi rebellion that ended the genocide and he now sees the report as a major step in improving relations between France and Rwanda.

Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.

Categories:Government, International

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