Delegations from nations of Europe and Africa are preparing for a summit meeting, Saturday and Sunday, in Portugal, the first in seven years. The purpose is to reaffirm Europe's historical ties to Africa in the face of growing competition from other world powers. VOA's Scott Bobb reports from Lisbon.
Leaders of the 80 nations of Africa and the European Union are gathering in Lisbon to chart what organizers call a new strategic partnership in their centuries-old relationship.
European nations say they are keen to redress the inequities of their colonial past in Africa. African nations, meanwhile, are enjoying greater power due to rising demand for their natural resources and growing competition for access to their consumer markets.
A business professor at Cape Town University, Mills Soko, notes that the European Union has not held a summit with the African Union since the year 2000 because of a dispute over Zimbabwe. The European Union opposed Zimbabwe's attendance because of its poor human rights record.
"This has led to a postponement of a number of summits between African countries and the EU and now we see the expansion of China into Africa and the EU is concerned that is being left behind," said Soko.
Europe is still Africa's largest trading partner. But Chinese investment in Africa doubled last year to $50 billion. And it is expected to double again in two years as China seeks oil and minerals to fuel its booming economy.
The Chinese government this year hosted the China-Africa summit which was attended by 44 African heads-of-state.
In addition, hundreds of businessmen from the United States gathered last month in Cape Town, South Africa, for several days of intense networking with African entrepreneurs.
And companies from India and Brazil are providing unprecedented competition for multi-billion dollar contracts in oil and mineral exploration, road and railway construction and other ventures across the continent.
A political science professor at the University of Johannesburg, Adam Habib, says the heightened competition has given African leaders a new sense of power.
"It is something that the Africans seem very happy about at this stage because they see it as a way to play off foreign investors against each other so that they could maximize possibilities for their own development," said Habib.
Chinese deals in Africa frequently include projects to enhance development, such as improving roads and railways or building schools and health centers. African governments also say Chinese aid comes without the environmental and governance conditions imposed by European aid.
The Chinese government says it does not interfere in the internal affairs of other nations. Critics say this policy allows China to make deals that lack transparency but Professor Soko says it avoids a political irritant to relations.
"China is seen as a reliable partner, as a friend that cares about Africa. When China says it is going to do something about Africa, it does," said Soko.
Africa's new clout has expanded to the political arena as seen in the case of Zimbabwe.
This year, Zimbabwe has been invited to the summit, despite a boycott of the summit by senior British officials and public opposition by several other leaders. They are protesting President Robert Mugabe's alleged abuse of power, human rights violations, and repeatedly botched elections.
But Mr. Mugabe plans to attend, underscoring the new dynamic.
"If they want good relations with us, then they must be prepared to sit down with us and discuss areas of cooperation. That we are prepared to do, but we are not prepared to have a Britain which sets itself up as a master over us. Who are they after all," he said.
Habib of Johannesburg University says the Europeans recognize that if the Zimbabwe issue must be raised it should not be in a patronizing manner.
"You cannot simply say to the opposite side, 'We want to meet you and this is who your delegation shall be.' This is an affront to the dignity of people, and I think that is exactly what the African leadership were saying when they rejected these initiatives over the last couple of years," said Habib.
In yet another victory for the Africans, organizers agreed that Zimbabwe and other contentious issues, such as Sudan's Darfur region, Somalia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, would not be on the summit agenda.
This angered human rights and pro-democracy advocates who said that violated basic principles of the European Union.
But African analysts say many European governments were unhappy that these issues were hindering dialogue on other urgent topics, including new concerns such as migration, energy, climate change and trade agreements that remain largely deadlocked over subsidies and services.
Analysts note that the hot-button disputes like Zimbabwe and Darfur are still likely to be come up in sessions devoted to human rights and peace and stability. But they say that the summit, if it is successful, will frame a debate on the much broader issues and lay out a plan of action to address them.