A few days ago, I gave a talk in at the ESMT in Berlin on behalf of United Europe. My topic was “Economic prosperity beyond aid and funding from the EU: What is the African deal?” My article is reproduced in full below…
Every year, hundreds of Sub-Saharan Africans, Middle-Easterners and Central Asians lose their lives by crossing dangerous waters into Europe on the promise of a better life while escaping climate change, poverty and conflict, some of which were caused by European funding and in some instances, sanctions. Even the bloc’s decision to do nothing and stay aloof in itself gives a seal of approval to potential migrants that they can brave the odds, as some Eritreans find.
When they dare, the EU’s coastal border guards(i) and well-armed frontier militias deter the migrants from crossing international waters into Greece, Malta or Italy and repatriate those who survive to worse hardships in Libya for the lucky ones(ii) Those fortunate not to have their organs harvested or have their whole person traded in slave markets for forced labour and sex are rescued by the EU-funded International Organisation for Migration’s Assisted Voluntary Return scheme or ransomed by their families.
We cannot shy away from the reality that the EU’s answer to Africa’s economic prosperity is to stop the semi-skilled or impoverished ones who do not have the capacity to or cannot afford to be skilled, from entering its shores, in essence, the thrust of the bloc’s policy towards Africa. That was loudly announced by the visit of EU chief Ursula Von Der Leyen, Italian and Dutch Prime Ministers Georgia Meloni and Mark Rutte’s visit(iii) to Tunisia’s president Kais Saied who has outstayed his constitutional welcome. Not only was he visited, but he was also promised $1 billion on the guarantee that he would keep away the same Sub-Saharan Africans he accused of diluting his country’s Arab heritage and changing it into “just another African country,” away from the EU.
Europe wants Africa’s talents and resources to keep the lights on and the hospitals running. In return, Africa receives aid to help their sometimes-unconstitutional governments deter the semi-skilled ones from attempting. That was the visible intent of former Chancellor Angela Merkel’s 2018 visit to West Africa.(iv)
A colonial past creates the current Economic Playbook
Once upon a time, when the world was not aligned under the auspices of central banks and annual meetings in the Swiss alpines and New York, European territories partitioned African lands to themselves for exploitation. Back then, they were not welcomed guests, but they did not care. They wanted resources, not skills, and they saw us as less than human. A dark-skinned person like myself speaking at a forum like this would have been unimaginable then.
While Africans braving the choppy waters of the Mediterranean in overcrowded fishing vessels only come for jobs, Europeans came to sequester their lands and routinely murder fighters and civilians alike. In Namibia, Germany killed a conservative estimate of 60,000 Herero and Nama people in three years,(v) poisoned their water source and sent the rest into concentration camps. Today, German settlers still live in some of these lands.
European settlers used barbaric force to reform the lives of Africans, grudgingly granting them “independence” on the grounds that they evolved Western-like institutes such as parliaments and rotating presidencies. Africa’s economic systems were pulverised. Clans were cobbled into countries and were coerced into trading with money whose value is tied to Western strings.
Europe created an economic playbook, and they have partnered with unethical African elites to keep African economies in short supply of jobs and income. Africans have come in their droves to seek out more jobs to survive.
When the West decided it needed to create a barrier against the spread of communism, the London debt accords were called in 1953.(vi) At that meeting, half of Germany’s 30 billion Deutschmarks of foreign debt, just 25% of its national income, was forgiven.
After that productive engagement — the foundation of Germany’s continued progress today, six African countries lined up to forgive German debts. They were Cameroon, Congo DR, Egypt, Malawi, Zambia and Zimbabwe. Only Egypt was independent at the time.
At the London Accords, some creative mechanisms were conjured to make West Germany an economic powerhouse. One key piece of the agreement was that Berlin could only pay its debt with revenue.
So, no debtor could claim a penny when Germany had a trade deficit. Another key principle was that Germany was encouraged to earn trade surpluses. Countries allowed their currencies to rise against the Deutschmark, making German-produced goods cheaper. That also allowed these countries to consume imports from Germany, building Berlin’s industrial capacity back up. China has used this playbook to good effect.
Despite two wars, the West found a use for Germany and boosted it well enough to become the second largest donor to international humanitarian assistance.(vii) So, if the EU is really concerned about the chaff of African labour coming into its shores, why can’t the same techniques used in 1953 be modified to suit countries with strong enough institutions?
The African deal
Work to Build strong Economic and Political Institutions
African institutions are still adapting to concepts such as democracy, securities, stocks and speculative markets. It is a game the West has mastered to great effect and has, in some instances, built regulations to curb. The EU needs to develop more honest partnerships to cull corrupt politicians and dealers in the continent by helping to build judicial and prosecution bodies that are independent and strong at gathering evidence and observing the rule of law.
