Europe’s Pivot to Africa must be a Pivot with Africa
Africa is in. Across Europe, the continent is in the news and on the policy agenda. The belatedly formed German government coalition has made “Africa” a central focus of its political rhetoric and policy directives. The question is: To what end?
The continent continues to be a geopolitical pawn, prize, and sometimes, partner. “Africa” does not need to be discovered. It has been there all along. Nor does it need to be saved; not by well-meaning but misguided evangelicals, or by experts far removed. Commentators perpetuating incorrect perceptions continue to refer to Africa as a “region,” not as a continent. They focus untoward attention on its many — real — challenges while neglecting to note that Africa boasts myriad opportunities. Just ask the Oppenheimers.
Trends point to a renewed competition for Africa. This competition includes (some) acknowledgement of historic wrongs, increased economic investment, and a commitment to sustainable, vital partnerships, and selective development of the rule of law. The imbalance in equation is a result of the rival aims of competitors, who include not only Europe, but also and especially, China. Looming in the background is the “migration crisis” which itself presents both an enormous challenge and a rich opportunity.
Since 2000, China has driven competition in Africa to its advantage for the better part of nearly two decades. Largely unaffected by emigration from Africa, China has promoted immigration to the continent, supported by a radical increase in trade volumes. Chinese trade with Africa rose from $10 billion in 2000 to a total of imports and exports amounting to more than $170 billion in 2017, becoming the continent’s biggest economic partner. And among the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, China has become the largest contributor to blue-helmeted missions in Africa. Yet, China has not taken on constitutive powers.
Not all African countries have been happy with the Chinese “partnership.” Zambia rebelled years ago against Chinese investment in copper mines, the dams and roads built by Chinese contracts in Angola and Nigeria are met with mixed reactions, and the increasing military presence is met with skepticism.
This presents a new opportunity for Europe. As Jakkie Cilliers of Johannesburg’s Institute of Security Studies says, “Africa is, in my view, an important pivot, a battleground in a certain way, about the future of rules-based order at a time when American leadership clearly is faltering.” He argues that German Chancellor Merkel is stepping into a vacuum left by the United States, but not (yet) filled by China.
“Africa” is not a monolithic recipient of external agendas, but a constitutive power in its own right. In order to acknowledge and partner with this Africa, what is needed, in Claus Stäcker’s words, is a “mental paradigm shift.”
In his first definitive speech as Foreign Minister of Germany on June 13, Heiko Maas gave a clear answer:
We need a joint EU policy on Africa, one that no longer defines the continent merely as a recipient of development aid or an exporter of crises and migrants. During my first visit to Africa, it became very clear to me that Africa does not only want development aid — it wants a real partnership.
However, a gap remains between claims of partnership and the mental and material reality. Particularly against the backdrop of migration debates, Chancellor Merkel’s lack of visits to the continent between 2012 and 2015, temporary contracts for African researchers in Europe, and the unclear aims of PESCO, which may or may not be to give members a profile in Africa, tell another tale. Minister Maas sees PESCO’s potential, suggesting that it be linked to a European Crisis Response Team. He is undoubtedly thinking of a more streamlined response to an outbreak such as the 2014 Ebola epidemic in West Africa. But African countries see precisely this potential for open-ended intervention with skepticism.
Especially in the wake of that Ebola outbreak, too many European policy makers seem to regard much of Africa as a new arena to “do health” or to “do security,” from the Sahel to South Africa. The objectives of additional critical actors, including ministries of defense, development, and foreign affairs, are uncoordinated and unclear. Whether this potential is embraced by African partners, or is seen as interference, an extension of (post-)colonial interference — including the lack of apology for the genocide of the Herero — is a challenge that must be addressed.
Time to Pivot
This moment presents not only challenges but also opportunity. At a time when European countries themselves, including France and Germany, are grappling with challenges to their constitutive power and the domestic European consensus, it imperative to articulate a strategy not to but with Africa. This renders the assumptions of an aid-awaiting continent awash in crises and conflict mute. The new strategy must take a different premise altogether; a nuanced look at Africa at the political, economic, social, policy, and personal levels.
A raft of stereotypical thinking continues to shape conceptions and exchanges with Africa. While academic and policy circles are pivoting to Africa — including the German Institute of Global and Area Studies (GIGA)’s Institute of African Affairs (IAA) and the Marshall Plan for Africa — a lack of equivocal engagement remains. As a result, in the words of Professor Hussein Solomon of the University of the Free State in South Africa, “They have no clue what the hell is going on. Why? Because they are too conservative and stick to the status quo.” Now is high time for a real look at Africa.
Though individual states can and often do represent weak links in the chain of sustainable, vital partnerships, select cases also reveal important insights, including how to address, respond to, and surmount multiple crises — migration, food and health (in)security, educational (gaps) and, innovation boosts — across policy silos and at the same time. European countries have often had the luxury of responding to one crisis after the next. But this is not so in Africa, and not possible in the future of Europe. This is one critical, cross-cutting area where knowledge and experience can be shared from Africa to Europe.
A strategy must be oriented toward what Africans need and what they want to become. Given the continent’s diversity, any such vision will be local and regional more than national. Plotting the strategic journey to get there will reveal how France, Germany, and Europe help to achieve those goals — short of wholesale emigration, a boogeyman that should be addressed head-on.
First, Europe, led by France and especially Germany, can clearly define the goals of their Africa engagements. As Maas noted:
If Berlin and Paris find the courage to work far more comprehensively together on economic, financial, energy, and security issues than they have in the past, I firmly believe that others will follow suit. This will create a new momentum for Europe as a whole. And only in this way will we come closer to achieving the aim of greater strategic autonomy for Europe.
There is a deep desire for this. While the focus of aid to Africa is clear — if not always agreeable — from the Nordic countries, United Kingdom, and the United States, is it not yet so with Germany. While the embedded approach has been well received, 2018 is seeing increased pressure for a clear mission statement.
Second, France and Germany, within Europe, can open a more direct portal to hear and decide whether and how to respond to requests from across Africa, and at what level: in the public or private spheres. One clarion call is for European pressure on African governments to adhere to and enforce the rule of law. This could be Europe’s, via its leaders France and Germany, central focus —once more, applicable both at home and abroad.
The conditions for this pivot are ripe. In and on Africa, there is a desire for genuine partnership. Now it must be requited.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.