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“Make the better offer! – That is the key”

Blog Joint Futures 02, 25.09.2023

The Federal Foreign Office (FFO) is developing new Africa Policy Guidelines for the Federal Government. In an interview with Megatrends Afrika, Christoph Retzlaff, Director for Sub-Saharan Africa and the Sahel, explains why this is necessary now.


Megatrends Afrika (MTA): Why does Germany need new Africa Policy Guidelines? Why is the Federal Government revising them and why now?

Christoph Retzlaff (CR): It is obvious that the world and also Africa have changed since the last iteration of the Africa Policy Guidelines in 2019 and their initial publication in 2014: the COVID-19 pandemic, Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine, the increasing competition of systems with China and the upheavals in the Sahel have been some of the recent significant developments. What is also new is the increased awareness of the growing importance of the African continent – not only in Germany, but also in many parts of the world. I would like to highlight a figure: since December 2021, there have been more than 50 visits to Africa on the political level by German Government representatives – State Secretaries, Federal Ministers and the Federal Chancellor. We have never before experienced this great a level of exchange with our African partners, and that is of course due to Africa’s growing importance. Worldwide, there is an increased recognition that we can only solve global challenges – the key issues being the climate crisis, migration and pandemic control – with partners from the Global South, including African countries.

Since Russia’s attack on Ukraine, we have also seen a heightened global systemic competition, especially between Russia and China on the one hand and the West on the other. We must take this competition of systems seriously. We will only succeed if we work together to refute the Russian and Chinese narratives, which operate along the lines of “the West against the rest”. In contrast, we need to strengthen our exchanges with the so-called Global South, and in particular with African partners, in order to forge global partnerships – to defend our shared international order on the basis of the Charter of the United Nations and democracy, to fight the climate crisis and to address concerns that are particularly relevant to our partners in the South. That, in my view, is crucial.

In addition, it should be noted that Africa is the “youngest continent” and that by the year 2050, 40 per cent of the world’s population under the age of 18 will live there. I do not need to explain the significance of this fact for value creation and markets. Furthermore, this is very important in view of the need for economic de-risking, especially with regard to China and the economic opportunities that Africa offers. We need to approach our African partners with tailored and convincing bids for future-oriented cooperation. We have a lot to offer, more than others. In short, we will be successful if we bring forward the better offer: “Make the better offer!” – that’s the key.

Against this background, the Africa Policy Guidelines serve two primary functions: on the one hand, they provide a strategic and coherent framework for the Federal Government’s policy on Africa, to ensure that all departments are pulling in the same direction. On the other hand, of course, the Guidelines serve the purpose of communicating with external actors, reaching out to the general public across Africa and Germany and explaining the Africa policy actions of the Federal Government and Germany. In order to do this, they have to portray the world as it is right now.

MTA: The Federal Government has initiated a series of strategic processes and set new priorities: a Feminist Foreign Policy, a Strategy on China, a National Security Strategy. Additional strategy initiatives have been announced. How do you see German policy on Africa and the new Africa Policy Guidelines in light of these processes?

CR: The large number of strategic processes – some of which have already been completed, with others ongoing – is a reflection of a world that is undergoing profound changes. We must take these developments into account in our foreign policy actions if we want to be able to help shape change – and that is, of course, our aspiration. The National Security Strategy is the common umbrella for all other strategies and guidelines, which also relate to and complement each other.

MTA: Let’s come back to German internal politics. The Federal Foreign Office is the lead ministry in this process, but these are Guidelines for the entire Federal Government. How important is coordination among departments, especially with the Federal Ministry of Defence, the Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Climate Action and the Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development? How would you assess the coherence of Germany’s foreign policy on Africa, and what challenges do you see in its practical implementation?

CR: The title “Africa Policy Guidelines of the Federal Government” says it all. They are explicitly not a policy paper by a certain department. The Guidelines aim to formulate the principles and priorities of the Federal Government’s policy on Africa. In other words, they provide the strategic framework. The main objective is to establish coherence across departments. Germany’s ambitious travel diplomacy has made our increased engagement in Africa more visible. It is thus all the more important to work towards our shared strategic goals with the same ambition, to create synergy effects and to coordinate well. The challenge lies in the concrete implementation and shaping of this policy in practice. Naturally, the Guidelines by themselves cannot deliver on this. In order to succeed, further instruments are needed, for example sound coordination through regular inter-departmental consultations, which will be led by us at the Federal Foreign Office. Good coordination is especially important when engaging with a multitude of motivated actors – as is the case with Germany’s Africa policy.

MTA: To what extent will the Guideline process include voices from academia, civil society and business?

