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Tuesday, 12 September, 2000, 17:17 GMT 18:17 UK
Europe and Africa: Master and servant?
UK troops in Sierra Leone
UK troops in Sierra Leone: A positive intervention?
By Richard Night

Do Britain and other European powers follow their own agendas when they intervene in African affairs?

In Rwanda, French policy has been roundly condemned for the part it played in exacerbating the genocide there in 1994.

Zimbabwe's ruling party believes Britain is still pursuing her colonial interests in the country.

And the recent British military action in Sierra Leone may have been a success in terms of freeing the soldiers held by rebels - but it has raised questions as to whether the forces are there purely for the benefit of Sierra Leoneans.

Ever since the British forces were ordered into the region in May, the British Government has insisted the motives were to stop the killing and maiming, and to support the elected government.

Bones of genocide victims
Rwanda: Foreign powers failed to prevent genocide
A United Nations force had already been operating in Sierra Leone when the British arrived.

But London decided not to put its troops under UN command. That decision inevitably led some to suspect that Britain and the UN were pursuing different aims. Rebels were able to portray British forces as yet another independently acting force among the country's warring groups.

But BBC Africa editor Tom Porteous believes British policy in Sierra Leone is a rare example of an altruistic military intervention in an African crisis.

Zimbabwe

He contrasts this with the British approach to Zimbabwe's land policy. When black squatters occupied many of the country's large, mainly white farms, he says many felt London was biased in its own interest.

"The impression was given to many Africans, that the British government was siding with white farmers against the majority population which is black, and that in fact there was unfinished colonial business to be done."

Zanu rally
Zimbabwe: British stance has been attributed to self-interest
Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe was scathing about the British Government's attitude on the land question.

He denounced industrialised Western countries for seeking to maintain their domination of poorer states, through new technology, human rights demands, and what he termed "the predatory world economy".

Rwandan catastrophe

But ethnic tension in Africa is far from being a purely black and white issue. When Rwanda decended into genocide six years ago, an estimated 800,000 Tutsis are believed to have been massacred by their Hutu countrymen.

But even as the killing spree began, France was seeking to defend its diplomatic and economic interests in the Great Lakes region, supporting the government which was effectively supporting the genocide.

They even proposed a military intervention, which was accepted by the UN, and which went ahead, which allowed the perpetrators of the genocide to escape retribution, and then went on to cause major political upheavals in what was then Zaire.

All this appeared to protect French interests, not only in Rwanda but in Africa at large, because the Rwandan Patriotic Front - which opposed the previous regime - was seen as being a group which would promote Anglophone interests.

The UN now accepts that the military operation in Rwanda was a disaster. Since then, the big powers on the Security Council have become fond of speaking about African solutions to African problems.

UN reform

South Africa's President Thabo Mbeki insists that Africans are themselves quite quite ready to provide troops where they are required.

But he says the Security Council - currently dominated by the big powers - must be reformed to give legitimacy to such operations.

The colonial era created a strong network of European interests in Africa: historical, commercial, family.

Whatever policies European governments follow, or whatever actions they seek to pursue in Africa, will inevitably be viewed in that light. And many Africans will remain suspicious that the colonial interests which brought Europeans to Africa in the 19th century will continue to inform policy in the 21st.

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07 Apr 00 | Africa
Belgian apology to Rwanda
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