German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s counterparts in France and Britain probably envied her this week. Merkel travelled to three African countries without neo-colonial baggage and without any recent military intervention. She could say the unpopular things. And she did.
Her three-day trip to Mali, Niger and Ethiopia was officially to discuss Germany’s assistance with security and development in Africa. A lot of the focus, however, was on migration. The German Development Minister Gerd Mueller told Reuters ahead of her trip that ‘the migration pressure will increase dramatically in the coming years if we do not manage to generate economic prospects in African countries’. Development is one thing, but the immediate problem for Germany is to stem the flow of migrants to Europe so that Merkel can make good on her promise to Germans that the influx of migrants will be curbed in the coming months.
Mali and Niger are key transit countries for smugglers and human traffickers. Ethiopia is also a route favoured by many in the Horn of Africa to reach the Mediterranean via Sudan, Egypt and Libya.
Merkel has lost a lot of support in Germany due to her policy towards refugees and forced migrants in the last two years. In 2015 Germany received 890 000 refugees, mainly from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, but also from Africa.
On the first leg of her trip, Merkel was warmly welcomed in Mali by President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta. She was the first German chancellor to visit the country. Mali has 650 troops in the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilisation Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) and training of these troops is funded by the European Union.
She promised more aid to the country that is still in serious trouble due to the persistent presence of armed Islamic militants and separatists. Merkel called the situation in the north of Mali ‘very bad’ – a statement that didn’t go unnoticed in the French media. Germany is a small player in the rooting out of armed groups in Mali. France, with its operation Barkhane, has several thousand troops in the country that are tracking the jihadists, supported by MINUSMA. Nevertheless, few would deny the situation is indeed going from bad to worse in some parts of the north, like the town of Kidal.
In Niger, Merkel also spoke about beefing up Germany’s military presence, notably through an expanded base to support its airborne troops in Mali. She also promised substantial aid to develop the Agadez Region – a major thoroughfare for migrants seeking to get to Europe via Libya. Many of the migrants here are prey to unscrupulous smugglers and some succumb to horrific deaths travelling across the Sahara.
Germany’s help, however, will not be simply about dishing out cash. According to the German external service Deutsche Welle, Merkel wasn’t keen on the suggestion by Niger’s President Mahamadou Issoufou that Niger would need massive amounts of additional aid to fight illegal migration. She believed ‘it was more important to first ensure that the funds were funnelled efficiently,’ before Germany would reconsider increasing its financial assistance – a warning against the irregular use of aid that many foreign donors are concerned about, but rarely spell out in clear terms.
By far the trickiest part of Merkel’s trip was to Ethiopia where the local political situation has now come to a head and can no longer be ignored by Ethiopia’s allies across the globe. On Sunday 9 October Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn declared a state of emergency to quell the unrest. This followed months of clashes between security forces and people in the Oromia and Amhara regions calling for greater freedoms and democracy in Ethiopia.
Merkel had been under pressure from human rights groups and Ethiopians in Germany, who staged a sit-in in Berlin complaining about the visit.
Merkel started by offering her government’s help with the policing of protests. Last month at least 55 Ethiopians died when police clashed with protesters in Bishoftu. ‘I will speak with our interior minister about how we can help with further training for the police in Ethiopia so that so many people don’t have to die when such demonstrations occur’, she told Desalegn during a joint press conference.
Merkel also called for more democracy in Ethiopia – a country where the ruling party coalition occupies all the seats in parliament. ‘I plea for those with different political opinions to be included as stakeholders in society. Different arguments are part of a democratic process,’ she said.
Ethiopia’s massive population of around 100 million have largely benefited from strong growth rates and infrastructure development, many of it thanks to Chinese and other foreign investments. However, rights groups say the outflow of illegal migrants from Ethiopia is largely driven by the lack of political freedoms. This is also what drives Eritreans out of their country, often transiting via Ethiopia. Eritreans are the largest group of African refugees hosted in Europe.
Merkel’s statements about democracy in Ethiopia might not have been on the agenda at all, had it not been for the declaration of the state of emergency and the escalation of violence in Ethiopia that could no longer be ignored.
The highlight of her trip to Ethiopia was to be the opening of the new Julius Nyerere building at the headquarters of the African Union (AU) in Addis Ababa. The building is a welcome gift from Germany to the AU and will house the Peace and Security Department. This solid edifice was, according to the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit(GIZ) almost entirely built by Ethiopians – even the chairs and upholstery are Ethiopian-made.
This donation is also part of a much wider German involvement in peace and security in Africa. This is often in the form of support to AU structures and regional economic communities that are largely under the radar. Germany’s support to the AU over the last 10 years amounts to over 500 million euros.
At the ribbon-cutting ceremony on Tuesday, the issue of migration was raised once again. The AU has been largely silent on migration and its leaders don’t share the same view as the Europeans about stopping Africans from travelling to Europe. After all, wasn’t Africa, in another time, the recipient of many European colonialists?
AU Commission Chairperson Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma reminded Merkel that migration is a natural phenomenon. She has argued that Africa resents the strategy of creating stricter regulations to keep Africans out of Europe. What Africa wants is to empower the youth and educate them so that when they leave Africa it will be ‘by choice and not out of desperation,’ she said at the ceremony. Dlamini Zuma is another woman leader who isn’t afraid to speak her mind.
Liesl Louw-Vaudran, ISS Consultant