Africa is not a country: Europe’s neo-colonial attitude to the protection of African elephants

Nov 8, 2022 | CITES CoP19, Commentary, Related articles

By Rosie Awori

Next week, the 184 Parties to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) will meet to discuss the future of wildlife. The 19th meeting of the Conference of the Parties to CITES (CoP19) will take place in Panama City from November 14th to 25th. As usual, the discussions are likely to be fractious between pro-trade and pro-conservation Parties – and no species issue will polarise the debate more than the African elephant. Once again, Europe’s one-sided approach will exacerbate an already difficult situation facing the survival of these endangered animals.

Diversity of African opinion

Several proposals have been submitted on this iconic species: some, from southern African countries, seek to open up a trade in ivory, while others, submitted by several other range States across the rest of Africa, aim to ban all trade in ivory and in live elephants. Unsurprisingly then, not all 55 African countries see eye-to-eye on all issues, although the African Elephant Coalition (AEC), representing more than 30 African States, has been working for some 15 years to ensure the best international protection possible for the species. There is a diversity of opinion, which seems only natural given the wide range of cultures, climates, geography, economic, political and social realities on this vast continent.

However, once more we are hearing the tired and hackneyed refrain from the EU and other Western countries, calling again on African countries to ‘come together’ and adopt a ‘common African position’ on all its elephant populations. The EU’s rationale to refuse to support stricter protection measures for elephants remains in place so long as they continue to view Africa as unable to reach agreement on a continent-wide approach. This is highly cynical, wholly unrealistic as well as a patronising, insulting and neo-colonialist attitude to diverse African peoples.

Africa is not a country

At its heart, this attitude stems from a lack of political will to strengthen the international protection of elephants and serves as a pretext for inaction. Africa is not a country. Therefore, the notion that it should have a single and united opinion is both naïve and demeaning. As African countries, we are no longer under the oppressive thumb of colonialism, and we must be treated as equals on the world stage. Dictating that a continent should have a single position before negotiation is akin to foreign control. We should be allowed to be heard just as we listen to the diverging views that come from Europe, a continent that likewise doesn’t always have a common agreement.

In fact, the EU itself, with ‘just’ 27 member States, regularly finds it difficult to reach agreement on even the simplest of issues, so its demand that all Africans speak with one voice on the protection of African elephants – and other proposals submitted to CoP19 – is hypocritical. If such a requirement were to be set for geographical Europe, it would mean that, for example, France should always agree with Turkey, or Norway with Greece. This is position is untenable, even more so for Africa, a continent many times the size of Europe. We may not always agree but we should be allowed the dignity to present our divergent opinions.

It is particularly ironic that the EU should hold this condescending attitude towards Africa, seeing that positions on CITES proposals differ within the European institutions themselves. While the European Commission is more supportive of trade, and therefore intends to oppose several proposals at CoP19 including on the protection of African elephants and hippopotamus, the European Parliament has adopted its ‘CITES resolution’ on 5th October calling on the Commission to be far more ambitious on its support of the international protection of species.

Demanding a ‘common African position’ at CITES CoP19 requires all African countries to agree not only on their objectives for all their species, but also on the means to achieve these aims. CITES is a highly complex international agreement, and any two experts from any one country – or even any one city – can have a hard time agreeing on the interpretation of the Treaty. So why should 55 independent States be expected to come up with a single solution to the problem of elephant conservation throughout the entire continent?

The EU is avoiding decisive action on the protection of elephants

Essentially, Western countries and the EU, which positions itself as the ‘champion’ of global biodiversity, is looking for excuses to sidestep immediate measures to protect endangered species – and avoid taking a position on the recurring and increasingly divisive arguments over African elephants in CITES.

Undermining conservation proposals by making African countries seem divided and disorganised is the easy way out. It is ironic that perhaps the only thing that this unscrupulous approach might achieve would be to bring African countries together to reject such a patronising, neo-colonial, and, ultimately, cowardly attitude. Unwelcome demands for sovereign African nations to compromise their individual principles and form a hollow ‘unity’ goes against the spirit and the letter of the December 2018 EU – Africa strategy, where former EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker pledged that Europe’s ambition is “… for a true and fair partnership among equals between Africa and Europe”.

Why do goal posts shift unfairly when it comes to African states; does our sovereignty not matter?

Rosie Awori is a Kenyan journalist and senior writer and corporate communications strategist at the Pan African Wildlife Conservation Network

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. This license allows re-users to copy and distribute the material in any medium or format in unadapted form only, and only so long as attribution is given to the creator.

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