Macron Goes to Africa
The French president is seeking to project influence, build new alliances, repair old rifts, and defuse the immigration issue at home.
Welcome to Foreign Policy’s Africa Brief.
Welcome to Foreign Policy’s Africa Brief.
This week’s highlights: Emmanuel Macron’s diplomatic tour of Africa, Germany and Namibia near a deal on reparations for the Herero genocide, and a fake Rembrandt boosts Africa’s homegrown technology.
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What Does France Want in Africa?
Since taking office in 2017, French President Emmanuel Macron has made Africa a key part of his foreign policy. In a 2017 speech in Burkina Faso, Macron promised to usher in a new relationship between the continent and one of its former colonizers.
Early on, Macron made it clear his focus on Africa went beyond former French colonies, from landing in Nigeria in 2018 to dance at the famed New Afrika Shrine to meeting with the country’s young tech entrepreneurs. He also championed the return of African artifacts but betrayed some of his own biases when he attributed Africa’s challenges as “civilizational.”
Beyond the gaffes, Macron has made good on his promise to strengthen ties between Africa and France. But with such wide-ranging interests, it’s hard to decipher Macron’s objectives on the continent.
Summits in Paris. Last week, Paris welcomed a bevy of African leaders. On May 17, Macron hosted the International Conference to Support the Sudanese Transition, which aimed at helping a post-Omar al-Bashir Sudan reenter the international community.
France helped broker a deal to alleviate Sudan’s debt by providing a bridging loan to repay Khartoum’s arrears to the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Acting as something of a patron for the newly democratizing country, France further helped raise $2 billion in donations for Sudan from the United Kingdom, United States, the European Union, and others.
The next day, Macron held a summit on the Financing of African Economies: getting the World Bank and IMF in the same room as African leaders from Senegal, Mozambique, Nigeria, South Africa, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), and more. They discussed the key issue of Africa’s debt and helping the continent’s post-COVID-19 pandemic recovery.
In a press conference, flanked by DRC President Félix Tshisekedi—who is also the chair of the African Union this year—and Senegalese President Macky Sall, Macron championed a restructuring of African countries’ international debt to include a combination of grants and funding to help them rebound from the pandemic while also using economic tools to address the growing risk of terrorism on the continent.
“Africa’s key asset is its young people. They are the most dynamic in the world. But support to the sector has never been a priority. We are correcting that paradox now, with the launch of an alliance for African entrepreneurship,” Macron tweeted from the conference.
It’s exactly the sort of thing African politicians and policymakers want to hear. Such a move could also stem the flow of African migrants to Europe—a key concern for Macron as the 2022 election approaches in France, where he is likely to face a strong challenge from the far-right and staunchly anti-immigration candidate Marine Le Pen.
Visit to Pretoria. This week, Macron will travel to South Africa, where he will meet South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, who has positioned himself as a leader of Africa’s collective vaccine acquisition campaign. Macron has thrown his support behind the effort, calling for donations to help boost Africa’s COVID-19 vaccination drive, both for surplus vaccines and funding for public health programs.
It’s a noble effort when the global vaccine drive has been characterized by wealthy countries hoarding vaccines. But South Africa also has strategic importance—it is a key player in a region now facing an insurgency characterized as a terrorist threat in Mozambique. Macron already met with Mozambican President Filipe Nyusi in Paris last week, where he was expected to ask for French support in fighting the insurgency.
Repairing relations with Rwanda. Before he arrives in South Africa, Macron will begin his tour in Kigali, where a visit to Rwanda will be “the final step in the normalization of relations between France and Rwanda,” according to an Elysée official, and will see the historic announcement of a new French ambassador to Kigali.
Rwanda severed diplomatic ties with France in 2006 after a French judge issued arrest warrants for Rwandan President Paul Kagame’s aides over their alleged involvement in the assassination of Kagame’s predecessor, Juvénal Habyarimana.
The former Hutu president, whose death in part sparked the 1994 genocide, was killed when a flight operated by a French crew was downed. In response to the warrants, the Rwandan government ordered anti-French demonstrations and expelled the ambassador.
The two countries restored relations in 2009, but it has been a frosty relationship characterized by Rwanda’s criticism of France’s complicity in the genocide. This year marked a turning point after a commission found in March that France bore “overwhelming responsibility” for failing to do more to stop the killings.
On the sidelines of last week’s summit, Kagame told news channel France24 he welcomed the report as a “convergence of the facts” and said the two countries now had a chance to build a strong relationship. Kagame and Macron also held bilateral talks during the summit.
Deprioritizing democracy? What that relationship will look like is an open question. As Le Monde columnist Philippe Bernard wrote, France can take responsibility for its role in the genocide, but that should not mean ignoring the authoritarian nature of the current regime.
France, however, has historically overlooked this characteristic in its allies, particularly when they are strategically important to its interests in Africa. After all, Macron personally attended the funeral of Chadian dictator Idriss Déby and has shown support for the military transitional government run by Déby’s son, even as observers and civil society groups decried the lost opportunity to introduce a democratic government.
