Dar es Salaam. Germany President Frank-Walter Steinmeier on Wednesday apologised to Tanzanians for what the Western European nation’s colonists did to indigenous people of the East African nation during their brutal colonisation that lasted three decades.
Mr Steinmeier pleaded for forgiveness on behalf of his country while speaking to the descendants of Chief Songea Mbano in Songea, a district in the Ruvuma region, southern Tanzania, whom the Germans hanged, alongside 66 other indigenous leaders of the Wangoni tribe, after he refused to betray his people.
He was the Wangoni leader in the Maji-Maji War, an indigenous uprising against German colonial forces that occurred between 1905 and 1907. Chief Songea was so influential and courageous that colonists wanted him to support their cause, but he refused to betray his people, leading to his cruel murder.
“I mourn with you the loss of Chief Songea and the others executed,” President Steinmeier said in his speech in the presence of Chief Songea’s descendants.
“I bow to the victims of German colonial rule. And as German Federal President, I would like to ask for forgiveness for what Germans did to their ancestors here.
“I ask for your forgiveness, and I would like to assure you that we Germans will work with you to find answers to the open questions that are troubling you.”
Mr Steinmeier was in Tanzania for a three-day official visit to improve ties between the two countries, a process that include Germany acknowledging the wrongs it did during its brutal colonisation of Tanzania, then Tanganyika, and charting the new future.
The Germans conquered Tanganyika in 1880, bringing its people under violent repression and brutality that would last several years before Germany lost its colonies following its defeat in the First World War in 1918.
African people did not allow this oppression to go unchallenged, organising several uprisings that would free them from the yoke of colonialism, including the Maji Maji uprising, where Tanganyikans rose against vices like forced labour and other ruthless oppressions.
The German colonists’ response to these decolonial measures was swift and brutal, which included the hanging of Africans’ traditional rulers en masse and in public to destroy the people’s spirit and determination to fight against colonialism and its associated vices.
During his speech in Songea, President Steinmeier said the brutality unleashed by his ancestors on the indigenous people of Tanganyika “embarrasses” him, adding: “I am ashamed of what German colonial soldiers did to your ancestor [Mbano], his fellow fighters and many others in what is now Tanzania.”
Wednesday’s apology by President Steinmeier is consistent with Germany’s willingness to face its past acts, acknowledge the horrors it committed to the people of Africa, and admit that it was wrong as part of its process to mend ties with its former colonies.
In Steinmeier’s words, what happened in these colonies is a shared history – the history of African ancestors and the history of their ancestors in Germany. He said: “We Germans also have to face this history so that we can build a better future together with you.”
This awakening on the part of Germany comes with practical steps that the Western European nation plans to take to demonstrate its readiness to admit the wrong it’s committed and chart a different future.
These steps include the return to Africa of thousands of bones and skulls of indigenous people of Africa currently in German museums and anthropological centres. That process has already begun, Mr Steinmeier said Wednesday, promising the return of Chief Mbano’s skull to Tanzania and others.
“I promise you that we will work with you to find Chief Songea’s skull in Germany,” Mr Steinmeier assured the descendants of the African traditional ruler. “If we haven’t been successful yet, it’s not because we don’t want to or because we’re not trying hard enough,” he pointed out.
“It’s just that identifying human remains and assigning them – even with qualified scientific expertise – remains very, very difficult,” Steinmeier added. “I owe you this honesty, even if it’s hard for me to say it. I promise you: We will do everything in our power to search, to find, to identify and to return.”
He spoke of the need for Tanzania and Germany to create a new history based on mutual cooperation and respect aimed at benefitting the people of both countries meaningfully.
“Germany is ready to come to terms with the past together. Nobody should forget what happened back then,” he stressed. “And my great hope is that the joint coming to terms with the past will also include young people in particular: schoolchildren, students, scientists and museum people.”