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Merkel's Drop-In Visit: Germany Is Missing Its Chance in Africa

By Horand Knaup in Nairobi

In Germany, most people think of wars, poverty and hunger when they think of Africa. Chancellor Angela Merkel's stopover on the continent, where she will travel to three countries in just three days, is unlikely to change that. Other nations have long been investing in Africa, and are reaping the benefits.

During her 2007 trip to Liberia, Angela Merkel received a white chicken as a traditional welcoming gift. Zoom
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During her 2007 trip to Liberia, Angela Merkel received a white chicken as a traditional welcoming gift.

She will meet the president and the prime minister, and when she holds a speech at the University of Nairobi, four national TV channels will carry the event live. Chancellor Angela Merkel's arrival in Kenya on Monday evening will be a big deal for the eastern African nation.

Since the unrest in 2008 that led to more than 1,400 deaths and displaced hundreds of thousands of people, no Western leader has visited Nairobi, not French President Nicolas Sarkozy, nor British Prime Minister David Cameron. United States President Barack Obama, whose grandfather was Kenyan, didn't visit the country during his only African visit in 2010. It was an affront to Kenya.

The years of ostracism were punishment for the country's refusal to energetically fight corruption, and especially because of its reluctance to tackle the root causes of the 2008 troubles and put the people who caused it on trial.

Now the German chancellor is flying in for a 20-hour visit. It is her second journey to the African continent since she became chancellor in 2005, not including a brief visit to the football World Cup in South Africa last year. After Nairobi, she will fly on to Angola and Nigeria.

It is, in some ways, a brave venture by the chancellor to three countries with three sets of problems:

But the brief duration of Merkel's trip -- less than 20 hours per country -- shows that Africa isn't really important to the German government. This is an obligatory tour and nothing more. A little bit of symbolism to mark Germany's six-month presidency of the UN Security Council. Merkel's lack of interest in Africa isn't just personal -- it is shared by the country's entire political class and its business leaders.

It was different during the Cold War, when Africa was the scene of proxy wars. In those days, both West and East Germany were more heavily involved in the continent. But since then, Africa has deteriorated in the eyes of Germany to a region of crisis, disease and conflict which harbors many risks and few opportunities. German politicians have little to gain by raising issues pertaining to Africa. In parliament, Africa experts are quickly relegated to the back benches of foreign policymaking, unlike people with special knowledge of the US, Russia or China.

The Foreign Ministry recently drafted an Africa strategy that refers to "equal partnership" and for the first time refers to "interest-led" policies -- an idea that until now has been looked down on. But the plan won't spark renewed interest in Africa. For a few years, former President Horst Köhler tried to fill the void with several visits to Africa -- but he's no longer president and his successor, Christian Wullff, has shown no ambition to follow suit.

  • Kenya is dragging its feet with its announced reforms. The next presidential election is scheduled for August 2012 and it is possible that the vote could again trigger unrest.

  • Angola has made enormous economic and social progress since the peace deal in 2002, but far too few are profiting from the oil boom. A small elite is brazenly enriching itself, there is no freedom of assembly and no press freedom, and government opponents can quickly end up in jail.
  • Nigeria is among the most corrupt and impoverished countries in Africa, despite its ports, its fertile soil and gigantic oil revenues. Poverty is endemic especially in the north where the Islamic sect Boko Haram is waging a bloody war against the government and the police.

But the brief duration of Merkel's trip -- less than 20 hours per country -- shows that Africa isn't really important to the German government. This is an obligatory tour and nothing more. A little bit of symbolism to mark Germany's six-month presidency of the United Nations Security Council. Merkel's lack of interest in Africa isn't just personal -- it is shared by the country's entire political class and its business leaders.

It was different during the Cold War, when Africa was the scene of proxy wars. In those days, both West and East Germany were more heavily involved in the continent. But since then, Africa has deteriorated in the eyes of Germany to a region of crisis, disease and conflict which harbors many risks and few opportunities. German politicians have little to gain by raising issues pertaining to Africa. In parliament, Africa experts are quickly relegated to the back benches of foreign policymaking, unlike people with special knowledge of the US, Russia or China.

The Foreign Ministry recently drafted an Africa strategy that talks about a "partnership of equals" and for the first time refers to "interest-led" policies -- an idea that until now has been looked down on. But the plan won't spark renewed interest in Africa. For a few years, former President Horst Köhler tried to fill the void with several visits to Africa -- but he's no longer president and his successor, Christian Wullff, has shown no ambition to follow suit.

Nevertheless, Kohler left behind a fledging project as his legacy. The program "Go Africa ... Go Germany ...," which he initiated, has now been going for five years. It brings together young African and German graduates in an attempt to build a network and make sure the two sides stay in contact. There are plans for it to lead to the setting up of a German-African youth education foundation. Perhaps that will even happen one day.

Cautious Companies

The world of business, too, finds it hard to deal with Africa. Many formerly close contacts have been lost. German companies are reluctant to take on the risks associated with doing business in Africa. They are more interested in eastern Europe and Asia, where they feel on safer ground and consider their investments to be more secure.

It is the multinationals who are most cautious. It is rare to find, for example, German cars on the continent, with the exception of South Africa and the Mercedes limousines in government fleets. Instead, Japanese car makers have the market, which is growing rapidly, firmly under their control.

To give another example: The German energy giant E.on wanted to get involved in a multibillion-dollar gas deal in Equatorial Guinea. It pulled out, however, after the German government decided to extend the operating lives of Germany's nuclear power plants (a decision that has been reversed in the meantime).

Lufthansa is the only major German company to have captured a market niche, and the airline is doing very well from it. It flies to destinations including Luanda, Port Harcourt, Malabo and Accra. Many passengers on these routes fly business class. They are employees of oil companies, which can write off the travel expenses as production costs.

It is mainly small and medium-sized companies -- the famous backbone of the German economy -- that are seeking their fortune in Africa. Among the firms that see Africa as a growth market are the engineering company Gauff, the trading company Woermann and Krones, whose product ranges includes bottling machines. Kärcher, which specializes in high-pressure pumps, is currently examining opportunities in South Sudan, which became an independent country on July 9. The trade fair corporation Messe Frankfurt exhibition wants to open an office in Nairobi. Solar companies are also trying -- albeit cautiously -- to enter markets in East Africa.

The media, too, have retreated from the continent. Almost all German newspapers have cut their African coverage. Around 10 years ago, Nairobi was home to over twice as many German correspondents as today.

Partnership of Equals

But if Germany has lost interest, other countries are taking a close look at Africa's growth rates. Seeing potential, they have developed strategies, systematically intensified relations and built networks. They are prepared to take risks, because they want to reap profits from this continent with its growing middle class, its resources and its dynamism. It is no longer just the economic superpower China that is investing in Africa. Turkey, Brazil and India, not to mention Japan and Israel, have also discovered Africa as a source of raw materials -- and as a market. Even countries such as Malaysia and Singapore have begun to step up contacts with Africa.

The "partnership of equals" that German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle proclaimed a few weeks ago at the launch of his Africa strategy is probably the biggest misconception on the part of the German government. The Africans have a different view of what "equals" means. They prefer to have balanced relations with China, India or Brazil -- in other words, governments that do not constantly harp on about human rights and demand political freedoms, but which offer customized products, investments, grants and cheap loans instead. The Africans are happy to pay for such things with raw materials and resources. They are less keen on know-it-alls.

Probably no one will tell Angela Merkel that to her face. But she might realize it nonetheless.

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