The big advantage China has over Japan when it comes to Africa is its lack of democracy. That struck home while observing Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s Africa tour over the past week – the first by a Japanese prime minister in nearly a decade.
After touching down in Oman last Thursday, Abe then visited Cote d’Ivoire, Mozambique and Ethiopia. He said in his keynote Africa policy speech at the African Union (AU) headquarters in Addis Ababa on Tuesday, that ‘Africa has now become the continent that carries the hopes of the world through the latent potential of its resources and its dynamic economic growth.’
Comparisons have inevitably been drawn with China which has been all over the continent for at least a decade and a half, leading the international scramble for resources.China is now Africa’s top trading partner, snaring about 13.5 % of the continent’s commerce, with Japan lagging far behind with only 2.7 % or so.
Abe has become more assertive and competitive with China closer to home, most notably in the increasingly belligerent stand-off over their competing claims to the Senkaku-Diaoyu islands.And it would be hard not to see his Africa safari as part of his wider purpose of re-asserting Japan on the international stage, after its long slumber in the economic doldrums.
Japanese officials, however, played down the comparison with China, suggesting that Japan’s interest in Africa is not so much natural resources, as developing human resources and business skills.But they could not help acknowledging that Abe’s visit to Mozambique, for example, was mostly about helping Japanese companies, which are already quite present, get more of the booming gas and coal business.
It is not as if Japan has just discovered the African continent. It did so formally as early as 1993 when it launched its Tokyo International Conference on African Development (TICAD) process of formally consulting African leaders about their development needs. There have been five TICAD summits since then and scores of African leaders have visited Japan for them.
Yet Abe was the first Japanese prime minister to visit the continent since Junichiro Koizumi went to Ghana and Ethiopia in 2006.The reason, essentially, officials admit, is the ephemeral character of Japanese prime ministers. Since TICAD was launched in 1993, there have been 14 prime ministers (counting Abe twice, since he was first in office in 2006-2007).So the average lifespan of a prime minister in that period was 18 months. Most have been too preoccupied with survival to concern themselves with Africa. Koizumi managed an unusual five years in office so he had time to visit Africa.
Abe has barely clocked up one year in office but he is riding high in the polls because of his popular stimulatory ‘Abenomics’ and his hawkish assertiveness with Pacific neighbours over disputed islands. So he felt confident enough at home to take a week off in Africa.During the same span of those 14 Japanese prime ministers there have been just three Chinese presidents, giving each of them plenty of time and of course absolute political certainty, to travel in Africa and to consolidate relations.
Abe tried to cover as many bases as possible during his first Africa adventure; the Cote d’Ivoire stop served also as a gateway to West Africa and Francophone Africa, Mozambique represented Southern Africa and Lusophone Africa and Ethiopia East Africa as well as the AU of course.
Despite the coyness of officials about comparisons with China, Abe revealed a rare candour about the visit in Maputo after he had announced that Japan would lend Mozambique 70 billion yen (about R7 billion) over five years.‘(Our assistance) is aimed at securing access to the vast mineral resources Mozambique boasts, namely, gas and cola, as well agricultural products,’ Abe was quoted as telling reporters after meeting President Armando Guebuza. As African military expert Helmoed Romer Heitman remarked, ‘finally a foreign leader being honest about why they provide aid to Africa!’
One of Abe’s missions was also frankly to ask African leaders ‘to improve the business environment and ensure the safety of Japanese companies,’ one official said, explaining that this objective had been inspired mainly by the attack by al-Qaeda-linked terrorists on an Algerian oil refinery last year in which about 12 Japanese nationals were killed.And so peace and security were an important focus of the trip.
In Addis he also pledged US$320 million to relieve the effects of conflict and natural disasters, including US$3 million for peacekeeping in the Central African Republic and US$25 million for South Sudan – where Japan has about 400 of its ‘Self Defence Forces’ in the UN peacekeeping mission.
Abe’s emphasis on developing African business skills was certainly something that set Japan apart from China, with its heavy emphasis on the role of the state.And so he launched several initiatives to train young Africans in business skills – including internships in Japanese corporations.For Japan, companies have always been more than just vehicles for commerce as Abe made clear in his AU speech when he asked, ‘What can Japan do as a contribution only Japan can provide, in order for Africa to realize its brilliant future? I recall that at TICAD V, one of the African leaders said to me, “Only the Japanese companies teach us the morals of what it means to work and what the joy of labor is.”’
And so he elaborated the concept of kaizen as a central managerial philosophy of Japanese corporations which entails nurturing the ingenuity and creativity of each individual in the company. According to Abe that kaizen culture has a ripple effect, spreading from the company to society as a whole and eventually creating ‘positive soil for democracy.’
Abe claimed that Japanese corporations had already helped transform and stabilise Southeast Asia, a major field of Japanese investment, in this way. ‘There is no doubt in my mind that the next ones to experience this, with Japanesecompanies as the catalyst, will be the countries and the people of Africa.’How this ambitious, yet rather abstract and Zen-like discourse went down in Addis Ababa is hard to say. His audience comprising mainly African government officials were probably mainly totting up the US$s in aid pledges instead.
Yet if only kaizen culture would flourish on the continent!But perhaps even more beneficial for Africa would be if the great Japanese tradition of turfing out leaders after an average of 18 months in office took root here.
Peter Fabricius, Foreign Editor, Independent Newspapers, South Africa