Merkel’s Africa trip wasn’t just about migration & investment, it was a signal to EU partners & German voters

By Daniel Finnan


German Chancellor Angela Merkel wrapped up a three-day tour to West Africa at the end of August visiting Senegal, Ghana and Nigeria. The trip was seen as part of a new German diplomatic effort to strengthen ties on the continent with a focus on migration and investment. At the end of the trip, Merkel said that “every country is different”, but she had seen that the continent has “a generation that wants a future in their own countries”. Discussions on irregular migration come at a time when the European Union is taking measures to stem the flow of African migrants who cross the Mediterranean seeking a better life. Talk of greater German investment in Africa is also framed in the context of China’s continuing push on the continent and the British Prime Minister Theresa May’s recent charm offensive. Spotlight on Africa spoke to Julia Leininger, head of the German Development Institute’s research programme…are



What do you think of Angela Merkel’s choice of these three countries in particular – Nigeria, Senegal and Ghana?


Angela Merkel’s choice is one of shifting priorities in German-Africa policy and it’s a clear choice to cooperate more with countries where lots of migrants coming to Europe and Germany are from. So this is probably the first point why she chose these three countries. The second reason why she chose these countries is that Germany aims to foster the private sector and engage more in private sector investment. These three middle income countries are a good context to do so.


Much of the commentary on her West African trip has focused on migration – do you see this as the main reason for the visit?


First of all, on this shift that we’re facing at the moment of German-Africa policy, yes it has a lot to do with the so-called migration crisis in Europe. Because although the migration flows are decreasing, migrants coming from Africa, the numbers are increasing. So there is this new focus on the African neighbour and I think migration was a driver for various political initiatives of the German government like the compact with Africa, the Marshall plan with Africa – all initiatives that were launched last year. So the driver is migration, but at the same time it has a lot to do with the relationships between EU member states as well. Increasingly France wants Germany to cooperate on security, Theresa May in Great Britain is looking for a more independent role from the European Union since they leave the European Union. So the two main drivers are really the changing political game within Europe, but also migration flows to Europe.


Some in the German media saw the trip as an effort to please voters back home – how does this fit in to the political narrative in Germany?


In Germany, media, but also parts of the population think that there will be an increasing migration from Africa because of the demographic change in Africa. Meaning that by 2050 we expect two billion people to live in Africa, more than 50 per cent of them younger than 18, meaning that there are a lot of people without jobs who might want to go somewhere else to find jobs. That’s actually the standard picture of Germans and German politicians at the moment. So German-Africa policy is very much into job creation in order to create conditions for people to stay in Africa. Travelling to Africa is a signal to Angela Merkel’s constituency that she taking care of what’s perceived as a problem in Europe – it’s expectation management and signalling that, ‘I’m doing something, we’re are aware of the problem’. Actually, I wouldn’t say it’s a problem.


Did the chancellor’s trip reflect an alternative to the EU’s solutions to migration? In particular, policies such as detention centres, or processing centres, as they describe them, which are set to be established in North Africa.


So far Germany has supported the larger EU policy. But for the first time in Senegal, Ghana and Nigeria the chancellor talked about regular migration with the other heads of state. So they had illegal migration on the agenda but also regular migration which is a slightly different approach.


Merkel travelled with nearly a dozen CEOs, linking the issue of irregular migration to the possible solution of investment and job creation. Do you see German companies really ramping up investment in these three countries – Ghana, Senegal and Nigeria?


So far, it has been very difficult to incentivise German companies to invest more in Africa. Most of German investment still goes to South Africa. But since the state has given some guarantees, some insurance that if business doesn’t work, the state comes in, there is more willingness for the private sector to engage. But still it’s not about big numbers and big changes. It’s rather about individual companies –now we see Volkswagen opening in Ghana and Nigeria plants where new cars are assembled. The interest is increasing, but it’s not reflected in more investment. And we shouldn’t forget that Nigeria is a very big market and competition is very high. On the other hand we’ve got Senegal, a francophone country, with very strong French firms, enterprises. They are already closed markets, so it’s important for Germany to find a niche in these markets, which has not taken place yet.


The statistics are quite revealing – some 400,000 German companies operate abroad, but just 1,000 of those in Africa and if you remove South Africa from that number then less than half of that operate in Africa.


Yes, the German private sector is still very hesitant because of the risks and high levels or perceived high levels of corruption. The private sector is still very hesitant to invest in Africa. There is this big strategy of improving, supporting the private sector investments from Germany and elsewhere, or growing new markets in Africa with supporting small enterprises in Africa. But it will take time before the German private sector really comes in.


Merkel’s trip came at the same time as a visit by the British Prime Minister Theresa May. China, France and the US have also been influential foreign actors on the continent. Where do you see Germany fitting in?


If you look at the past, Africa hasn’t been – like in the case of France or in the case of Great Britain, as former colonial powers in Africa – it has never been a high level political issue. So for the first time the chancellor and the German government wants to be visible on the African continent. First, it’s about letting the other European partners know, we are there, letting one of the main allies in Europe, President Macron of France, know we support your approaches, we want to cooperate, and we are there. But it’s also about competition with China and others, exploring new markets and the idea of not being there despite of this global competition on the African continent. That’s the motifs for the German approach, but where does it fit in? It will be difficult or it is difficult for Germany to find a niche and the comparative advantages of German enterprises to come into the market – there’s solar energy, one very big advantage is producing in a sustainable way.  Sustainability and we’ll have more sustainability standards in the future global economy. That’s what Germany is good at. That’s a market where Germany can help African governments and get African economies to improve and be more competitive on the global market by producing in a more sustainable way. So this is an investment in the future of African economies, but also of Germany.