Diplomatic offensive: has Germany overcome its “African timidity”?

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Diplomatic offensive: has Germany overcome its "African timidity"?

Timbuktu Institute Writes

In the weekly column of the Timbuktu Institute – African Center for Peace Studies in partnership with Medi1TV, Dr. Bakary Sambe reviews the synchronized tour of the German executive, with Chancellor Olaf Scholz visiting Nigeria and Ghana, and President Frank-Walter Steinmeier visiting Zambia and Tanzania. But for the director of the Timbuktu Institute, in addition to energy and security issues, these two visits are marked by what could be considered a strategy of “distinction”, having taken into account “the context and expectations on a continent where an irreversible wind of sovereignty and a strong demand for respect and dignity is blowing”.

Similarly, referring to this synchronized visit, the researcher considers that the German President’s “humbly assumed” request for forgiveness from persecuted African peoples, “marks a clear difference in a context where symbols carry all their weight in the game of international relations, and above all in the new relationship between Africa and Europe”. Bakary Sambe, answers the Moroccan journalist, Sana Yassari’s questions here.

Dr. Bakary Sambe, in the wake of the crisis in Niger, you spoke of the complexity of Europe’s role in the Sahel, where its “champion”, France, is experiencing certain difficulties. Rarely, if ever, have the Chancellor and the German President been on an African tour at the same time. What do you think this really means for Berlin’s African strategy?

On a symbolic level, it would undoubtedly be an excellent case study in international relations at our universities. A visit by the two driving forces of the European Union, France and Germany: one – France – suddenly turned eastwards following the chaotic departure of Niger, with Emmanuel Macron already rushing to Kazakhstan to secure uranium supplies, in a reflex of rapid adjustment. The other power – Germany – is sending its entire executive (the Chancellor and the President) to Africa, also for energy reasons, with West African gas (LNG) currently at the heart of all issues. Germany is also keen to polish up its image as a former colonial power that has repented of its past. But it’s clear to me that the two heads of the German government’s concurrent trip to Africa is historic. I don’t believe that, in the past, a German Chancellor and President have ever made a synchronized visit to Africa or any other continent in this way.

But given the way this visit to Africa is going, could we be talking about a certain sharing of roles? Also, beyond the rhetoric, what is really at stake in this visit in the current context?

I think we could talk this week of a real German offensive in progress. But this time, there seems to be a sharing of roles and a diversification of approaches: Chancellor Olaf Scholtz, as we have seen, is focusing on energy security through bilateral relations with Nigeria, to adapt to the crisis in Russian gas supplies caused by the Russian-Ukrainian war. As for security in West Africa, the German Chancellor is following a multilateral approach, providing financial support to ECOWAS to the tune of 80 million euros, with a “peace and security” component, relying on an essential umbrella institution despite its current difficulties.

Meanwhile, the German President, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who has a rather honorary executive role, is playing the symbolic and memorial card of repentance for the colonial past, thus responding to a strong demand from the African street and youth in a context so marked by sovereignism and the “reconquest of dignity”. This is exactly the thrust of the German President’s statement, in which he acknowledges that, and I quote, “we must face up to this history in order to be able to build a better future together”.

So, Dr. Sambe, there have been some significant gestures and words, notably the German President’s highly symbolic request for forgiveness from Africans for their colonial past. Is Germany, then, in the process of scoring points that could further position it in the Sahel, where we seem to be witnessing a veritable redistribution of roles and positions?

It’s true that Germany is often seen in Africa as a very proud nation, but this gesture by the German President seems to show less pride than the « Great Nation », as France was ironically called in European diplomatic circles in the 19th century. The words of the German President on a visit to southern Africa, publicly, clearly and humbly declaring: « I am ashamed of what German colonial soldiers did to your ancestors », are sure to resonate throughout the continent for a long time to come.

Here, it must be said that Germany had the courage and, above all, the political intelligence to face up to its past and show contrition towards the victimized peoples, such as the Maji-Maji, Herero and Nama Nama tribes in Namibia, by clearly saying: « As German President, I would like to ask for forgiveness ». We know that the first genocide perpetrated by the Germans took place in Namibia, and the symbolism of this repentance is simply powerful. From a strategic and diplomatic point of view, I believe that this synchronized visit is far from insignificant. For, with its new national security strategy, and following the rejection of France by public opinion and certain African states, Germany is positioning itself, at least by doing the opposite of the policy and attitude reproached to Paris, notably by asking for forgiveness in a simple and humble way. Even if this could be construed as realpolitik, symbols carry weight in international relations.

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