“Islands of stability in Africa”

25.03.2014 - Interview

Interview given by Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier to Deutsche Welle in connection with his current trip to Africa.

Interview given by Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier to Deutsche Welle in connection with his current trip to Africa. Published on 25 March 2014.


The situation in Ukraine is extremely tense. Europe is facing a dangerous crisis. Is this the right time for a trip to Africa? Are you even able to focus on the countries you are visiting here, Mr Steinmeier?

Frank-Walter Steinmeier: It isn’t as if we ever have the chance to concentrate on one single conflict in the world and block out all the others. But in the past few weeks and in the current situation it is particularly difficult to leave the conflict in Ukraine behind and focus exclusively on Africa. We are, of course, constantly in contact with Berlin and with the German Embassy in Kyiv. Nonetheless, it is still very important that we show our respect for the three African states we are visiting here and also demonstrate that other things are not always more important.

In previous years have we talked too much about equal partnerships and shown too little respect?

It is certainly true to say that Africa has changed more quickly than our perception of Africa. That doesn’t mean that the African continent has suddenly become a continent with a thriving economy and free democracy and human rights. But it has perhaps become more diverse. The hotspots are still there, the bilateral conflicts between states, often also clashes between governments and ethnic and religious minorities. All this still exists. But we can no longer afford to overlook the fact that there are also growing havens of stability, even with bilateral or regional cooperation. A development that we in Europe have always yearned to see.

We always talk about German foreign policy being shaped by values and interests. How do you address human rights issues in places such as Ethiopia, a country in which practically no opposition is tolerated?

We discussed this very intensively with the Ethiopian Prime Minister, who was also very forthright in his own arguments. He insists that Ethiopia must go its own special way. As a long-term goal we agree that the Ethiopian Government also wants to see democracy and the observance of human rights. But he says that Germany and Europe have more than one hundred years of development behind them, and that Ethiopia will not take as long to get there. We took note of this but still pointed out that in our experience it is not possible to separate economic development from democracy.

You are visiting three stable countries. At the end of your trip Gerd Müller, Federal Minister for Economic Cooperation and Development, will then travel to Mali and South Sudan. Is that distribution of tasks deliberate: the Foreign Minister goes to the prosperous countries, the Development Minister to the crisis-ridden countries?

No, that’s not the case. The majority of the talks in Ethiopia focused on the situations in Somalia, South Sudan and the central conflict here between Ethiopia itself and Eritrea – that, too, is a conflict region! I started my Africa trip in Ethiopia to show that the seat of the African Union embodies more than just hope. The talks with the AU and its leadership were truly amazing: confident yet also driven by a responsibility for development in Africa. They covered everything from developing trade relations to developing the economy, but above all they centred on safeguarding security and peace. Of course, many tasks are unfinished – but we in Germany and Europe underestimate all the achievements that have been made. The AU has gained authority in its dealings with the African states and is accepted as the chief negotiator with international organisations, including with the EU.

The AU is playing an active role in conflicts within Africa, with around 70,000 military servicemen and women working as peacekeepers or defusing violent situations. What I have observed is that nobody expects us to deploy service personnel in military operations, in fact the reverse is almost true. Many people here are saying, “We are fed up of asking for troops from Europe, America, the UN. We want to be able to provide them ourselves.” The key word is African ownership. Their request to us is: “Help the African states and the AU to consolidate their own skills.” That is why in the future advisory services, training and provision of equipment will be even more important than we in Germany have realised.

The question is generally: How can Germany, how can Europe help Africa? Let’s turn it around: How can Germany benefit from Africa?

Each affects the other both positively and negatively. These days hardly any conflict is solely regional. Just as Africans were affected by the European crisis for many years, simply because very little in the way of funds was available, because individual states in Europe were simply not in a position to look after their African cooperation partners, we are now similarly affected by crises within Africa, mostly by refugee flows. And that is why we benefit when islands of stability are created in Africa, perhaps quite tentatively at the moment in East Africa, where we are seeing the first shoots of regional cooperation in Kenya, Tanzania, Rwanda and Burundi.

The same goes for North Africa, when I look at the developments in Tunisia. Of course, we should be concerned about the situations in Egypt and Libya. It would appear that the escalation there has not yet come to a head. However, Tunisia has managed to launch a new constitution in a difficult internal process and is now preparing for a democratic change of government. I phoned the outgoing Prime Minister, who was quite flummoxed and asked me, “Why are you phoning me?” I then told him, “I want to thank you for stepping down and paving the way for election preparations and a democratic change in the political leadership of your country.” That was a major personal achievement which also obliged him to turn his back on his own political career. That is why I say that Tunisia is currently in the midst of a special development, and one which deserves our support.

Going back to the topic of interest-driven foreign policy: one destination of your trip is Angola, a country rich in raw materials. Are raw materials the main asset we expect to gain from Africa?

Let me emphasise once again that we have wide-ranging relations with Africa and the AU which also allow us to benefit from peaceful and stable development in individual regions of the continent. Likewise, the destinations included in this visit are so varied that you can’t just reduce the point of this trip to the superficial safeguarding of raw material interests – on the contrary. Tanzania, for example, is a country that is not bound to us by raw material interests, but by a long tradition of political ties. And Angola is a third example which falls into another category entirely. Undoubtedly it is the most prosperous of these three countries from an economic perspective, but lagging behind as far as its political development is concerned. Of course, you can’t totally disregard interests in the context of foreign policy. That would be naive, or, if the Foreign Minister said it, dishonest. But I am just trying to show that foreign policy cannot be reduced to and cannot afford to reduce itself to that level. For us, the political aspect is paramount.

At the beginning of your term of office you announced an Africa strategy. Would you not have liked to come here with a formulated strategy?

It is not just a question of a formal strategy. Anyone who has been active in politics for a few years knows that it is wise to first take time to think about where you want to end up. But we know also that reality has a habit of ignoring papers and concepts. So the task is to confront the concepts and ideas with the reality and thus have the chance to improve the concepts – and that is why I am here on this trip at a stage when the Africa concept is still on the drawing board.

This interview was conducted by Dagmar Engel.


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