There was no direct mention of China (and Russia) throughout the two-day European Union-Africa Summit in Brussels, Belgium, February 17 and 18th but the country currently wielding the biggest strategic and diplomatic clout on the African Continent was on the mind of everyone.
China (to some degree, Russia) has, through their Belt and Road Initiative, BRI, found a route to African hearts by helping to close infrastructure gaps in many countries: roads, bridges, rail, power, water and even agricultural projects. China is today the biggest name in African infrastructure. This was not so a decade ago. In 2013, Europe commandeered 37 per cent of major African infrastructure projects, while China was in charge of 12 per cent. By 2020, China had gone up to 31 per cent and Europe left with only 12 per cent.
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To recover lost space, Europe now plans a 300 billion Euro word-wide investment fund with a regional plan for Africa taking 150 billion Euros, which is exactly half of what is being spent by the combination of Public and Private sectors. Called the “Global Gateway Project,” this is Europe’s answer to the BRI, to provide alternative loans from China.
Against this background, the 6th EU-Africa took off with a focus on investment, security, health and issues of migration.
The structure of the summit, unlike the ones in the past was not formatted as a plenary. After the opening ceremonies and “Family Photographs,” leaders went into focused deliberations at thematic roundtables-seven of them- with each leader, African or European- expected to make the choice of only two meetings to sit in. Each roundtable was co-chaired by one (or two) African leader(s) and one (or two) European Leader(s).
For President Muhammadu Buhari, naturally the first choice to make was to co-chair the panel on Peace, Security and Governance. These are some of the existential challenges facing Nigeria.
The second roundtable he chose was on health issues and vaccine production.
Ahead of this summit in Brussels, the World Health Organisation (WHO) had selected four countries in which to facilitate vaccine production on the continent. The selected countries -obviously emerging from the weighted influence of their European ex-Colonial masters- were Kenya, Rwanda, South Africa and Senegal.
The Buhari administration was convinced that these were unfair choices. Like many other countries on the continent, Nigeria had suffered from Vaccine nationalism over the peak periods of the Covid-19 Pandemic. Vaccines were not available for sale to us and when it came to donations, either that we were given too little, too late or in some cases about – to-expire vaccines which had to be destroyed shortly after they had hit our shores.
In addition to this, Nigeria is Africa’s biggest economy. We have the largest bank of professional and skilled men and women. In terms of population size, one out of every five Africans is a Nigerian.
Before the commencement of the summit, at which formal pronouncement by WHO was expected on the choice of these countries, Nigeria’s Minister of Health, Dr Osagie Ehanire had taken Nigeria’s protest against its exclusion to all those who mattered and were helped in the fact that we had our citizens in key places where it mattered in multi-lateral organisations such as the United Nations with Amina Mohammed, the Deputy-Secretary General and the World Trade Organisation, WTO, where Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala holds sway.
If the account is correct, the WTO Director-General is said to have told WHO that her organisation would have nothing to do with the Africa vaccine platforms if Nigeria, the most populous country was not equally listed.
The President’s choice of this roundtable was against his wish to make the last pitch and push in the build-up to the selection of the countries for the production of the vaccines. And Nigeria won. Six countries- Nigeria, Egypt, Kenya, Senegal, South Africa, and Tunisia were in the end, chosen.
In Brussels at this summit, the first ever meeting of the Africa Union “Group of Four (G4)” was held at its side-lines. The group is made up of Nigeria, South Africa, Ethiopia, Algeria (and Senegal and one other co-opted) and is considered as Africa’s equivalent of the G8 (now G7) in global affairs with a mandate to resolve various issues confronting the African continent.
The G4 leaders used the opportunity to discuss crisis areas in the continent with a view to finding practical and effective solutions.
This, hopefully, is a very influential group and a big one for Nigeria as a platform for bringing African countries together, coordinating actions and reaction for the continent in a proactive manner, and looking at how decisions could be better implemented.
While in Brussels, President Buhari penned on opinion article in the widely-read, influential magazine, Politico in which he riled against unfair trade relationship between Europe and Africa.
For instance, the President noted that Economic Partnership Agreements give Europe deeper access to African markets. At the lower end of the value chain, these supposed free trade deals ensure agricultural subsidies deliver another blow for African farmers. Artificially depreciated produce flood the markets, undermining their domestic competitors.
“At higher end of the valve chain, premature trade liberalisation demanded by EPAs puts manufacturers-such as those in textiles or agro-processing out of business. In other cases industries will not simply materialise because there is no incentive to enter the market. Consequently, the jobs required to satisfy the millions of young Africans joining the employment market every year are not created.”
In a major speech addressing his concern for the return of coups in Africa, President Buhari called for weighty sanctions for unconstitutional leadership changes.
In noting that the African Union has often responded to these challenges, isolating such regimes and imposing sanction, the president made an appeal to the EU and the rest of the World to go beyond the condemnation of coups, to impose weighty sanctions on countries that engage in unconstitutional change of governments, as well as manipulation of constitutions in favour of term limits.
Another important message from the president is that while Nigeria in particular is defending democratic principles and institutions within the framework of ECOWAS and the AU; ensuring security in the sub-region and containing the spread of terrorist organisations, the efforts required and resources needed are weighty and the time has come for EU and other global partners to get more involved.
The meeting in Belgium was expected to be a show of friendship, camaraderie and equality between the two continents and with what we have seen from its outcomes, EU-Africa Summit will be gaining gravitas.
Garba Shehu is Senior Special Assistant to the President (Media and Publicity)