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Opinion: Presidential Plain Language

During his 10-day trip to Africa that ends Thursday, German President Horst Köhler lobbied for the southern continent while also criticizing shortcomings. DW's Ute Schaeffer accompanied him and reviewed the visit.

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Köhler (right) and African Union Chair Alpha Oumar Konaré

Just before the end of his first journey to Africa as German president, Köhler made the case for greater African involvement in international institutions during a speech before the African Union in Ethiopia's capital Addis Ababa.

In the same speech, however, the former head of the International Monetary Fund also pointed to serious problems faced by many African states and denounced those profiting from armed conflicts.

Köhler is convinced that it's important to use plain language in Africa and he certainly did during his trip, which also took him to Sierra Leone, Benin and Djibouti.

Some diplomats might have been petrified with horror when Köhler reminded Benin's President Mathieu Kerekou of the upcoming Anti-Corruption Day and added that the latter's country still had a lot to do to combat corruption. And during a meeting with tribal chiefs, the German president talked about the continuing practice of mutilating female genitalia.

Wars and failed reforms

Die Frau des Bundespräsidenten, Eva Köhler, betrachtet am Dienstag (07.12.2004) in dem Flüchtlingslager Gondama in Sierra Leone die Darbietungen eines Folkloretänzers.

German First Lady Eva Köhler during a visit to a refugee camp in Sierra Leone

Wherever he went, Köhler talked straight and issued concrete political demands: Africans should stop trying to find reasons for wars and conflicts outside their own borders. Too many wars still originate from within Africa, too many states continue to ruin themselves, he said, adding that many reforms are stuck and countries fail to move ahead.

Africans have to start addressing their own problems, otherwise donor countries would start wondering what they are spending their money on. Africa cannot avoid competition and has to show more responsibility, Köhler said.

Plain language. But that's necessary as even in countries like Benin and Ethiopia -- which are largely seen as success stories of democratization -- development aid is not just used to combat poverty but also ends up in the pockets of corrupt political elites. Köhler views himself as a friend of Africa and believes that friendship does not exclude criticism.

Europe's responsibility

But he holds Europeans responsible as well since Africa will continue to be reliant on the support of the global community. Donor countries have to focus on living up to their promise of raising development aid to 0.7 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) by 2015, Köhler said, also pointing the finger at his own country, which only spends 0.28 percent of GDP so far.

Trade barriers and subsidies that distort the global exchange of services and goods should be dismantled in order to make African products competitive, the German president demanded.

Köhler spent a lot of time talking to people during his trip, and he tried to come into contact with people outside the political arena. He spoke with representatives of non-governmental organizations, artists and students, with women that have set up their own businesses with the help of micro credits, with people that greeted him on the streets.

Raising awareness

He listened, asked questions and encouraged debates, pushing his political goal to create a true partnership between equal African and European partners.

"Your president listens to people," said several of his astonished conversation partners -- obviously used to a different approach by their own heads of state.

Gemeinsam für Afrika

"Together for Africa," reads the sign

Köhler's trip was meant to honor reform-oriented governments in Sierra Leone, Benin and Ethiopia, but the president also wanted to increase Africa's visibility in Germany. He intends to continue doing so as he's announced that he plans to make a longer trip to Africa during each year in office. Germans should not view Africa as a continent that has no effect on their lives, according to Köhle. Weak and failed states such as Ivory Coast and Zimbabwe pose risks for Europe. Terror cells operating in Africa, especially around the Horn of Africa, do so as well. With his first major foreign trip, Köhler has shown that Africa's well-being is something that others should be concerned about.

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