At the start of this discussion, a reference was made to the EU Delegation’s visit to Tunisia mere weeks after President Kais Saied’s xenophobic statements that put African migrants at risk. Making deals with such persons adds fuel to the narrative that the West is playing a zero-sum game where talk about democracy and the rule of law are mere instruments. The EU and Europe in general has a track record of this: Britain in 2021 held its nose at poor human rights record in Paul Kagame’s Rwanda and struck a migrant detention facility deal with Kigali; two decades earlier, the EU birthed the Fortress Europe Deal with Omar Al Bashir’s murderous regime in Sudan to stop migrants from reaching the Mediterranean. That funding solidified the Janjaweed militia, whose fame had transcended ethnic cleansing in Darfur to morphing into the behemoth called the Rapid Support Forces that is now taking on the Sudanese Military for sovereign control. The EU must take a cold hard look at its history of partnership with African autocracies and illiberal democracies. This starts by identifying how illiberal democracies hold the EU’s stated values hostage through migrant scaremongering. The West continued to make security deals with the Buhari Administration in Nigeria weeks after its military brutally suppressed youth-led anti-police brutality protests. This was only made possible because European capitals feared a migrant explosion from people fleeing terrorism and violent conflicts in the Sahel.
This fear has also undermined the development of democracy. In May 2021, following the death of Chadian strongman Idris Deby, French President Emmanuel Macron rushed to N’Djamena to assure Deby Jr, a military General his support as he took over his father’s government. Macron’s actions betrayed democracy as France passed up the chance to strongly make its case for a democratic Chad that would have seen Deby’s deputy take over according to the country’s stipulated constitutional line of succession. French interests ranged from maintaining its colonial influence on Chad, to protecting its uranium supply in Niger and Chad, and partnership with the government in its Sahel counterterrorism operations. Such motives hardly help the continent’s development, especially when ruthless realpolitik and strategic interests are favoured over the continent’s development.
Restructure How Debts Are Designed
An African deal beyond aid that will keep EU borders protected is one that is built on the foundation of equality. The EU must make a conscious but hard effort to admit that Africans are equal but still deal with centuries of meddling and a transition to alien institutions that are rigged against them.
Whether they have deficit trade balances or not, African countries must, unlike Germany, service debts in currencies that are most times more than twice theirs. Yet, credit rating agencies are waiting to make the cost of servicing these borrowings more inhibitive. Debts must be viewed from a genuine development viewpoint to make them work in African countries.
Create an environment for Legitimate Trade in the Sahara
The hostile Sahara used to be a trade route that supported the commerce in gold, kolanut and slaves. The route has not just worsened in temperament, it has decayed in human cruelty, reverting to its slave past.
Since the desert is not disappearing any time soon and still remains passable, an economic incentive needs to be generated to create a strong urge for the governance of the swathes of land that are used as havens for bandits. At the peak of the gold trade between the Ghanaian and Malian empires with North African nations and Mediterranean communities, salt was the main commodity bartered for gold, even though these kingdoms produced the product as well. These two goods kept the trade going for at least seven centuries, facilitating the exchange of culture and religion.
A cargo and passenger rail line, along with a trans-Saharan gas pipeline, could replicate the same outcome. The rail lines will have stations and spurs that would legalise the movement of humans and services across the expanse of hostile territory.
The cash for this project could be stumped up by tying it to mining proceeds.
With the EU’s desire for diversified energy transition resource outside of oil, a trans Saharan Gas Pipeline would give economic incentive for the desert to be effectively policed.
These projects would catalyse the creation of train stations, well built work camps and other economic activities that would necessitate the stationing of security agents to check visas and passports. That way, whoever is crossing the Sahara, to board a vessel, would be doing so with officials’ papers. More importantly, it would give the restive nomadic tribes in the area new job possibilities.
If the EU is really interested in a true African deal, it needs to create earnest partnerships that would lead to technology transfer, standardised semi-skilled labour flows with the AU and genuine backward integration that would open up African economies.
Africa needs to turn more of its raw materials into complex products that the EU will be willing to buy, in order to have a fair deal and provide the jobs its citizens are dying to get to in Europe.
The EU is in strategic competition with China, Russia and Turkey over influence and resources in Africa. Together, these three often provide tangible partnership benefits that range from loans to drones. The current sentiments in the region, especially the Sahel and below, heavily tilts towards them against the West. Some time ago, a Kenyan analyst was quoted saying, “when the Chinese come, they come with bridges and ports. When you Europeans come, you come with lectures on human rights”. The average Nigerian would ask in support of this sentiment “na human right we go chop?”
This is something many governments have exploited–the polarisation of the international order. The EU, therefore having found itself split between human rights and human investments have chosen a different kind of the human experience–security and migrant diplomacy. The EU’s advantage over the revisionist powers is the centuries of cultural links forged over trade and colonialism. However, it has to do more; this balancing act presents an opportunity to walk the talk.