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Colonialism, Occupation & Apartheid: African Countries See “Shared Experiences” with Palestinians

StoryFebruary 21, 2024
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Leaders at this year’s African Union summit have condemned Israel’s assault on Gaza and called for its immediate end. Kenyan writer and political analyst Nanjala Nyabola explains the long history of African solidarity with Palestine, continuing with today’s efforts to end the destruction of Gaza. African countries “see really an identical experience between Palestinian occupation and what they have endured under colonization,” says Nyabola. “It’s a question of history. It’s a question of solidarity. It’s a question of shared experiences of all of these systemic types of violence.”

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

Leaders at this year’s African Union Summit in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa have condemned Israel’s assault on Gaza and called for its immediate end. The chair of the African Union Commission, Moussa Faki, on Saturday said Israel’s offensive was the, quote, “most flagrant” violation of international humanitarian law, and accused Israel of having, quote, “exterminated” Gaza’s residents. Meanwhile, Azali Assoumani, president of the Comoros and the outgoing chairperson of the African Union, praised the case brought by South Africa against Israel at the International Court of Justice, where the court ruled there’s a plausible case that Israel is committing genocide in Gaza. During last year’s AU Summit, an Israeli delegate was removed from the plenary hall amidst a disagreement over Israel’s observer status at the African Union.

For more, we’re joined by Nanjala Nyabola, a writer and political analyst from Kenya, joining us from London.

Thank you so much for being with us, Nanjala. If you can start off on Gaza, this meeting this past weekend in Ethiopia, where you even had Lula, the president of Brazil, coming to address the group and saying that Israel was committing genocide in Gaza, whereupon Israel’s prime minister said that Lula is persona non grata in Israel? But talk about the significance of the meeting on Gaza, and then we’ll move on to other issues.

NANJALA NYABOLA: Sure. Thank you for having me, Amy.

I think it’s important to understand that the African Union, as a bloc, has been a consistent supporter of Palestinian rights since 1972, and arguably since 1948. Many of African nations see similarities between, and they see really an identical experience between, Palestinian occupation and what they have endured under colonization, and so there’s a lot of empathy there, and there’s a lot of resonance there.

It’s important, though, to distinguish the position of the African Union from the position of individual member states. So, while the union itself has been consistent and has always held the line that Palestinian independence was an integral part of the African Union’s foundational documents and foundational position in international relations, various African nations — because there is no impetus from the African Union for there to be always a single position within each country, various African nations do have different relationships with both Israel and Palestine. So, for example, while every single country in Africa except one recognizes the state of Palestine, the recognition of the state of Israel has varied. There was a time after that 1972 war where African nations wholesale declared that they would not recognize the state of Israel, but that has changed considerably.

Similarly, in relation to the African Union itself, Palestine has had — the Palestinian territories have had observer status at the African Union since 2013. And so, you mentioned how the Israeli representative to the African Union was asked to leave the meeting of the African Union in 2022. This is really because there’s been a lot of back-and-forth about whether or not the African Union, as a body, should recognize Israel as an observer. Observers do not get to vote, obviously, on various issues that are before the African Union, but they do get to participate in meetings, and they do get to contribute to conversations in some ways. And so it is an important thing to be an observer at the African Union, and Israel has made significant diplomat inroads in this regard. But the position of the African Union as a — which is the head of states — the meeting of the heads of states, is the most senior decision-making entity within the African Union, as opposed to the commission, which oversees the day-to-day running of the organization. The position of the African Union heads of states has always been that Israel did not have that observer status. And this was the back-and-forth that the commission had taken an action that the union itself had not endorsed. And this is why the Israeli representative was asked to leave.

This remains a position of contention. And the increase of the violence in Gaza has only made it clear that the African Union is going to remain with the historical position, which is recognition of the Palestinian territories and a demand that there’s adherence to international law on the issue of Palestine, and that includes the occupation, predates October 7th, goes all the way back to every single U.N. resolution that has been passed on the issue to date. That’s the official African Union position. And what we’ve seen in this last week is a reinforcement of that position, a reification of that position.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Nanjala Nyabola, you’ve spoken in the past about Namibia, which, before Palestine, was the last country where international law on occupation was tested. South Africa occupied Namibia until 1994. What were the lessons here? And how did they shape the knowledge of the terrain of occupation and its impact on people being occupied?

NANJALA NYABOLA: Well, it’s really been one of the most interesting developments in international relations in relation to Gaza, is that we are finally seeing this recollection of the fact that African connection with Palestine is not a new thing, and there’s been a long history of solidarity and support for liberation movements, particularly the ANC in South Africa and SWAPO in Namibia.

So, as you mentioned, Namibia was an occupied territory, was occupied by the apartheid government of South Africa until 1994. And SWAPO and the ANC both worked together to end that occupation, but also collaborated with the Palestinian Liberation Authority, Palestinian Liberation Organization, to try and coordinate, whether it was a political support at the international level, which was a crucial element of ending that, but also through the trusteeship mechanism — Namibia was under the U.N. trusteeship commission — through the trusteeship mechanism, trying to find ways of negotiating independence for Namibia and protecting Namibia from further South African incursion.

