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German foreign minister makes first visit to Africa

Ludger Schadomsky imm
May 2, 2018

After being at the center of attention in 2017, Germany's Africa policy has somewhat stagnated. But Foreign Minister Heiko Maas wants to keep communications open and is visiting Ethiopia and Tanzania this week.

German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas (SPD)
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/K. Nietfeld

Germany's Africa policy is back in the spotlight, this time at the highest level.

Only six weeks after assuming office, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas is making his first visit to Africa. On the itinerary are Ethiopia and Tanzania — two countries with which Germany maintains close historical and developmental ties. Both also host important state alliances, such as the African Union (AU) and the East African Community (EAC).

Although Ethiopia achieved double-digit economic growth, it continues to be accused of human rights violations. In Tanzania, after an energetic start, so-called reform president John Magufuli seems to be running out of steam and his country, while remaining relatively stable politically, continues to rely on Western donors. 

African leaders participate in a two-day G20 Africa partnership investment conference in Berlin in 2017
African leaders participated in a two-day G20 Africa partnership investment conference in Berlin in 2017 Image: Getty Images/AFP/J. Macdougall

Africa fatigue?

For Germany's federal government, things have quieted down when it comes to  issues related to Africa. In 2017, new initiatives for Africa came thick and fast. The continent was the focus of Germany's G20 presidency and numerous African heads of state came to the German capital.

"In 2017, there was lots of Africa. Maybe a bit too much for German politics," Africa expert Helmut Asche from the University of Mainz told DW. "Although one must say that not so much has been implemented, also by the German side, as we would have wished."

Neither the "Marshall Plan with Africa," proclaimed by Development Minister Gerd Müller, nor the Pro! Africa initiative — launched by Maas' Social Democrat Party (SPD) colleague Brigitte Zypries in her turn as economy minister from January 2017 until this March — could convince skeptics. The German government's enthusiasm for Africa has faded as a chorus of critics denounce rivalries between ministries and policy focuses more on stemming migration.

"A great expectation was aroused among our friends in Africa, and we have the impression here, as they do, that nothing much has been been done yet," Stefan Liebig, the chairman of the German-African Business Association, told DW.

Read more: Germany's Africa Year: Much goodwill but little action

Strengthening African regional alliances

Talks with the AU and the EAC are on the agenda for Mass' first trip to Africa. The message from Berlin — which has caught on in reform-oriented countries in the south — is that regional integration is the key to development and stability.

Rwandan President Paul Kagame speaks in Kigali
Rwandan President Paul Kagame addressing the African Continental Free Trade Area Business Forum in Kigali Image: Imago/Xinhua/G. Dusabe

Indeed, the AU, which has its headquarters in Ethiopia's capital Addis Ababa, has evolved into an increasingly important player, with which Germany has close links through its long-standing support of the Peace and Security Council. Rwandan president and current AU Assembly chair Paul Kagame has launched an ambitious reform agenda designed to make the union more financially independent and more effective at cutting through red tape.

Further south in the shadow of Mount Kilimanjaro in Arusha, Tanzania, the EAC — founded in 2000 and based on the European Union (EU) model — is a pioneer in regional integration, having its own customs union, a single market and a single customs territory. Over the years Germany has provided €285 million ($341 million) in financial support. But things haven't been running smoothly for some time and the pace of reform of members such as Tanzania and Rwanda diverges considerably.

"The East African Community was well on its way towards becoming a customs union, with free trade within a consolidated and cohesive economic space," Asche told DW. "Then the Europeans came along with their own economic partnership agreements. This is a piece of policy failure and Minister Maas can do a lot to rectify things."

East African Community leaders take part in a summit in 2016
East African Community leaders attended a summit in Arusha, Tanzania in 2016 Image: picture-alliance/dpa/Xinhua

Many problems in Ethiopia and Tanzania

The bilateral relationship with Tanzania is also worrying: At the end of 2015, President John Magufuli was elected, and quickly began to straighten things up and was celebrated by both locals and partners alike. Now he's clamping down on journalists, bloggers, opposition figures and even the churches.

"This is how one can be fooled," Asche told DW. "We had hoped that Magufuli would remedy inefficiencies and corruption." However, Asche believes the president's reform policies have deteriorated into "absurd repression and completely erratic political behavior. One should really be concerned by the current political system and state of democracy in Tanzania, which was comparatively stable in recent decades."

In Ethiopia, fresh winds of change are blowing. New Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed announced numerous reforms during his early days in office which offer hope for Africa's second-most populated country, with 100 million, mostly young people. But the much-maligned state of emergency remains in force — and this could become a stumbling block for the young prime minister.

"It would be great if Maas could talk to Abiy," says Asche. "The change which has taken place could really herald a better future."

One should not overburden Heiko Maas' visit to Africa with excessively high expectations. If it ends with the realization that Germany's Africa policy needs to become more coherent and should not get lost within sometimes-contradictory political initiatives, then that is already a success. In any case, the real work to be done is in Berlin, not in Africa, says Liebig. "I believe that the tasks of the foreign minister do not lie so much in Africa. Rather, he should do his homework here and must sit down with his colleagues in government to think about how many of the measures announced  can actually be implemented."