|

Beyond investment, political engagement called for

Japan urged to play more visible role on continent

by Eric Johnston

Staff Writer

The mood of hope at the conclusion Monday of the fifth Tokyo International Conference on African Development was mingled with uncertainty about the steps in store for the conference and Japan-Africa relations as a whole, especially regarding political exchanges at the highest levels.

Though many individual states remain mired in poverty or civil strife, the continent enjoys annual GDP growth of over 5 percent on average. Going into the TICAD V conference the most pressing questions were how to sustain a hard-won prosperity that has seen the middle and upper middle classes rise, and how nations in conflict can be peacefully stabilized.

During the three-day meeting in Yokohama, presidents, prime ministers, the World Bank and nongovernmental organizations all spoke of the need for continued international investment in traditional large-scale aid projects: roads, bridges, dams, railroads, port facilities, new electricity grids. They also called for Japanese and international investment not just to increase GDP, but also to provide employment and thus political stability.

For impoverished and administratively weak African nations, there were promises of aid for peace and stability measures: equipping and training police, customs officials, lawyers and civil servants. However, the Japanese government failed to respond to concerns that money earmarked for “combating terrorism” wouldn’t fall into the hands of corrupt leaders waging war on their own people.

For Japan, TICAD V was an opportunity to show it was not going to cede business or political influence on the continent to China, or, to a lesser but growing extent, India and South Korea. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Economy, Trade and Industry Minister Toshimitsu Motegi went out of their way to stress Tokyo’s determination to establish deep roots in African communities and to employ and train African workers, two gripes Africa has with China, which tends to import its own workers for the projects it funds.

At the same time, TICAD V provided a crucial forum for Japanese industry, especially for companies involved in the mining and extraction of African minerals and fossil fuels.

TICAD offered these firms a chance to consolidate old relationships with African partners in the face of rising competitors like China, and to explore opportunities in nations euphemistically described by World Bank officials as having “potential,” which is often official code for “nations rife with political corruption and civil strife, making investment of any sort a very high-risk venture.”

Compared with the three-ring circus of a United Nations gathering, where Fortune 500-types face off against anti-globalization activists and a rainbow coalition of NGOs and government officials address African issues, TICAD had the feel of a brisk and ruthlessly efficient business meeting. The NGO presence was limited, mostly because only approved NGOs were allowed anywhere near the convention center. That, NGO leaders said, was exactly the problem.

“At TICAD IV (in 2008), a follow-up mechanism was provided with civil society’s monitoring roles clearly integrated. But TICAD V shrunk civil society space and its roles compared to previous TICAD processes,” said Masaki Inaba, head of the Africa Japan Forum.

“We also note that while there is a passage in the Yokohama Declaration that talks about taking into account civil society’s role for sustainable development, it does so in the section on a new international framework for post-2015 development, not necessarily within the context of TICAD,” Inaba said.

Twenty years ago, at the time of the first TICAD conference, Japan clearly led the way. But today, the question of who “owns” TICAD is one African and Japanese officials are asking ever more loudly.

As Africa grows economically stronger and more confident, China’s influence there has exploded. Historically, Beijing has been closer to Africa than Tokyo ever was.

India, with its geographic proximity to eastern Africa and a similar history of political closeness to the continent, is a rising player. These key suitors have given Africa more leverage over Tokyo in setting the TICAD agenda.

Thus, perhaps the biggest challenge facing TICAD and Japan-Africa relations is the absence of Japanese political — as opposed to business — leaders on the continent.

Abe and Motegi said repeatedly they wanted to visit Africa soon. But with senior Chinese government officials now making regular visits to the continent, the pressure is rising for Tokyo to do more than simply write checks and send over bureaucrats, senior trading company officials and NGO personnel.

Last month, South African Ambassador to Japan Mohau Pheko described the frustrations heard from many African leaders at TICAD V when it came to Japan’s efforts at the kind of personal diplomacy China is engaged in.

“China is constantly on the African continent. Japan is invisible. We need to see more high-level visits from Japan to show that there is interest. It’s like a marriage — you can’t just say you love your partner, you have to show them,” Pheko said.

“It’s very important, especially after TICAD, that Japan really invests more quality time (in Africa.) Often what we hear from Japanese officials is ‘the prime minister doesn’t have three days to go and spend in Africa.’ This is a very bad response. ‘Ah, but you want (African) minerals, diamonds and platinum? Then show you care by coming to Africa,’ ” the ambassador said.