Tuesday, May 5, 2015

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EU Awarded the Nobel Peace Prize but what about Africa?

The Nobel committee's decision ignores EU-member's actions beyond Europe and the many more worthy candidates across the world.
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Members of the Nobel Peace Prize Committee in 2010. Photograph by Marta B. Haga/MFA, Oslo.

There has been controversy in the past regarding Nobel Peace Prizes. However, the Nobel committee’s decision this year to award the prize to the European Union (EU) was perhaps their most surprising choice yet.

According to the committee, the EU was a worthy winner because of its contributions over the past 60 years to the “advancement of peace and reconciliation, democracy and human rights in Europe” – the operative word being “Europe”. Indeed, look to some EU-member countries’ contribution to the advancement of peace and reconciliation, democracy and human rights in Africa, and the story may be a little different.

Many African countries are still trapped in a neo-colonial relationship with European nations which promote uneven and unequal development, and European policies to Africa have at times contributed to chaos, conflict and destabilisation. Peer outside the narrow confines of Europe and the Nobel committee’s fantasy about the EU being the “biggest peacemaker in history” quickly unravels.

Beyond European borders

The committee awarded the Nobel Peace Prize to the EU based on Europe’s historical record after World War II. Six decades ago, Europe was just recovering from the two world wars into which it had dragged Africa, America, and the rest of the world. The continent was a hotbed of instability, human rights abuses, and oppression. And it was also struggling to hold on to the nations it had colonised in Africa.

When these colonies gained their independence in the 1950s and 1960s, Europe’s relationship with much of Africa became neo-colonial. This was characterised by the backing of undemocratic leaders, funding of rebel groups, and promotion of harmful neo-liberal policies, generally contributing to instability. Additionally, many African minorities living in Europe are not well treated, and immigration policies are designed to exclude and marginalise.

Moreover, the extent to which the EU has really advanced peace in Europe itself is questionable. To begin with, crediting the EU for 60 years of peace is misleading. The EU as we know it was only emerged in 1993. The organisation it developed out of was the European Economic Community (EEC) which was founded in 1958 in order to bolster intra-European trade and economic development. It was with the shift of becoming the EU that the organisation’s policy scope expanded.

By contrast, a number of other regional multilateral organisations were set up with the explicit intention of facilitating peace and resolving conflicts. Founded in the same year as the EEC, for example, the West Indies Federation – precursor to the Caribbean Free Trade Association (CARIFTA) and Caribbean Community (CARICOM) – had both a political and economic unification agenda with the idea of creating a ‘single market’ and resolving conflicts in the region. Similarly, the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) – which later developed into the African Union (AU) – was founded in 1963 in order to, among other things, resolve conflicts and protect human rights.

Binders full of Africans

The committee’s decision to award the prize to the EU thus reflects a bias – both in its blindness to EU-members’ interactions beyond Europe’s borders and in its failure to recognise other regional bodies more historically committed to the ideals of peace.

This skewed perspective is also reflected in the geographical distribution of former prize recipients. Since 1901, there have been 124 winners – 100 individuals and 24 organisations. Of these, only seven have come from Africa. The first four of these were South Africans Albert Lutuli (1960), Desmond Tutu (1984), FW de Klerk (1993), and Nelson Mandela (1993). Then in 2004, Wangari Mathaai of Kenya became the first female African to win the prize. And this was followed in 2011 by awards for Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf and Leymah Gbowee of Liberia.

On a slightly separate note, these African women were three of just fifteen female recipients in the history of the award. It seems the committee’s binders full of women are collecting dust next to their binders full of Africans.

African candidates

More so than ever, this year’s award highlights the problems that can arise when old European institutions give out “international” awards, especially the committee consists of just a handful of people, all from the same country. When this is the case, it is easy for the developing world to implicitly be judged by external and unjust standards, and for peers to be given greater consideration. Traditionally marginalised groups like women, Asians, and Africans continue to be overlooked.

