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President Higgins says Ireland and Africa have each experienced racism and 'a suppressed culture'

The President’s comments come at a time when there is is a global focus on the history of colonialism.

Higgins spoke at today's seminar via Zoom.
Higgins spoke at today's seminar via Zoom.
Image: Youtube/IIEA

PRESIDENT MICHAEL D Higgins has said that Ireland can help shift Europe’s relationship with Africa because its people have also suffered racism and “a suppressed culture”. 

Speaking remotely at a webinar held by the Institute of International and European Affairs, Higgins also said that Ireland has a “special connection” with African nations because of a history of missionary work and international aid. 

The president’s address was entitled ‘Europe and Africa: Towards a New Relationship’ and comes at a time when there is a global focus on the history of slavery and colonialism as a result of the Black Lives Matter movement. 

In the UK, statues of several former slave owners and traders have been taken down and in Belgium a statue of former colonial king Leopold II was also removed.  

During his speech, Higgins said that any “fruitful dialogue” between the European Union and African nations must not forget “the brutal colonisation of previous times”. 

“While Europeans choose to forget, Africans rightly remember,” Higgins said. 

The president went on to state that racism was “central to colonisation”. 

“The European imperialist push into Africa was motivated by factors that were not just economic, but also political, social, cultural and racist,” he said.

The colonial drive followed the collapse of the profitability of the slave trade, its abolition and suppression, as well as the expansion of the European industrial revolution. 

“Central to colonisation was indirect rule and assimilation, and a consistent theme propagated by the imperialists was the portrayal of the indigenous Africans as uncivilised and uneducated. This racist notion, widely promulgated, legitimised the ill-treatment and exploitation of those who were colonised, including their relegation to the status of second-class citizens in their own countries.”

Higgins went on to describe Ireland’s relationship with Africa as a “unique one” stemming from “the work of Roger Casement to contemporary non-governmental organisations”. 

The president said that Ireland also identifies with “the aspirations of Africans for lives of freedom from hunger, access to education, and achievement of inclusive rights”.

Higgins cited the writings of 18th century Scottish philosopher David Hume and his essay Of National Characters which used “racist language” and was ” a distortion of African realities”.

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Source: IIEA/YouTube

Higgins said Irish people have been similarly portrayed as ‘uncivilised’ throughout history. 

Ireland brings to the African table its own experience, not only of an economic, social, political domination, but also the experience of a suppressed culture, exile and, frankly, of racism, as Hume put it in the case of the Irish, they having missed out on the civilisation that he thought a Roman occupation might have brought us, thus leaving us ‘uncivilised’, but, above all else, ‘lesser’.

“Ireland welcomes the centrality of African agency in the new work on the transformation of Africa, and sees it as having an immensely valuable contribution, having a global consequence as we re-define economics and its connection to ecology and culture,” he added. 

The president said that Europe must now “move beyond our prescriptive approach to dealing with African challenges” instead understand “the crucial need for African agency”.

“Our challenge as Europeans must, therefore, be to forge a new relationship with Africa, by arriving at a new place founded on real multilateralism and solidarity, so that we can be ethical partners in the necessary structural change that can deliver universal basic services and transformational prosperity in Africa, and an enduring, sustainable future for the continent of the young, on which those of us who believe in global social justice and solidarity place so much collective hope,” he said. 

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Rónán Duffy

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