The South African apartheid government’s relationship with its neighbors was always fraught. There were frequent bombing campaigns that happened in Botswana. There was fighting in Mozambique and in Namibia. And so there was always this tension between the apartheid government and governments in the region. And so, Palestine, in that regard, becomes a natural ally, because that experience of occupation is very similar.

And so, when we saw at the ICJ this week the Palestinian submission to the ICJ, there was this recollection of the fact that SWAPO and ANC have always been allies of Palestinian liberation. And what we’re seeing with this Palestinian reinforcement of international law is not a new occurrence. It’s something that South Africa and Namibia both learned keenly through the process of fighting for independence and the end of apartheid. And they would like to see it replicated in the way the Palestinian issue is handled at the international level. And that is, once again, this is what — stick to the letter of the law, because this law exists for a reason, and this law came through for Namibia. Can it provide the same protection for Palestinian people?

AMY GOODMAN: Very interesting that at the International Court of Justice yesterday, in this six-day hearing that’s taking place, where more than a quarter of the U.N.'s countries — it's the largest gathering ever — will be speaking against Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories. Namibia spoke. Of course, South Africa, which has brought this other case around the genocide case against Israel. And also you have the U.S. vetoing the U.N. Security Council resolution yesterday for a ceasefire, that was brought by Algeria, a country that was occupied by France by more than a century. Nanjala, if you could address that, and then move on to the DRC and the issues raised there around the warring that’s going on in eastern Congo, and particularly around Rwanda’s role with the M23?

NANJALA NYABOLA: So, one of the important things to remember is that diplomatically, at the international level, African countries are the most cohesive voting bloc, certainly at the United Nations, but in other international forums. And this is because, again, as I mentioned, the African Union mechanisms for deliberation are actually incredibly strong. When there is an African line on an issue, there’s a lot of negotiation that precedes that. But countries tend to vote by the line, and there tends to be very much a consistent diplomatic front. And this is one reason why Israel, for example, has tried very hard to make inroads with the diplomatic community in Africa, because on all of the votes that have come down the General Assembly that have consistently criticized Israel, even on the Security Council, anything that’s managed to get through that has criticized Israel, African countries have consistently voted in favor of these resolutions. And so, there is actually this bigger issue of numbers. You know, we tend to think about power and international relations in terms of military strength and in terms of financial strength. But what Africa has at the international level is just sheer numbers. We’re talking about 54 countries that have a very interconnected view of history and tend to work together and cooperate together and bring those numbers together for all of these international votes.

And so, Algeria is a big country on the continent, even though it might not seem that way externally. But Algeria has been one of the most consistent defenders of Palestinian liberation on the continent, came out very strongly against Israeli diplomatic presence at the AU, came out very strongly in favor of Palestinian independence and supporting the Palestinian liberation organizations. And so it’s not a surprise to see that Algeria at the Security Council would take this very strong position, because it is very consistent with Algerian diplomatic history. And as you said, it is because Algeria has endured several decades of French occupation, that culminated in one of the most violent wars of independence that we’ve really ever seen globally. And, you know, France is still in the process of trying to make reparations for this, because, for Algerians, it remains a very sore spot in history, and it remains to be a very fraught question between Franco-Algerian relationships.

So I’m not surprised to see Algeria bring this resolution forward, just like, you know, as you’ve probably heard from American analysts, you know, it was not a surprise, the U.N. vote, even though it was a disappointment that the U.S. voted in the way that it did. And I think we’re going to expect to see a lot more coordinated action being led by nations like Algeria, South Africa. All of these countries that have historically supported Palestinian liberation in Africa will continue to toe this line, because it is not just a question of — it’s a question of history, it’s a question of solidarity, it’s a question of shared experiences of all of these systemic types of violence.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Nanjala, we only have less than a minute left, but I wanted to ask you about all of the heightened anti-colonial sentiment that has swept across central Africa, in the Sahel region, with numerous coups in the region in recent years. How has this affected the dynamics at the AU?

NANJALA NYABOLA: It’s definitely complicated things. And there’s probably three things that I would point out. One is that this is not happening in a vacuum. We are also feeling the secondary effects of the ongoing war in Ukraine, Russia’s ongoing war in Ukraine. The Sahel region has historically attracted a great deal of attention because it has been the crossroads of trade between Africa and Europe, but it’s also been, in contemporary history, the main pathway through which migrants, from as far afield as Bangladesh, but also from the continent, cross the Mediterranean to get into southern Europe. So, in terms of international diplomacy, it’s attracted a great deal of attention from Europe. There’s a great deal of financing for migration management. There’s a great deal of financing for ending wars that have happened in the region.

At the same time, you have this young generation. Remember that Africa is the youngest continent in the world. You have this young generation. Many of these coup leaders are incredibly young. 

AMY GOODMAN: Nanjala, we’re going to have to wrap there, but we’re going to continue and post online at Nanjala Nyabola, speaking to us from London. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

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