Was German Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s trip more about Africa or Ukraine?
Germany’s Chancellor Olaf Scholz has big shoes to fill in succeeding Angela Merkel, who held the job with distinction for 16 years. That also goes for Africa, where Merkel was generally popular, not least for being more open to taking on irregular immigrants than her European partners. She also introduced the G20 Compact with Africa, which focuses on boosting foreign investment on the continent.
Maybe that’s why Scholz wasted no time setting foot on African soil. After assuming office, it took Merkel over two years to do that; Scholz did it in under five months. That his first overseas tour was to Africa – rather than to Asia or Latin America – ‘did not go unnoticed,’ according to Claus Stäcker, Deutsche Welle’s Africa director.
Scholz visited Senegal, Niger and South Africa last week in what German officials and commentators say was a carefully orchestrated tour. Energy, regional security and business topped the agenda – and Ukraine, though the last remains a rather ambiguous subject.
In Senegal he met President Macky Sall, the current African Union chairperson. The West African country is an old and reliable ally and a democratic stalwart. Scholz invited Sall to this year’s G7 Summit, which Germany will host at Schloss Elmau in Bavaria later this month.
He also said that Germany – clearly looking for alternative gas sources as it and the rest of Europe try to wean themselves off their Russian gas dependency – hoped to join Senegal in a gas extraction project near the Mauritanian border. The two leaders also discussed Germany’s Compact with Africa initiative.
In Niger, security was the main subject in his talks with President Mohamed Bazoum. Like other European powers, Germany is shifting its military support for fighting jihadists to Niger after a military junta ousted the elected government in neighbouring Mali and kicked out France.
Melanie Müller, Senior Associate and Researcher at Berlin’s German Institute for International and Security Affairs, told ISS Today that Germany’s Parliament had extended the country’s role in two missions in the Sahel until 31 May 2023. These are the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali and the European Union Training Mission.
Much of Scholz’s focus in South Africa was business. Germany has been a major investor in the country for many decades, with some 600 companies operating there now. Scholz joined a celebration of the 70th anniversary of the Southern African-German Chamber of Commerce and Industry.
He and Ramaphosa also discussed energy, including the US$8.5 billion that Germany, the United States, United Kingdom, France and the European Union (EU) are providing South Africa to boost its Just Energy Transition.
Rather ironically, Scholz told Ramaphosa that Germany would buy more South African coal. This would help replace the Russian coal that EU countries would stop buying in autumn this year as part of an energy embargo provoked by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. And he visited energy parastatal Sasol, which Germany is helping to produce green hydrogen.
Some commentators have praised Scholz for taking time off from dealing with Europe’s biggest domestic crisis – Russia’s war against Ukraine – to visit Africa. But perhaps Ukraine was the real, not-quite-hidden, main agenda item of the Africa tour?
Until 24 February, when Russian tanks rolled into Ukraine, Germany was the major European nation most inclined to appease Russia. This was because of its heavy reliance on Russian gas, its relative proximity to Russia, and its post-World War pacificism. In January, Scholz’s new coalition government was widely mocked for offering Ukraine nothing more than helmets to defend itself against a threatened Russian invasion.
But Scholz has undergone a radical transformation since 24 February. Germany is now providing heavy weapons to Ukraine and has suspended the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline from Russia. It has also joined the rest of Europe in phasing out all Russian energy imports and imposing other sanctions. So Germany is now suddenly obliged to look for alternative energy sources – and Africa is among them.
Scholz and Ramaphosa apparently hit it off and agreed on many projects, but that doesn’t mean they agreed on Ukraine. Germany believes South Africa’s ‘non-aligned’ stance on the war is an anomaly and an anachronism in the face of such aggression. Nevertheless, it serves both countries’ interests to maintain and strengthen their important relationship. This is the position of all South Africa’s Western partners.
Scholz also heard from Sall that ‘we do not want to be aligned in this conflict … we only want peace.’ Scholz told Senegal’s president he would seek to restore grain exports from Europe hit by Russia’s blockade of Ukraine’s Odessa port.
Sall said he and African Union (AU) Commission Chairperson Moussa Faki Mahamat would meet Russian President Vladimir Putin on 3 June to address the conflict and urge the lifting of the blockade. And Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky would address the AU remotely.
That Scholz invited Ramaphosa and Sall to the G7 Summit suggests their Ukraine positions are not deal breakers for Germany. But Scholz might also like them both to be captive audiences in the Schloss Elmau when the G7 leaders gather this month. The two African leaders will no doubt be grilled about their positions and hopefully persuaded to sign a summit declaration condemning Russia’s aggression.
Dr Weronika Priesmeyer-Tkocz, Deputy Director of the European Academy Berlin, told ISS Today that even though the Ukraine war overshadowed Scholz’s Africa tour, ‘It is central to realign and sustain cooperation and partnership with African countries strategically.’
Stäcker noted that ‘for Africa, Germany’s significance pales in comparison to China, Russia, India and other countries.’ But he said Scholz had basically accomplished his mission in Africa. ‘Given its role as an alternative source of energy and a promising market, and also in ensuring stability, Africa’s significance to Germany is growing.’
Yet Stäcker also felt that Scholz had missed some crucial opportunities to consolidate relations with the continent. He hadn’t sufficiently underscored Germany’s commitment to democracy and the rule of law or clearly articulated a more significant role for his country in West Africa and the Sahel.
Scholz clearly needs to set out a coherent Africa strategy. His rapidly evolving Russia policy suggests that Scholz starts cautiously but moves quite decisively once he’s made up his mind.
Peter Fabricius, Consultant, ISS Pretoria
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