On the final day of his three-day official state visit to Tanzania, on November 1, 2023, German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier publicly acknowledged his country’s colonial atrocities against the people of Tanzania, then Tanganyika, apologising for his ancestors’ actions, which he said “embarrass” him.
Mr Steinmeier was speaking in Songea district, in Ruvuma, southern Tanzania, and he directed his apology to the descendants of Chief Songea Mbano, an anti-colonial hero whom the Germans hanged, alongside 66 other indigenous leaders of the Wangoni tribe, after he refused to betray his people.
“I bow to the victims of German colonial rule,” President Steinmeier, who said Germany should face its history, said in a speech. “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,” the Head of State of the Western European nation added, “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.”
This is the first time the German government has publicly apologised to Tanzania and the victims of its brutal colonialism that lasted three decades, and it was done on Tanzanian soil, in Songea, most importantly, the centre of the anti-colonial uprising against the Germans.
In this public apology, President Steinmeier also promised that the German government would do its best to rectify the wrongs of its colonial past, including returning the remains of Maji Maji warriors.
He acknowledged the difficulty of identifying the remains of warriors like Chief Songea, but he vowed that his government would do everything possible to do so.
While Mr Steinmeier’s apology seemed sincere and heartwarming, it fell short of addressing the elephant in the room: reparations for the descendants of the victims of the Maji Maji War.
I understand the president’s hesitation, given that Germany and Namibia signed a Reconciliation Agreement in 2015 acknowledging Germany’s responsibility for the Namibian genocide of 1904-1908 and agreeing to pay EUR1 billion over 30 years.
While I did not expect President Steinmeier to offer a specific figure for reparations during this trip, I did expect him to state publicly that reparations were on the table.
I understand that the German government is hesitant to open a Pandora’s box and set a precedent that could lead to demands from other countries. However, I believe that a viable arrangement can be reached that avoids the word ‘reparations’ so as not to create any legal precedent.
While hosting her guest, President Samia Suluhu Hassan, showing diplomatic savvy, also avoided the word ‘reparations’ and instead stated that the two countries would open discussions on “Germany’s colonial legacy.”
The demands for reparations are not new. In 2020, Tanzania’s ambassador to Germany, Abdallah Possi, called for the German government to negotiate reparations.
In 2017, Hussein Mwinyi, then Tanzania’s Minister of Defense, spoke in front of the Tanzanian parliament and informed members that the government would pursue a formal apology and monetary compensation from the German government for crimes committed between 1905 and 1907.
Given that Tanzania and Germany are now on good diplomatic terms and that Germany is one of Tanzania’s largest bilateral and trade partners, the negotiations must be conducted in a cordial and friendly manner.
I assume that a committee consisting of officials from both governments will be created to oversee the negotiations.
For the negotiations to be successful and both parties satisfied, I would insist on three key things based on lessons from the Germany-Namibia agreement.
First, the descendants of the victims must be involved from the beginning to ensure that their voices and inputs are considered. Second, before any deal is finalised and signed, the Tanzanian and German governments must make the terms of the proposed agreement public.
Third, the amount offered must be reasonable, and the payments should be of two kinds: direct payments to the descendants and payments to the government of Tanzania.
The visit of the German president is significant, but it is important to note that the German president has a mostly ceremonial role and does not hold full administrative powers.
These powers instead are shared with and mostly held by the Chancellor. According to Article 58 of the German constitution, the president’s decrees and directives require the countersignature of the Chancellor or the corresponding federal minister in charge of the respective field of politics.
This means that even though the president has a say in the government’s affairs, he cannot make unilateral decisions, as is the case in Tanzania.
This is why President Steinmeier has repeatedly used the phrase I will take this back to Germany during his visit. This may also be the reason for his inability to make concrete promises.
While the public apology from the Head of State of Germany is significant, it is important to realise that anything discussed between President Steinmeier’s delegation and President Samia’s delegation will first need the approval of German Chancellor Olaf Scholz.
Therefore, it is imperative that our government, through our Ministry of Foreign Affairs, continue to follow up on the matter to ensure that official negotiations begin as soon as possible.
This notwithstanding, President Steinmeier’s apology is a significant step in the reconciliation process between Tanzania and Germany. However, there is still much work to be done to address the legacy of German colonialism in Tanzania.
I am hopeful that the two countries can engage in meaningful negotiations on reparations that will bring justice to the descendants of the victims and promote healing and understanding between the two nations.
Thomas Joel Kibwana is an international relations and business development expert. He is available at firstname.lastname@example.org or on X (Twitter) as @thomasjkibwana. These are the writer’s own opinions and do not necessarily reflect the viewpoints of The Chanzo. Do you want to publish in this space? Contact our editors at email@example.com for further inquiries.