There was no direct mention of China (and Russia) throughout the two-day European Union-Africa summit in Brussels, Belgium, on February 17-18, but the country currently exercising the most great strategic and diplomatic weight on the African continent was in the minds of all people.
China (to some extent, Russia) has, through its Belt and Road Initiative, BRI, found a path to African hearts by helping to fill infrastructure gaps in many countries: roads, bridges, railways, electricity, water and even agricultural projects. China is the biggest name in African infrastructure today. This was not the case ten years ago. In 2013, Europe commandeered 37% of major African infrastructure projects, while China managed 12%. By 2020, China had risen to 31% and Europe to just 12%.
To recover lost space, Europe is now planning a global investment fund of 300 billion euros with a regional plan for Africa of 150 billion euros, exactly half of what is spent by the combination of public and private sectors. Called the “Global Gateway Project”, it is Europe’s answer to the BRI, to provide alternative loans from China.
In this context, the 6th EU-Africa started with a focus on investment, security, health and migration issues.
The structure of the summit, unlike those of the past, was not formatted in plenary. After opening ceremonies and “family photos”, leaders engaged in focused deliberations at thematic roundtables – seven of them – with each leader, African or European, having to choose just two meetings to sit in . Each round table was co-chaired by one (or two) African leader(s) and one (or two) European leader(s).
For President Muhammadu Buhari, the first choice to make was naturally to co-chair the panel on peace, security and governance. These are some of the existential challenges facing Nigeria.
The second panel he chose was on health issues and vaccine production.
Ahead of this summit in Brussels, the World Health Organization (WHO) had selected four countries in which to facilitate the production of vaccines on the continent. The countries selected – evidently 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 suffered from vaccine nationalism during peak times of the Covid-19 pandemic. Vaccines were not available for sale to us and as far as donations go, either we were given too few, too late or in some cases about to expire vaccines that had to be destroyed shortly after arriving on our shores.
On top of that, Nigeria is the largest economy in Africa. We have the largest bank of professional and qualified men and women. In terms of population size, one in five Africans is a Nigerian.
Before the start of the summit, during which an official statement from the WHO was expected on the choice of these countries, the Nigerian Minister of Health, Dr Osagie Ehanire, had conveyed Nigeria’s protest against its exclusion to all those who mattered and were helped by the fact that we had our citizens in key places where it mattered in multilateral organizations such as the United Nations with Amina Mohammed, the Deputy Secretary General and the World Trade Organization, WTO, where Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala reigns supreme.
If the account is correct, the WTO director-general reportedly told the WHO that her organization would have nothing to do with African vaccine platforms if Nigeria, the most populous country, was not also listed.
The choice of the president of this round table went against his wish to make the last pitch and to push in the rise in power until the selection of countries for the production of vaccines. And Nigeria won. Six countries – Nigeria, Egypt, Kenya, Senegal, South Africa and Tunisia were finally chosen.
In Brussels, during this summit, the very first meeting of the “Group of Four (G4)” of the African Union was held on the sidelines. The group is made up of Nigeria, South Africa, Ethiopia, Algeria (and Senegal and one other co-opted) and is considered the African equivalent of the G8 (now G7) in global affairs with a mandate to address various issues facing African countries. continent.
G4 leaders took the opportunity to discuss crisis areas on the continent with a view to finding practical and effective solutions.
This is hopefully a very influential and important group for Nigeria as a platform to bring African countries together, coordinate action and response for the continent proactively and consider how decisions might be better implemented.
While in Brussels, President Buhari wrote an opinion piece in the influential and widely read magazine, Politico, in which he railed against unfair trade relations between Europe and Africa.
For example, the President noted that Economic Partnership Agreements give Europe greater access to African markets. At the bottom of the value chain, these so-called free trade agreements ensure that agricultural subsidies deal another blow to African farmers. Artificially depreciated products flood the markets, weakening their national competitors.
“At the top end of the floodgates, the premature trade liberalization demanded by the EPAs is putting manufacturers, such as those in textiles or agribusiness, out of business. In other cases, industries will not materialize simply because there is no incentive to enter the market. Consequently, the jobs needed to satisfy the millions of young Africans who enter the labor market each year are not being created.
In a major speech expressing concern over the return of coups in Africa, President Buhari called for heavy penalties for unconstitutional leadership changes.
Noting that the African Union has often responded to these challenges, isolating such regimes and imposing sanctions, the President appealed to the EU and the rest of the world to go beyond condemning the coups, to impose heavy penalties on countries that engage in unconstitutional changes of government, as well as manipulation of constitutions in favor of term limits.
Another important message from the President is that if Nigeria in particular upholds democratic principles and institutions within the framework of ECOWAS and the AU; ensuring security in the sub-region and containing the spread of terrorist organizations, the efforts required and the resources required are heavy and the time has come for the EU and other global partners to become more involved.
The meeting in Belgium was to be a demonstration of friendship, camaraderie and equality between the two continents and with what we have seen of its results, the EU-Africa Summit will gain in gravity.
Garba Shehou is Senior Special Assistant to the President (Media and Publicity)