Steinmeier’s Apology in Tanzania: A Positive Initial Move

German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier’s move to ask for forgiveness for Germany’s colonial abuses has been welcomed by Tanzanians. But it can only be a beginning, they say.

The minutes pass in silence as German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier stands, face inclined, before the graves of Chief Songea Mbano and 66 other leaders who were executed by German colonial rulers during the Maji Maji Rebellion in 1906.

It’s been 117 years since they were hanged at this very place in the southern Tanzanian city of Songea for standing up to German colonial rule.

“I join you in mourning Chief Songea and all who were executed,” says Steinmeier. “I bow before the victims of German colonial rule. And, as Germany’s Federal President, I want to ask for forgiveness for what Germans did to your forefathers.”

The Maji-Maji Rebellion stands out as one of the most brutal chapters of German colonial rule. Experts estimate that up to 300,000 members of the Indigenous Maji Maji people died in the brutal war — and as a consequence of the German rulers’ scorched-earth policy.

Steinmeier’s appearance is a historic moment. Never has a German head of state thus openly admitted the country’s colonial crimes.

Forgiveness only the beginning

“It is not human to hang people and cut off their heads — and they know it,” Tanzanian historian Mohammed Said told DW. “So he came to ask for forgiveness and we accepted, for now we have forgiven.”

According to Said, the story doesn’t end there. He pointed to the fact that the human remains of Chief Songea and countless others — mostly skulls — to this day remain in German museums, brought to Germany for the benefit of researchers indulging in racist theories. “They should return them here with all honors so they can be buried according to tradition,” said Said.

Hundreds of skulls awaiting repatriation

In Songea, John Makarius Mbano, a direct descendant of Chief Songea Mbano, stressed that “it is our remains and it is our custom to bury everything and then we end our mourning days. We will not end crying if we do not bury our ancestors. That is our mission.”

President Steinmeier also met behind closed doors with the descendants of Songea who is today remembered as a national hero, promising to do all that is possible to identify and repatriate their forefather’s skull. Only two months ago, the remains of an individual from Tanzania were identified through genetic comparison.

Steinmeier’s apology left the chief’s family visibly moved and relieved. “It is a healing moment for our community,” said Makarius Mbano. “We do welcome the apology.”

Calls for compensation

Comments under DW’s post about the apology on its Kiswahili Facebook page welcomed the move by the German president. “Apologizing for the wrong things you did is wisdom. Big up, Steinmeier,” wrote Isaya Sambo Mpenda Amani.

Likewise, Hassan Mlacha said it was a good decision to apologize. However, he suggested that “we Tanzanians should not dwell too much on the skulls. Let us negotiate with Germany so that they can help to solve our electricity problem.”

DW user Jafety Mandera decried an ongoing colonization of the African continent, though “through more sophisticated ways.” In reaction to President Steinmeier’s passage, he demanded: “Let them pay compensation for the trillions they harvested from Tanzania. It should be them that owe us money.”

For Said, these claims have merit: “If you’ve done harm to someone, they must be compensated,” he told DW.

Even though the question has not been raised by Steinmeier on his three-day visit to Tanzania, he laid out a path to future progress.

“We Germans will together with you look for answers to the unresolved questions that haunt you,” pledged Steinmeier in Songea.

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