By Lisa Vives
Former French President Nicolas Sarkozy has had anything but a stellar record since stepping down from office more than a decade ago.
The 68-year-old has already been convicted twice, once for corruption and influence-peddling involving attempts to influence a judge and another for breaking campaign spending limits during his 2012 re-election attempt.
But what Africans may remember most about the one term official are his speeches that left Africans dismayed if not horrified at his colonial views of the continent.
During his first visit to Africa after winning power, Sarkozy outraged public opinion in Senegal with allusions to colonialism and the suggestion Africa had failed to embrace progress.
Speaking at Cheikh Anta Diop University in Dakar in what became known as the Dakar Address, he said “the African peasant only knew the eternal renewal of time, marked by the endless repetition of the same gestures and the same words. In this realm of fancy … there is neither room for human endeavor nor the idea of progress.”
“The colonizer took, used, exploited, plundered resources […]. They were wrong. […] They were wrong but some were sincere”, he continued, adding “Your heartbreak and your suffering are ours and are therefore mine”.
He also invited Africa to make its own self-criticism—the present failures of the continent counterbalancing the wrongs of the colonizers. “Africa has its share of responsibility in its own misfortune: colonization is not responsible for the bloody wars that the Africans waged among themselves, the genocides, dictators, fanaticism, corruption and prevarication”.
In the most controversial passage, he suggested that the obstacles to the development of the continent should be sought within an African identity: “The tragedy of Africa is that the African has not fully entered into history … They have never really launched themselves into the future.”
Cameroonian scholar Achille Mbembe, professor at South Africa’s prestigious Witwatersrand university said the attitudes reflected in Sarkozy’s speech were worthy of the 19th century.
“Who gave him the right to talk about Africa and Africans in a manner of a master who has the habit of ill-treating his slave?” Mbembe said in an open letter to Sarkozy.
Alpha Oumar Konare, chairman of the 53-nation African Union Commission, labelled Sarkozy’s speech a “declaration of a bygone era”.
The speech drew criticism from politicians and intellectuals across Africa who denounced it as unacceptable and based on long-discredited stereotypes. For many, it was a throwback to France’s murky colonial past.
The former leader will be tried in 2025 to hear evidence that he, along with 12 co-defendants, accepted millions of euros in cash from the regime of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi to finance his 2007 bid for the presidency.
The Paris Court of Appeals has already upheld a three-year prison sentence against Sarkozy, but it ruled that two years would be suspended and Sarkozy would wear an electronic bracelet instead of going to jail for the remaining year.
His predecessor, Jacques Chirac, was also convicted in a criminal trial for corruption but received a two-year suspended sentence in 2011.
Sarkozy, who has faced a litany of legal problems since his one term in office, has denied the Libyan allegations—the most serious he faces.