The Scholz Administration Needs an Africa Strategy

March 2023

Germany must first define its own strategic interests in relation to Africa. The BMZ's reformulated Africa strategy strikes a progressive note, but falls short.

By Dr. Olumide Abimbola

Africa Strategy Svenja Schulze Ahunna Eziakonwa
IMAGO / Ute Grabowsky

Germany must articulate an Africa strategy that reflects its own foreign policy interests and objectives, with a clear focus on how African countries can help Germany achieve them. If Germany – and indeed all of Europe – wants its economy to thrive, it will have to secure African countries’ support in this endeavor, including investment in the industrial policies of select African countries.

Let’s start by considering how the previous German administration approached Africa. A key document that exemplifies this is the 2017 ‘Marshall Plan with Africa’, the strategy of the Federal Ministry for Economic Development and Cooperation (BMZ). The document bore the hallmarks of a ministry led by the Christian Social Union, a conservative German party that believes deeply in the free market. The central focus was on how to get more private sector investment into Africa. This was generally in line with the shift in focus from Official Development Assistance (ODA) to private sector investment – or at least a shift towards thinking about how ODA can be used to catalyze private investment. The way the ‘Marshall Plan with Africa’ sought to put this in motion was to create “reform partnerships” with a few African countries. These countries would pursue market-friendly reforms backed by the German Federal Ministry for Economic Development and Cooperation (BMZ). The thinking was that these reforms would then lead to more private sector investment.

Beyond the BMZ, driving private investment towards Africa in order to help African countries, even though simplistic, was the apparent Africa policy of the last Merkel administration (2017-2021). The same administration introduced the Compact with Africa, led by the Ministry of Finance, as part of Germany’s G20 presidency. In the same year that the BMZ’s Marshall Plan was released, the German government, as part of the G20 presidency, hosted the first G20 Africa Partnership Conference.

A marked change in tone

Forward to 2023, and there’s a new BMZ Africa Strategy. This time around, however, there is no administration-wide stance on Africa – it’s just the BMZ.  In the absence of such an orientation, the document has become the thing that Africa watchers look at to gain an understanding of the Scholz administration’s attitude towards the continent. Leaving the development cooperation strategy to be seen as the position of the whole government is problematic. Because no matter how forward-looking such a strategy is, it is designed by a ministry whose core mandate is to help – namely to provide development aid – to developing countries. The BMZ’s Africa Strategy needs to be complemented by a proper, inter-ministerial foreign policy towards Africa. Given the geopolitically tumultuous times we live in, it is in the self-interest of Germany to make this happen. Africa should not just be seen through the development cooperation lens – especially because the development budget is hopelessly limited. A reference point: Nigerians abroad send home 6 billion euros per year more than the total BMZ 2023 budget.

The new BMZ Africa Strategy is appropriately self-critical. It acknowledges developments since the Covid-19 pandemic, and the current pressures around the world in general – and in African countries in particular – caused by Russia’s war in Ukraine. It also gestures towards “Africa’s growing weight in the world”. It appears to largely be a bundle of initiatives that are currently knocking around the ministry rather than a new, coherent set of initiatives. The initiatives also appear to connect to African initiatives and strategies. The first objective is to support goals set by the African Union (AU) and African countries. Clustered into six general areas, there is still support for private sector development, but it is no longer the cornerstone of the ministry’s work. Issues like pandemic preparedness, rule of law and democracy, peace and security, poverty reduction, and gender equality (“feminist development policy”) are all covered.

As it is the strategy of a ministry for “economic cooperation and development,” economic development is elaborated in the document. This is also the issue that occupies the agenda of African governments. Packaged under this heading are support in the context of climate change (primarily through supporting a just transition), support in the management of natural resources, support to the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA), support in ensuring that migration promotes development, support for digitalization… and several other kinds of supports – a recurring theme.

Therein lies the limitation of how Germany has decided to handle its relationship with Africa: leaving the heavy lifting to a ministry whose mandate is to help. This is a hopelessly limiting way of engaging, and for many African governments and African stakeholders, a very tiring one. The strategy is unable to articulate what providing these supports mean for Germany. In other words, there is no clear expression of Germany’s own interests in the strategy.

This is of course no fault of the strategy nor of the ministry. It should be a piece of a larger puzzle. Germany can and should provide support. After all, just one example, the whole continent of Africa has historically emitted much less carbon than Germany alone – the source of Germany’s wealth. It therefore has certain obligations, for instance under the Paris Agreement, that require the provision of support. But that cannot be all. The current administration needs to define Germany’s strategic interests and carefully communicate how they dovetail with the interests of African countries.

How Can Africa Help?

Those strategic interests are no secret: lack of labor power, lack of control over supply chain, or control over access to processed critical raw materials. First, population: Germany needs people. Two million job positions are currently open. 53 percent of German companies have job openings they cannot fill. This is a huge problem for a country whose might come from its industry. There are currently clumsy moves to source labor from other parts of the world, African countries included. However, the assumption that skilled Africans would choose to migrate to Germany has proven to be unfounded. A recent OECD study shows that Germany is not in the top ten of countries attractive for labor migration. Germany’s finance minister, Christian Lindner, had this message driven home to him at the University of Ghana when, to his surprise, only a tiny number of students there indicated that they considered working in Germany an option. One would expect that a strategy for how to attract labor from the world’s youngest continent would be at the top of the agenda.

Access to processed critical raw materials is important for a country whose industry needs them, as is supply chain concentration in critical sectors. Think of the fact that hardly any German or European country manufactures solar panels, wind turbines, or microchips. It does not appear that these industries will return to Germany anytime soon. For processed minerals, Germany’s – and Europe’s – overdependence on single sources is well documented. By some estimates, Germany depends on foreign supplies for 21 of 27 critical raw materials. Geopolitical concerns mean that nearshoring is becoming a viable strategy. Many African countries have these critical raw materials and are looking to industrialize based on them. It is not hard to imagine a German raw materials strategy that invests long-term in Africa as a processor of critical materials. The same applies for a German photovoltaic strategy that could prioritize processing polysilicon and manufacturing of solar cells in Africa.

And then there’s energy. Germany has replaced dependency on Russia with dependency on other gas supplying countries, such as Norway; and has signed a 15-year agreement with Qatar. Yet Senegal and Nigeria, two countries looking to Germany for investment in the gas sector, receive little to no consideration. There is also the digital sector, where Germany must ensure that it does not become a victim of the US-China techno-geopolitical tussle. Developing a strategy that links with African countries’ unique position and priorities should be high on the agenda.

The BMZ’s strategy is that of a ministry whose mandate is to go out into the world and help. A forward-looking, development cooperation strategy needs to be respectful and non-condescending. The strategy manages to do both, striking a progressive tone. It is however just the strategy of one ministry, representing one facet of Germany’s foreign policy, and needs to be seen as such. Unfortunately, because Germany does not have a comprehensive, overarching Africa strategy, it is seen as the strategy of the entire German government. The Scholz administration should thus be wary of the fact that the world, and especially African countries, could perceive this as a reductionist and one-sided attitude towards the continent.

Olumide Abimbola APRI rund grau

Dr. Olumide Abimbola is executive director of APRI - Africa Policy Research Institute, a Berlin-based think tank. Previously, he worked at the African Development Bank on trade and regional integration, and at GIZ on natural resource governance." APRI and the Robert Bosch Stiftung collaborate within the framework of a strategic partnership.

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