There are plenty of Africans and African institutions that deserve to be considered for a Nobel Peace Prize, and the committee ought to cast a wider and more diverse net to identify suitable African candidates. This may also require a more nuanced understanding of who is ‘suitable’ given that many Africans that have struggled for peace have been labelled as dissidents or terrorists.

Indeed, there is no shortage of Africans now and in the past who have fought for peace. A few worthy of consideration are former president of Burkina Faso Thomas Sankara; former Prime Minister of the Democratic Republic of the Congo Patrice Lumumba; South African anti-apartheid activists and ANC members Walter Sisulu and Oliver Tambo; and former leader of the South African Communist Party, Joe Slovo.

Other than these internationally-recognised figures, there are other lesser known African figures and institutions that struggle for peace on the continent on a daily basis – such as gay rights activists Frank Mugisha and Kasha Jacqueline Nabagesera from Uganda. Additionally, if the committee is going to award this prize to the likes of the EU, hopefully the AU is at least also considered for its efforts in keeping peace on the continent.

Given the abundance of viable candidates for the peace prize across the world, this year’s award is reminiscent of the African adage: ‘until the lion learns to write, tales of the hunt will always glorify the hunter’. It seems to be Europe glorifying Europe while the rest of the world is held hostage in the hegemonic pomp and ceremony of its self-rewarding institutions.

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Dear Sitinga,

 Has it occurred to you that so few Nobel Peace prizes have been given to Africans because there have been few viable candidates? Or because Africa has occupied a place of relative unimportance in world history, at least since the seventeenth century? Africa is the world's poorest inhabited continent, accounting for only about 2 percent of the global economy. Since the withdrawal of the colonial powers, civil wars have ravaged the continent, killing more than 5 million in Congo, over 2.5 million in Sudan, and over a million in Rwanda. The overall picture isn't exactly an encouraging one.


Of course, you will argue that Africa's woes are the result of something external to itself, out of its control, since "many African countries are still trapped in a neo-colonial relationship with European nations which promote uneven and unequal development." The problem with this line of argument is that it simply is not true. On no other continent do Western nations invest more in development and humanitarian aid (though, along with Dambisa Moyo, I would argue this only contributes to the problem). In most cases, African leaders have been responsible for the failure of their new nations. Mobutu Sese Seko of DR Congo diverted anywhere from $1-5 billion from his nation's coffers into personal Swiss bank accounts, and Nigeria's former military president, Ibrahim Babangida, is believed to have stolen more than $12 billion in oil revenues. Corruption aside, many African leaders -- suffering from a bad case of the colonial cringe -- have simply been incapable of formulating economic and social policies that would keep their countries on a good footing by making them an attractive place to do business. Robert Mugabe, for instance, drove his country into the ground on campaign promises and policies that Western diplomats warned would spell certain doom for Zimbabwe's economy. More recently, South Africa's ruling ANC has flirted with similar policies - openly discussing land confiscations, nationalisation of mines, and undermining the independence of the judiciary and the media. The result? Downgrades by two of the top three credit rating agencies, which will make it harder for South Africa to attract foreign investment and raise much-needed loan revenue for infrastructure projects. It certainly didn't help that the government, in an attempt to "get tough" on "illegally" striking miners, recently shot and killed over forty in an incident that's being called the Marikana Massacre, the worst instance of state-inflicted violence since Apartheid. And this is the point. Even in the rainbow nation land of Madiba, peace and economics are inextricably linked.


What is so troubling to me is that scholars with degrees from respectable institutions seem to toss out simple lessons of history and economics when approaching Africa's situation -- as if wishful thinking or blame shifting will improve the lives of the approximately 1 billion people who live here. If you want more Africans to be selected as Nobel Peace Prize winners, perhaps you should stop looking for answers among colonialism's ghosts -- blaming Africa's problems on legacies of colonial oppression might be half the story, but this won't help advance the continent's place in the world. Instead, start asking hard questions about the other half of the story -- the African half. Most African countries have now been independent longer than they were colonized by European powers. Going forward, what lessons can be drawn from an honest assessment of the past fifty years? 


Until the lion learns to write, tales of the hunt will always glorify the hunter. Indeed. So let the lion learn to write!