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Tokyo promises $30bn to Africa a week after Beijing's debt relief offer

At their continental summit in Tunis, Japanese diplomats stepped up the financial and rhetorical rivalry with China

Japan's pledge to direct US$30 billion to Africa in aid, loans and investments over the next three years is part of its plan to boost flows to the continent by 40%, its officials said in Tunisia. The $30bn promise was made by Prime Minister Fumio Kishida at the opening of the Tokyo International Conference on African Development (TICAD) on 27 August as part of a wider bid to win over Africa to the western alliance.

Arguing for closer cooperation between Africa and the 'rules-based international order', Kishisda said his country would be doing more to mitigate the economic chaos triggered by Moscow's invasion of Ukraine. It would send $100 million of grain to Tunisia, the hosts of the TICAD meeting, as part of a wider plan to step up emergency grain exports to Africa.

Kishida, who has strongly backed the west's stance against Moscow, argued the Ukraine crisis had security as well as ecnomic implications for Africa: 'If we permit unilateral changes of the status quo by force, the impact will extend not only through Africa, but all the world.'

He was speaking by video-conference because he went into quarantine in Tokyo after contracting Covid-19. In his place, Japan's delegation was led to the summit, which attracted about 5,000 participants, was led by Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi.

Tokyo's big promises in Tunis will heat up the great power rivalry in the region but Japan's trade with Africa remains a fraction of China's. But the TICAD summit marks another episode in this geopolitical rivalry (AC Vol 63 No 16, Washington in summit race with Moscow and Dispatches 26/7/22, President Macron and Foreign Minister Lavrov vie for influence in pan-African tours this week).

Japan, like Britain, is one of the second division international players in Africa, behind China, the European Union and the United States. Tokyo's offers to Africa, like those of the EU, have been based on public- and private-sector investment. Financing programmes to promote renewable energy, agricultural and pharmaceutical production were among the main priorities this year.

Former premier Shinzo Abe, who was assassinated at an election campaign event in July, had presided over an increase in economic and diplomatic influence in Africa. At the last edition of TICAD, Abe warned African states against being burdened with 'excessive' debt from China.

More than 80 projects with a value of $2.7bn are expected to be unveiled at the summit, according to Hedi Abbes, head of the Tunisian-Japanese chamber of commerce.

Kishida's $30bn pledge follows China's announcement at its annual Africa summit in mid-August that it would write off 23 loans to African states and redirect $10bn of its IMF Special Drawing Rights to Africa (AC Vol 63 No 17, Beijing turns around on debt).

After the TICAD opened a regional row threatened to sideline it when Morocco announced would not attend because Tunisia had invited Brahim Ghali, the leader of the Polisario Front which has been fighting for the independence of Western Sahara from Rabat for four decades.

Both Morocco and the Polisario's Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) are members of the African Union. But the UN which has been trying to organise a referendum on the future of Western Sahara doesn't recognize any country's jurisdiction over the territory.

After a lengthy pause, Japan's delegation reiterated that it does not recognise the independence of Western Sahara as the row turned into another test of Morocco's muscle on the Western Sahara issue. Rabat withdrew its ambassador from Tunis to add to the protest.

Umaro Sissoco Embaló, President of Guinea Bissau and the current chair of the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas), joined the Moroccan walkout while Liberia's delegation demanded the suspension of TICAD's conference.

Rabat' long-standing position is that it refuses to attend international events which have also invited officials from Polisario (AC Vol 58 No 20, Game of names).

Tunisia, which has pulled out its ambassador from Rabat, insists the invitation was issued by the African Union to the SADR, adding that it 'maintains its complete neutrality on the question of the Sahara in respect of international legitimacy' (AC Vol 58 No 4, Don't read the fine print). Given the sensitivity of the matter, it seems certain that  decision to invite the Polisario's Ghali was made by Tunisia's authoritarian President Kaïs Saïed. But why he chose to do it remains obscure for now.

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