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Angela Merkel leaves a mixed legacy in Africa

Martina Schwikowski
December 1, 2021

Outgoing German Chancellor Angela Merkel made a greater commitment to Africa than her predecessors. But her policies haven't necessarily made a difference on the ground.

Angela Merkel with Nigerien President Mahamadou Issoufou
Chancellor Angela Merkel shifted Germany's interests from East to West AfricaImage: picture-alliance/dpa/M. Kappeler

During her 16 years as German chancellor, Angela Merkel's trips to Africa became more frequent, as did her meetings with African heads of state.

As recently as August 2021, Merkel invited several African presidents to the German capital, Berlin.

It was a farewell meeting — and a very pleasant one at that — for there is much praise for the chancellor from Africa.

Merkel's engagement with Africa has been "noteworthy," especially with regard to the continent's economic development. said Minenhle Nene, a researcher at the South African Institute of International Affairs (SAIIA).

"German investment in Africa has expanded moderately in recent years under her leadership. I don't believe Africa has played a larger role in German politics than it has during her leadership," Nene told DW.

Compact with Africa meeting in Berlin
African leaders applauded Merkel during the last Compact with Africa conference in BerlinImage: Tobias Schwarz/REUTERS

Genuine interest in Africa

The president of the African Development Bank, Akinwumi Adesina, is also full of praise for the outgoing German chancellor.

"Merkel has been a dear and loyal friend of Africa," Adesina wrote in an op-ed for DW.

"She has long taken a genuine interest in the continent and shown a keen desire for strong economic growth and development."

Adesina emphasized in particular the G20 Compact with Africa, which was launched under Merkel's initiative in 2017 when Germany held the G20 presidency.

At the core of the initiative are partnerships between G20 states, including Germany, and 12 African countries.

African nations committed to political and economic reforms designed to make them more attractive to investors while G20 countries pledged to provide support to make it easier and less risky for their own firms to invest on the continent.

Researcher Minenhle Nene also views the Compact with Africa as a success.  

"Most German companies have been reluctant to invest in Africa. But now they are getting more involved in the region, thanks in large part to this initiative," she said.

Little German presence

Nene warns, however, that initiative needs time to take hold.

"We shouldn't expect change to happen overnight," she said, adding that Compact with Africa aims to build long-term and mutually beneficial relationships.

"In that sense, it has laid a solid foundation for German-African cooperation."

But there is still a long way to go. 

Africa currently accounts for only 1% of German worldwide investment. Moreover, only around 800 German companies are active on the continent.

For these reasons, analyst Gerrit Kurtz from the Global Public Policy Institute, a Berlin think tank, is critical of Merkel's initiative.

"Compact with Africa didn't fully achieve its goal of promoting German private investment in Africa and it fell short of expectations, including those fueled by the Chancellor herself," he told DW.

Chancellor Merkel with Mariana Moussa, founder SOS FEVVF.
Merkel visits to Africa increased as she neared the end of her tenureImage: Michael Kappeler/dpa/picture alliance

Reform partnerships

Kurtz is also critical of the so-called "reform partnerships" of German development cooperation.

Under these partnerships, African countries receive additional aid if the German government views them as making particular progress in good governance.

Ethiopia, for example, has been a reform partner since 2019. Recently, the country has attracted international criticism because of the war raging in its northern Tigray region.

Despite these shortcomings, Angela Merkel has helped increase the relevance of Africa for German foreign policy, Kurtz believes.

Previous governments treated Africa as a development issue, he points out, whereas Merkel widened this to include the economic perspective.

"That was certainly a step forward," Kurtz said.

However, he believes there are clear self-interests behind Germany's greater involvement in Africa.

The number of Merkel's trips to Africa grew noticeably in 2016, a year after Germany's so-called migration crisis when some million migrants and asylum seekers arrived in the country, Kurtz points out. 

He says Merkel's concern with limiting irregular migration to Europe , which was a priority of Germany's EU partners, especially France, came at the detriment to some of Germany's other Africa policies.

A German soldier on top of a military vehicle.
Germany's military (Bundeswehr) is training Malian troops fighting jihadists in the SahelImage: picture-alliance/dpa/M. Kappeler

Merkel's pivot to West Africa

During her leadership, Germany's interest shifted somewhat from East Africa to West Africa, Merkel told DW in an interview.

Germany has significantly expanded cooperation with the Sahel states of Mali, Mauritania, Chad, Burkina Faso and Niger. 

The Sahel region has seen spiraling insecurity in recent years, with growing attacks by Islamist militants and armed groups. It is still unclear how much importance Africa will have for Merkel's designated successor Olaf Scholz. The recently released coalition agreement of the three incoming governing parties, the SPD, the Greens and the FDP, barely mentions the continent.

But expert Kurtz hopes that Germany will remain committed to Africa.

"German Africa policy started at a very low level. Unlike more established international players in Africa like the United Kingdom, France or the United States, it has a chance to actually take partnership with Africa seriously," he said.

"And if that were the legacy of Merkel's Africa policy, that would already be a success."

Street Debate: What do Africans expect from the new German government?

This article has been translated from German by Chrispin Mwakideu and edited by Kate Hairsine.