Thursday, 29 May 2008

Big in Japan

Pan Pacifico Conference Centre

Kunichiwa Confidentialers,

The strains of Senegal's star musician Youssou N'dour singing 'Seven Seconds' wafted through the conference centre here yesterday as Japan's grand African jamboree opened. Fellow musician and development campaigner, Ireland's Bono Kenya's environmental campaigner and Nobel Laureate Wangari Maathai are also in town to lend more celebrity pzazz to what threatened to be another underwhelming summit on Africa. All three are holding forth about what needs to be done in Africa on the second day of the summit.

Certainly the meeting – TICAD IV or Tokyo International Conference on African Development – qualifies as grand. That's because with 40 African heads of state or government flying in to Japan, it's the biggest African summit held outside the continent; it's also the biggest gathering of foreign leaders held in Japan since the funeral Emperor Hirohito in 1989.

For all that Yokohama's meeting lacks the buzz of China's recent African summits – in Beijing in 2006 and Shanghai in 2007. That may be because Japan has been doing it for longer. The first TICAD was in 1993 when just five African leaders attended, that increased to 13 at the second meeting in 1998, and then 23 at the last summit in 2003.

Japan's then prime minister, Junichiro Koizumi, met all the visiting leaders. His successor, Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda is following suit this time and that means the 71-year-old President will spend at least 15 hours in meetings with African leaders this week, according to officials from Tokyo's Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

The port city of Yokohama, one of Japan's most outward looking cities, is decked out in African flags. Yokohama's enthusiasts are discussing African issues, showing African films and organising exhibitions of African painting and photographs. Alongside the conference centre, there is an African trade fair purveying artworks, coffee, cocoa, jewellery, cloth and African films and compact discs. Some Japanese students take a passionate interest in Africa. On Tuesday night, some of them formed an extremely loud drum orchestra to play at a lavish reception hosted by the Mayor of Yokohama, Hiroshi Nakada, to welcome the African visitors.

How passionate the Prime Minister Fukuda's government is about Africa is another matter. Many officials, especially those in the Finance Ministry, this is no time to launch expensive plans in Africa as the credit crunch and spiralling oil prices upset global economic calculations. So diplomats in Tokyo's Ministry of Foreign Affairs led by African Affairs director Masatu Kitera worked hard to get the cash to expand the summit and harder to secure the doubling of Japanese aid to Africa over the next four years which Prime Minister Fukuda announced on 28 May.

Although that promised doubling of aid to $1.8 billion by 2012 from its present levels of $900 million provided us journalists with our headlines, the story didn't end there. Bono, an invited guest to Yokohama, interrupted his duet with the Japanese government to regret that the doubling of aid was limited to bilateral aid. Within hours of Fukuda'a announcement Bono claimed it was less than it seemed. His researchers claimed that Fukuda's aid doubling would affect just half of Japan's aid budget as the rest went to multilateral organisations such as the World Food Programme, the African Development Bank and the World Bank.

That prompted the courtly Foreign Affairs spokesman Kazuo Kodama to politely question Bono's mathematics. In fact, he insisted, Fukuda's increase would mean affect about 80% of Japan's aid for Africa. When I asked to explain the Japanese government's mathematics at a press conference, many journalists wished I hadn't: the explanation took a further 20 minutes and still left the conundrum unsolved.

After the first day of Yokohama sumiteering, there is no question that Japan is stepping up its Africa involvements, and that like most other rich countries it will use its aid budget to push its diplomatic and commercial interests. When Prime Minister Fukuda speaks of Japan campaigning to reform the UN Security Council with his African friends, that's code for winning the support of the 53 African members of the UN General Assembly for a permanent Japanese seat on the Council; the quid pro quo would by Tokyo's support for a permanent African seat on the Council. That hasn't come out in the open but it certainly featured in some bilateral meetings between Prime Minister Fukuda and African leaders.

Also pushed out of the diplomatic spotlight was Tokyo's view of Africa's fast growing relationship with China. Japanese officials say the grandiose summit in Yokohama was not simply a response to China's lavish African summits; Japan's approach to Africa is very different from Beijing, they insist, it's not about mega-deals in Angola, Congo or Nigeria but about a long term effective engagement for development.

Japan is buying more oil and minerals from Africa even if its companies are much more cautious about the continent than China's gung-ho state-backed companies. What many of the African delegations in Yokohama are trying to find out is just how expansive Tokyo's new Africa policy is likely to be and how it will fit into the increasingly complex jigsaw of Africa's relations with Asia's powerhouse economies. With any luck some of the answers will be in the next editions of Africa Confidential and Africa-Asia Confidential.

Watch this space.


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