The Week Ahead
May 27: The Southern African Development Community holds a summit to discuss the insurgency in Mozambique.
May 27 to 28: French President Emmanuel Macron travels to Kigali, where he will meet Rwandan President Paul Kagame.
May 28 to 29: Macron visits South Africa, where he will meet President Cyril Ramaphosa.
What We’re Watching
Another coup in Mali. Army officers detained the heads of Mali’s already tottering transitional government on Monday in the country’s third coup in less than a decade.
Mali’s President Bah Ndaw and Prime Minister Moctar Ouane were taken to a military camp outside the capital, Bamako, on Monday by soldiers who were unhappy with the cabinet reshuffle. Hours earlier, the reshuffle saw the replacement of former defense and security ministers who supported the junta in September 2020.
The Economic Community of West African States called for the two transitional leaders’ immediate release.
Stumbling block in Somalia. Former Ghanaian President John Dramani Mahama has stepped down as the African Union’s special envoy to Somalia before he could even visit Mogadishu. Mahama cited the lack of support for his position from Somalia’s federal government.
On May 8, the African Union announced Mahama would serve as its high representative to Somalia to help broker a settlement over the electoral crisis. Reports quickly surfaced that Somalia rejected Mahama over his “extensive links” to Kenya. The two East African nations have a fraught diplomatic relationship, and only recently restored relations after Somalia criticized Kenya for hosting leaders of the self-declared independent state of Somaliland.
Namibia and Germany strike tentative reparations deal. After years of negotiations, Germany and Namibia are closer to announcing an agreement for redress of the Nama and Herero genocide committed by German colonial troops from 1904 to 1908.
Namibia’s special envoy to Germany, Zedekia Ngavirue, said Germany refused to pay compensation to the individual families affected by the genocide. Instead, reparations would focus on “reconciliation and reconstruction,” Ngavirue told the Namibian. The details of the plan are expected to be presented in the Namibian parliament later this week.
Africa’s critically ill COVID-19 patients are more vulnerable. Africa may have fewer COVID-19 deaths than other regions, but according to a study published in the Lancet, those admitted to critical care facilities were 40 percent more likely to die.
Researchers at the University of Cape Town studied the hospital admission data of more than 3,000 patients from 10 different countries, specifically Egypt, Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Libya, Malawi, Mozambique, Niger, Nigeria, and South Africa between May and December 2020.
The results pointed to a lack of resources as one of the key factors, including access to oxygen and ventilators. The data also suggests the prevalence of HIV/AIDS was a contributing factor to COVID-19 mortality rates—a warning issued in Africa early on in the pandemic.
Chart of the Week
Only a fraction of Africans are vaccinated against COVID-19. Of the 1.68 billion COVID-19 vaccine doses administered around the world to 176 countries, Africa has only administered 24.2 million doses. The World Health Organization said only about 2 percent of Africans have been vaccinated since the start of the pandemic.
This Week in Culture
A Rembrandt fake that fooled dealers for decades. For more than 40 years, a small oil painting has been part of the University of Pretoria’s art collection. Attributed to the Dutch master Rembrandt van Rijn, “Portrait of an Old Man” depicts a grey bearded man in profile wearing a heavy cloak and fur hat.
To the naked eye, the painting bears all the characteristics of the Dutch Golden Age—an atmospheric portrait that plays with light and an apparent invoice from an auction in the Dutch master’s handwriting. Donated by a Dutch businessman in 1976 to the University of Pretoria, the painting had been owned by 14 different buyers and described as “surely authentic” in a volume of Dutch paintings of the 17th century.
Scientists at the University of Pretoria Museums’ Tangible Heritage Conservation unit wanted to establish the exact provenance of the painting, but the closer they looked, the more unsettling evidence they found. The puzzle compelled the university to build its own authentication expertise in South Africa, which unearthed a paint chemical invented after Rembrandt’s death.
The university may have lost what it thought was a valuable masterpiece, but it has developed authentication technology that means art and artifacts no longer need to be shipped to Europe for authentication.
Misuse and missed opportunities in Malawi. One of the world’s poorest nations is hemorrhaging billions of dollars to corruption, Lilongwe-based journalist Madalitso Wills Kateta writes in Foreign Policy. The personal gains of Malawi’s political inner circle have been prioritized over the desperate need for development in rural Malawi, he argues.
Mauritius is losing its luster. Once hailed as a model of good governance in Africa, accusations of money laundering and an increasingly unaccountable ruling party have dimmed Mauritius’s aims to be the Singapore of Africa. Media and democracy scholar Roukaya Kasenally tracks the decline of the island nation to the 2019 election in African Arguments.
Lynsey Chutel is the writer of Foreign Policy’s weekly Africa Brief. She is a journalist based in Johannesburg. Twitter: @lynseychutel
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