Spirit of Shinzo Abe lives on at TICAD

The spirit of Shinzo Abe, still hovers over Japanese-African relations. Anver Versi recalls the great contributions of the former Japanese leader who was tragically assassinated in July.


As TICAD 8 in Tunis approaches, I find my thoughts inevitably straying towards Shinzo Abe, the former prime minister of Japan whose life was so tragically taken away by a deranged assassin in July.

I have no doubt that had he been alive, then even out of office he would have taken a keen interest in Japanese-African affairs. May this great friend of Africa rest in peace.

The “Great TICAD 5”

I first came across Abe when I was covering the 2013 event which had been shifted from Tokyo to Yokohama. Abe, as prime minister, figuratively and literally hosted what has gone down in history as the “Great TICAD 5”.

This was a huge event. Thousands attended. You kept tripping over African and international VIPs, including dozens of heads of state, at every turn. Abe, wreathed in smiles, seemed to be everywhere, bouncing from session to session, turning up for press-conferences, pressing the flesh – and generally seemed to be enjoying himself hugely.

At one stage, he clapped me on the shoulder, shook my hand vigorously and said: “I love African peoples – much, much, much,” in English.

He embodied the spirit of the occasion and his enthusiasm for Africa and the joy he expressed fired the event and lifted it well above the usual solemn, prosaic, dull, maddeningly formal proceedings such events usually are.

There was sound strategic reasoning behind the effusive welcome. Japan was going through an extremely uncomfortable cycle with a stagnant economy sliding towards depression and confidence at an all-time low.

The country, according to some of the Japanese experts we met, needed to be jolted out of its navel gazing. TICAD 5, coming when it did, seemed just the tonic the nation needed – and Abe needed no further encouragement.

New approach to Africa

My article in African Business, written after some reflection at the end of the conference read:

“TICAD V was always going to be different. It coincided with two vitally important and still unfolding developments: an increasingly confident Africa riding the crest of an unprecedented period of growth; and Japan’s muscular new thrust to restore its economic vibrancy and regain its position as one of the two most powerful economies in the world.

“Japan’s Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, whose policies to revive the Japanese economy have added a new word to the economics lexicon – Abenomics – said as much during his final press conference at the end of the event. ‘Africa is bursting with confidence while we are finding ours. Together we can achieve great things.’

“The Japanese government as well as Prime Minister Abe personally have staked a great deal on this new approach to Africa. The conference took place when Abe was in the throes of his ‘three arrows’ to revive the Japanese economy by relieving deflationary pressures, stimulating consumer confidence, and calming a highly jittery stock market. Yet he found time to attend all three days of the conference and meet all leaders and heads of state on a one to one basis.”

Abe’s pledge

The African delegation pointed out that despite a long history of trading with the country, Japan’s bilateral trade with African countries in 2013 was only around $25bn compared to close to $200bn with its rival, China.

Japanese investment was nowhere near that from China or the other global economic superpowers. Why this sluggishness, this hesitancy to engage meaningfully with Africa?

Abe appeared to agree with the Africans and chided the country’s corporations, large and small, for their ultra-caution when it came to Africa. They made all the right noises, but when it came to putting pen to paper, they seemed to develop the shakes.

He opted for the Big Bang approach and pledged a staggering $32bn over five years. This would be broken down into $14bn overseas development assistance (ODA), $16bn from public and private resources and $2bn to underwrite trade insurance for companies that were still fearful of dipping their toes in the water.

Sweet music

The assistance would go towards the “three pillars” of development that Africa required: robust and sustainable economies; inclusive and resilient societies and peace and stability. Africa’s wish list for Japan was support to build infrastructure, cutting edge technology and training to raise human capacity to as near Japanese levels as possible.

The package was sweet music to the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA), which for years had been sending young volunteers as well as seasoned experts to the highways and byways of Africa to set up irrigation projects, build small dams, create marketing strategies for SMEs and in short, making life a lot easier for a lot of people in Africa. But JICA was often left to go it alone.

Now, with Abe solidly behind them, they could expand their wings.

The agency could dip into the treasure chest pledged by the prime minister to scale up infrastructure construction and set seriously into motion human capacity development by, for example, “training 30,000 African people for industrial development, improving the learning environment for 20m African children through mathematics and science education and primary school management, increasing agricultural production and productivity, especially for rice cultivation, and promoting a ‘farming as business’ approach for 50,000 small farmers.”

Changes come to pass

TICAD 5 took place nine years ago. The world has gone through a great deal of change since then and is beset by rising costs and shortages, a dangerous escalation of hostilities in Europe and Asia, climate change attrition, increasing and violent stand-offs between civil societies and ruling juntas and a general feeling of flux and unease.

Japan seems to have settled into a steady if unspectacular period of economic consolidation; Africa has picked up the pieces after the pandemic fairly quickly and, despite a few hiccups such as the war in Ethiopia, seems set on a steady course of growth.

What is significant is that many of the aims set out by TICAD 5 have come to pass, quietly but very effectively. It is very heartening to see that the catchphrase leading up to TICAD 8 is “Made with Japan” not “Made in Japan for Africa”.

Shinzo Abe would have been very pleased.

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