Megatrends Afrika (MTA): Mr Sall, do you think the German view of Africa has changed over the five years you have been here, and how do you perceive the German debate on Africa in general?
H.E. Cheikh Tidiane Sall (CTS): We can indeed speak of a certain evolution over the last ten years. I think this first evolution became visible under Angela Merkel, especially with the launch of the G20 Compact with Africa (CwA) in 2017. Before that, Africa was not really high on the agenda of the German government, at least not at the level of the Federal Chancellery.
So there has been a positive development on the part of the German government, which has also been reflected in high-level visits to certain African countries. As far as Senegal is concerned, I can mention the visit of President Frank-Walter Steinmeier in February 2022. Three months later, we welcomed Federal Chancellor Olaf Scholz, not forgetting the visit of his predecessor Angela Merkel in August 2018. For me, this is a very good indicator of Germany's growing interest in Africa.
MTA: Do you feel the same way about public debate or the media?
CTS: Unfortunately, we're seeing a very slow evolution. Up to now, the public debate in Germany has been dominated by clichés: Africa is the continent of problems, immigration, war, hunger and so on. I'd like to see a positive change in German opinion and media, one that reflects the reality of African countries. Africa is fifty-four countries. It's a very, very big continent. There are different developments and situations from one country to another.
I've noticed that the German public is hardly aware of what has happened economically in recent years. For example, these past years, the countries with the highest growth rates in the world were in Africa. Senegal has recorded an average growth rate of more than 5% since 2014 – whereas here in Europe, and even in Germany, we see rates that are not far from zero, or even negative. I take the example of Senegal, but there are other countries that have introduced reforms and are experiencing economic growth, even if they are still in the category of a developing country. Public opinion regarding the African continent still needs to change.
One way of doing this is to increase the number of high-level official visits. The German Chancellor's visit to Senegal attracted a lot of attention from the public and especially from the business community. These visits will enable us to make many more contacts, to develop cultural exchanges, economic exchanges in the private sector and between governments. I think there is a lot of work to be done on both sides so that public opinion can really let go of preconceived notions from twenty or thirty years ago. Sometimes it's easier for the public to cling to stereotypes than to try to understand what's really going on in our countries. And the media has a central role to play in changing attitudes and understanding the very positive dynamics at work on the African continent.
MTA: Looking at West Africa, which developments are not sufficiently taken into account in Germany and Europe? What should Germany pay more attention to?
CTS: In West Africa today, we have a young generation that is quite well educated and, above all, well informed. In our democracies, the role of public opinion means that even our own governments can no longer behave as they did in the past, because we have a very strong civil society and committed young people. This is also the case in Senegal. I even have the impression that our young people are more politicised than young people in Germany, and they are extremely demanding. Our governments can no longer ignore this. We have a very young population: 75% are under 35. That's why the decision-making process in our countries has changed. When we talk about migration, for example, we have to be much more careful because public opinion is watching every action.
Another example: shortly after the invasion of Ukraine, some Senegalese made it clear that "this is not our war", that the government should not get involved, that it should remain neutral. We are a democracy, a democracy of opinion. Our presidents are elected every five years and they take opinion into account. Just like the leaders here in Germany.
MTA: A thorny issue between Europe and Africa is migration policy: Europe's desire to tighten controls, prevent illegal migration and send back citizens from countries like Senegal. What proposals and solutions do you think would help to overcome these differences?
CTS: The debate on migration in Europe needs to be more rational. I think there is too much passion in the debate. In 2021, the Institut Montaigne published an interesting study which concluded that only a very small minority of African migrants arrive in Europe. Most African migrants therefore remain on the continent. Many Senegalese go to Gabon, Gambia and the Ivory Coast, while others try to reach the United States of America or certain Gulf countries. All in all, it's really a tiny minority who come to Europe. I think there is a lot of work to be done at the level of European public opinion to deconstruct this idea that Africans are going to invade you. As for those who stay, we must give them the chance to succeed at home, which we have launched a Senegalese-German project called "Réussir au Sénégal" ["Succeeding in Senegal"]. This project is all the more important because we know that not everyone can succeed in Europe.