CR: That’s very important. We are deliberately reaching out to voices beyond the Federal Government, including African partners. This blog is one example: it is intended to provide a platform for a wide range of actors to contribute and to critically exchange ideas. We also want to hold up a mirror to ourselves and our policy on Africa. For this, we need ideas, motivations and a debate that challenges old wisdoms. We are particularly keen to hear from a large variety of voices.

MTA: What is the significance of the Guidelines for cooperation with African partners – in entirely practical terms?

CR: What is key is that the Guidelines express our shared goals and principles, prioritise and create transparency and let our African partners know where they stand. First, it is important to us to work closely together with the world as it is, and not as we would like it to be. Second, we aim to take African interests into account in a better and much more concrete manner than we have done in the past. In doing so, we want to approach not only states and governments. That is why we are also engaging with African partners from civil society, for example. This way, we will be even more successful in making tailored offers. We are very excited and are looking forward to this process.

MTA: On the one hand, we continue talking about the diversity of developments across Africa; then again, with the Africa Policy Guidelines, the Federal Government is now preparing one key document vis-à-vis an entire continent. Is this not a contradiction?

CR: That is a valid point. Africa Policy Guidelines of 20 to 25 pages cannot, of course, reflect the diversity of the African continent. If I have counted correctly, I myself have travelled to 16 African countries in the last 12 months, and have been able to get a good impression of the differences. With the Guidelines, we provide the strategic framework and the overarching objectives for our policy on Africa. It is then the task of bilateral, concrete policy to do justice to these differences and the different starting points and interests.

MTA: Over the past year or two, it has become clearer that many changes are taking place across Africa, also with respect to the international system and external partners. On some points, Western partners are accused of double standards, for example in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic and in migration policy. Will this be reflected in the Guidelines? Will certain trade-offs at least be made transparent in some form? Or is that too much to ask of such a document?

CR: It is important to address existing and perceived contradictions as well as to actively address allegations about the supposed double standards that you have mentioned. We have not written the Africa Policy Guidelines yet. I don’t have a draft of them here in my drawer. Rather, we want to develop them in an inclusive process. I think that we have to take these points seriously. We are seeing a whole new self-confidence in Africa in international politics. One example is the African peace initiative in light of Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine. The fact that African heads of state and government are taking a stance on a war in Europe and are travelling to Ukraine, and then to Russia, is a new development underscoring that the international architecture – that is, the UN Security Council, the G20 and so on – no longer reflects the balance of power in the 21st century. After all, that is in part where the accusations of double standards come from. As the Federal Government, we have taken a clear position: we support the African Union’s membership of the G20 as well as two permanent seats for African states on the UN Security Council.

MTA: From your perspective, what are the strengths of German engagement on the African continent? What is Germany already doing really well and where are the challenges?

CR: Our strength is, first of all, that we already do a lot in Africa. I have already mentioned the numerous political visits since September 2021. But for decades we have been doing more – and in the field of development cooperation much more – than most others, even beyond that. We are also very active in the areas of stabilisation and humanitarian assistance. I believe that Germany’s commitment in Africa is particularly appreciated due to our reliability, and we are often told that Germany engages without a “hidden agenda” in Africa. In any case, these are already two aspects with which we can continue to work very well. Together with our partners in the European Union, “like-minded” partners such as the United States and Canada and perhaps others as well, we can make our African partners strong offers that reflect our values and interests and are convincing compared to other competitors. But it is also clear that we are only assisting our African partners. They are in the driving seat in overcoming the many challenges that persist in Africa – social, humanitarian, political, economic and so on. Our Guidelines therefore have to be accessible for our partners. And that is why we will of course also engage them in the forthcoming writing process.

MTA: Are there any specific aspects that are close to your heart?

CR: It is of particular importance to me that we become much clearer about the increased relevance of Africa and the increased confidence of African partners, both of which, by the way, I think are very justified and positive elements. We would like to move the discussion on these aspects in a direction that brings the public perception in Germany up to date with regard to policy on Africa and the image of Africa. For me, that means in particular moving away from an agenda set on “We have to help Africa” to one that embraces the following: Africa is becoming one of the centres of gravity in the multipolar world order of the 21st century, and we need the African states as partners to solve global challenges together. In other words, we need to move away from a help-centred agenda towards an active partnership that shapes global policy.

Ambassador Christoph Retzlaff spoke with Dr Denis Tull and Julia Fath of Megatrends Afrika on 14 August 2023.

Responsibility for content, opinions expressed and sources used in the articles and interviews lies with the respective authors.