An old rebel in search of a new cause

subscriber | 28 May, 2013

After a ten years or so sabbatical Sweden is trying to catch up on its old time aid- and liberation struggle based friendships in Africa. 

Five Swedish ministers were dispatched to the World Economic Forum’s
Africa summit in Cape Town earlier in May with the explicit task to get old relations back on track. The center-right government led by PM Fredrik Reinfeldt was quick to let go and re-arrange its Africa relations, not the slightest keen to tag along with old Social Democratic liberation struggle comrades, when it came to power in 2006. In hindsight, it let those contacts go too quickly, with too much instinctive reprehention of past relations.

In an op-ed in the Sweden's prime national newspaper, Dagens Nyheter, the five minister's expressed a desire to re-engage and build on Sweden's old relations across the continent.

The Government ministers laid out their arguably new, upbeat view on Africa and expressed a desire to be part of a new wave of private investments in Africa, now out-doing development financing on the continent by 4 to 1.

To this end, the individual ministers, besides sitting down with South Africa’s (lame duck) Deputy President Khalema Motlante in South Africa, also visited Nigeria (led by Develoment Cooperation minister Gunilla Carlsson), Angola (Trade minister Ewa Björling) , Zimbabwe (Democracy minister Birgitta Ohlsson) and Ethiopia (Finance minister Anders Borg ).

Foreign minister Bildt, still not as keen on emerging market promotion as he is on his own pet projects, cancelled his planned trip to Ghana to instead prepare for himself for hosting the Arctic Council.

The Swedish governments u-turn in Africa is if not predictable definitely understandable. Africa is back in fashion as never before.

The continent's massive growth, driven by commodities and fuelled by the IT information-revolution, a growing aspiring middle-class, fewer dictators and more transparency has been reported widely. The changing narrative by The Economist from its notorious "The Dark continent” heading in 1998 to the ”Africa Rising" of 2012, and with numerous investment bank- and media reports pumping out the same message, it was inevitable for Sweden's top politicians not to take stock and act. Albeit if a slightly embarressing, but not really much noticed,  turn around was needed.

What matter's more is to be seen as you are on top of things and perhaps that you are not deemed a fool. Right now its very cool to believe that Africa has turned corner and can be trusted with real money. For sure Western pension funds can't just stay put if China's and India's elites are pumping zillions into Africa in what is percieved to be a very high return environment.

The perception, by politicians, the media industry and investment analysts, is that the Africa train is departing and you must decide if you want to be part of Africa becoming a future engine for global growth.  Or else running the risk of loosing out.

The subtext is not only about money. China and India are making serious inroads, the West is loosing out on power and influence which will translate into economic losses further down the line.

So five Swedish ministers goes to Africa, eats humble pie, are trying to cover up years of neglect and patch up old relations, including to patch up with rag-to-riches liberation old-timers.

Its not that Sweden had locked up in Africa and gone home. Swedish aid to Africa has actually increased in recent years. Sweden is one of the top ten global donor's disbursing USD 1.2 billion in 2012 including humanitarian- and civil society aid.

But Swedish trade, like investments, has dropped. Most dramatically in 2012 where export was down by 22 percent to USD 5.5 billion. Swedish investments lag way behind, and this counts among Scandinavian's, Norway's investments in Africa by factor three - sure  Norway's investments are linked to Norwegian oil production in Africa but that is a bad excuse for the Sweden which has more global corporations per capita than any other country.

The overall picture is far from pretty. Sweden's once considerable influence in Africa is vaning. To a large part due to a disinterested Government that - rightly or wrongly - had other things to do.

Inside the system sources say that Anders Borg, the Minister of Finance, was the one who pushed the alarm button. He made his first ever visit to Africa only last year – Tanzania – and was very exited.  And seem to have seen the light.

Borg's enthusiasm for Africa, some would say he wants to position himself internationally in case the Government looses next years election,  may have helped to tip the balance inside the Government. Foreign minister Carl Bildt, far from enthusiastic in keeping up appearances in Africa, needed to be pushed along. He had stated in his own blog as late as 18 months ago that the Minister of Development, Gunilla Carlsson, effectively was his stand-in in Africa.

In other the Foreign Minister made it clear that Africa was not important enough for Sweden, creating an uphill struggle for other government members and diplomats to get things done on the continent.

The Foreign Minister, with a mandate from the Prime Minister to run Sweden’s Foreign Policy more or less singlehandedly, had good personal reasons to stay away from Africa too. He has been – and continutes to be – singled out by media and activists for allegedly  having turned a blind eye to human rights in a oil exploration project in Sudan during his time as a chairman and shareholder in publicly listed Lundin Oil. Bildt resigned from the company immediately before he took up the job as Foreign Minister. Simply better for Bildt to stay away from Africa instead of having suspicions lingering that he is helping his old corporate pals.

Swedish Africa policy has suffered greatly from this ambivalence and lack of strategic, overall leadership - that was not an oversight but a strategic choice.

It has affected Swedish business too on a continent where politics and business goes much more hand in hand than people at home realise.

Anyway, there seem to be some kind of re-think, the minsters went to Africa, trotted their stuff and got their hands dirty (see http://www.government.se/sb/d/17191/a/216487 and a number of other links).

Perhaps the most amusing exchange on record from the trip was a conversation set up by Swedish tabloid Expressen between finance minister Borg and celebrated Swedish crime writer Henning Mankell - who's lived in Mozambique's capital Maputo on and off for 20 plus years.

"Where have you been the past 15 years" Mankell asked.

Immediately after the ministerial African Safari the Foreign Office invited a cross section of the Swedish business community with interests in Africa to brief them.

What comes out of it is still up in the air. A lot more can be done to support and promote trade and investment with Africa. How far Finance Minister Borg will go with his suggestion that Swedish State Pension funds – the so called AP-funds – remains to be seen.

If Swedish pension fund managers are following minister Borg's lead, they would probably begin cautiously and invest in Swedish subsidiaries listed in Africa - as Swedish mutual fund managers did in the end of the Nineties.

The five minister's joint trip to Africa, for sure, represents a new chapter in Swedish-Africa relations. The Government is finding its feet in Africa, they may even have found a cause. A very different, and not as heroic a cause as the one masterminded by murdered Prime Minister Olof Palme, but, in its own way, a liberation of sorts.

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