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Sudan crisis hovers over Olaf Scholz's visit to East Africa

Philipp Sandner
May 2, 2023

During his trip to Ethiopia and Kenya, the German chancellor will focus on reaffirming strategic alliances in the region. At the same time, the Sudan crisis is likely to dominate the talks.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz boards a plane
Olaf Scholz's upcoming trip to East Africa is being closely watched by the German opposition Image: Michael Kappeler/dpa/picture alliance

When Chancellor Olaf Scholz begins his East Africa trip in Ethiopia on Thursday, it should not just be about shaking hands, said Jürgen Cosse, a member of the Chancellor's SPD party.

"The fact that you not only want to support a sustainable peace process, but also travel to this country is a strong signal," Cosse told DW.

For Cosse, that means stating clearly: "We stand by the people who want peace and stability where they were born."

Ethiopia's Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed — once a beacon of hope — spent two years waging war against insurgents in the northern Tigray region. In addition, Abiy also enlisted support from Ethiopia's former enemy, Eritrea.

The Tigray conflict significantly strained Addis Ababa's relations with Berlin. However, after the rival parties reached a peace agreement in November 2022, the signs now point toward warmer relations.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz speaks to Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed as an onlooker takes a photo with a smartphone
Germany is hoping to rekindle relations with Ethiopia which were negatively impacted by the Tigray crisisImage: Yves Herman/AP/picture alliance

Restart in Ethiopia-Germany relations

According to human rights activist Befekadu Hailu, this is crucial for the government in Addis Ababa.

"Germany has been one of the biggest financial supporters of Ethiopia and its relationship with the government has been for the most part very friendly," Befekadu told DW.

Regarding trade, Ethiopia was the ninth-largest coffee exporter in 2021, with $1.16 billion (€1.05 billion) in exports. In the same year, coffee ranked as Ethiopia's top export.

According to the Observatory of Economic Complexity (OEC), Germany is the world's leading importer of Ethiopian coffee, followed by the United States, Saudi Arabia, Japan, and South Korea, respectively.

"The Ethiopian government wants to normalize relationships so that it can, again, be beneficiary of these opportunities," Befekadu said.

Sudan's crisis looms large

Germany has another item on its agenda in the Horn of Africa: The German government said the meeting with PM Abiy and President Sahle-Work Zewde would also focus on regional and international security, particularly the crisis in Sudan.

For more than two weeks, a power struggle between army and coup leader Abdel-Fattah Burhan and the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) commander, General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, has taken many by surprise, said SPD politician Cosse, who is also the rapporteur for East Africa.

Cosse believes there are still many opportunities for Germany to exert influence.

"It starts with the issue: can we make sure that no more weapons are supplied to this country?" Cosse also recommended talking to parties to the conflict and always considering that Sudan's civil society needs to be supported.

People pass by damaged cars and buildings at the central market during clashes in Khartoum North, Sudan
The fighting in Sudan will feature in the meeting between Chancellor Scholz and AU chief Moussa Faki Mahamat Image: Mohamed Nureldin Abdallah/REUTERS

Peace and stability in the region

Peacekeeping in the region will also be on the agenda when Chancellor Scholz talks to Moussa Faki Mahamat, President of the African Union (AU) Commission based in Addis Ababa.

The meeting with the AU chief will also play a role at Scholz's last stop in Kenya. The East African nation is considered an anchor of stability in the region and has often distinguished itself as a conflict mediator.

But it is not only the opposition in the German parliament that is keeping a close eye on the government's actions in international conflicts. According to activist Befekadu Hailu, it is also a matter of striking the right tone with African partners.

"European countries like Germany must always listen first to what Africans are saying and not appear to be the purveyors of solutions," Befekadu said, adding that they [European countries] must act as mediators, as partners — not as saviors, saving people from themselves.

A thin line between external support and internal interference

However, Kenyan political analyst Chacha Nyaigotti-Chacha, said urging the parties to the Sudan conflict to hold talks cannot be seen as interference in internal affairs.

"It's not internal affairs when people are killed," Nyaigotti-Chacha told DW.

"After all, among the dead were citizens of other countries," he said, stressing that the Sudanese also have a right to be protected. "First by their country and then also by neighboring countries in the Horn of Africa together with our friends like Germany."

Sabine Dall'Omo, the newly elected Chairperson of the German-African Business Association, who will accompany Scholz on his trip, highlighted the importance of shoring up economic ties."For us, the main focus is strengthening sustainable economic partnerships and providing visible political support for the German economy and its projects in Kenya," she said in a statement.

"During the visit to Ethiopia, we hope for further support from the German government in the peace process and the major pan-African economic projects  —  especially the implementation of the African Continental Free Trade Area," she added. 

Kenyan President William Ruto shares a podium with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz
Kenya's President William Ruto (L) hopes to boost business ties with German companiesImage: Kay Nietfeld/dpa/picture-alliance

Kenya-Germany relations on a solid foundation

Germany was the first country to establish an embassy in independent Kenya in 1963 and Olaf Scholz's visit should be a fairly smooth affair. Kenya's new President, William Ruto, made his inaugural visit to Berlin only a month ago.

Ruto has distanced himself from China as an economic partner and has explicitly opposed Russia's war in Ukraine, which may also have endeared him to Germany and the West. Kenya was one of the few African countries to condemn Russia's invasion of Ukraine at the UN Security Council.

Beyond that, Scholz and the large business delegation he has in tow are also expected to reaffirm a new energy partnership with a visit to a German-supported geothermal plant in the Rift Valley.

Kenya generates about 90% of its electricity from renewable energy sources.

"For German companies, Kenya remains among the top five export markets in sub-Saharan Africa, with €260 million ($285 million) [worth of exports] in 2022," Dall'Omo said.

This article was initially written in German.

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