The other thing we have to think about is the conditions for regularisation in Germany. Some people have to wait five or ten years to be regularised, even if they speak the language well and are trained in professions where there is a shortage of labour. President Macky Sall has been very clear on this point: those who really cannot be regularised in Germany will be taken back here without any problem. But this migration policy must have two pillars: regularisation of those who meet the criteria and dignified return of those who want or need to return to Senegal.
MTA: Another current issue is energy, which is a priority sector for cooperation between Germany and Senegal. For about ten years now, German-Senegalese cooperation has been aimed at supporting the transition to renewable energies. More recently, the German government has expressed interest in importing Senegalese gas, which is due to come on stream in 2024. How does this fit in with your own energy supply objectives?
CTS: There's no contradiction with our objectives. We still have heavy fuel oil power plants, which are much more polluting. The objective of the Senegalese government is to replace these plants, hence our gas-to-power strategy. Senegal has already invested heavily in renewable energy, with photovoltaic and wind farms, but this will not be enough as part of our industrialisation policy. In our drive to create a competitive industry, access to electricity and affordable prices remain key challenges. Incidentally, I see that the same energy price debate is now taking place in Germany: Should industry and businesses benefit from a specific advantageous price? Our government believes that to be competitive, electricity must be available at all times and at an affordable price.
We will increase the share of renewable energy in our energy mix from 31% to 40% by 2030. This is part of the Just Energy Transition Partnership (JETP) that Senegal signed with its G7 partners in June 2023. Funding has been pledged by donors. At the same time, Senegal does not want to add to its debt. That's why we prefer grants and concessional loans. The idea is that our countries should not have to increase debt to comply with the Paris climate agreement.
This raises the question of how to finance the energy transition. In fact, the risk of investing in Africa is exaggerated by the rating agencies, which puts a strain on the possibilities of European financing, compared to financing from certain Asian countries that comes at concessional rates and with longer repayment periods. As a result, electricity produced by hydropower plants financed by European funds could be more expensive than that energy produced by different plants financed by other countries. African governments and the German government must therefore work to modify these rules. Otherwise, Western financing will not be competitive.
MTA: Which brings us to the last question: what do you expect from Germany's future policy in the region? How should it develop if Germany wants to be a strong and, above all, credible partner?
CTS: Germany has a very good reputation for the quality of its products. Germans are seen as rigorous and serious. Germany must make good use of this asset and be a driving force behind Europe's Africa policy.
President Macky Sall often says: "We want trade, not aid". He talks about partnership. We can all be winners. It's possible. In a few years, Africa will be the biggest market in the world. Its middle class is growing. In my opinion, German partners should not wait any longer, but get on this train, which is now leaving, and grab a seat while there is still time. It's about cooperation, working together, as you say: "auf Augenhöhe" ["at eye level"]. I often tease my German friends that they have a habit of saying "Das ist so" ["That's the way it is"], which locks them into options that can prevent compromise. I say "Nein, das ist nicht so" ["No, it's not like that"], because you don't know exactly what's going on in our countries. It's about listening, listening to each other and respecting each other.
Sure, there are problems, but West Africa is not just a few countries plagued by unconstitutional changes or hit by terrorism. And who would have thought that there would be another war in Europe in 2022? Nobody! No country is immune. We should support democratic countries and regimes in our own countries, because democracies are threatened everywhere, even here in Germany. Last year there was an attack on the Bundestag. On 6 January 2021 we saw what happened in the American Congress. Countries like Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger must be supported, otherwise there is a risk that anti-democratic forces will triumph. Overall, Germany is on the right track, but we need to move faster. To this end, the German authorities can increase the number of meetings, invite African leaders to make official visits to Germany and visit our countries to better understand the realities on the ground. Parliamentarians must also make a much greater effort to reach out to decision-makers and ambassadors based in Berlin and, above all, to listen to them. Africa has a lot of respect for Germany, but this must be preserved.
H.E. Cheikh Tidiane Sall is the Ambassador of Senegal to Germany. He took up his duties on 28 August 2018.
This interview was conducted on September 8th, 2023. Responsibility for the content, opinions expressed and sources used in the articles and interviews lies with the respective authors.
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