Tokyo Report

Abe Shinzo’s Towering Legacy in Africa

Recent Features

Tokyo Report | Diplomacy | East Asia

Abe Shinzo’s Towering Legacy in Africa

Abe was a trailblazer in strengthening Japan-Africa relations during his tenure from 2012 to 2020. Can Kishida carry on his legacy?

Abe Shinzo’s Towering Legacy in Africa

Then-Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzo addresses TICAD 7 in Yokohama, Japan, Aug. 28, 2019.

Credit: Flickr/ TICAD7 Photographs

“African nations are no longer in need of aid. The region’s human resource development and infrastructure improvement are both attractive investments for the future… They are made for Japan to grow together with the African countries.
Abe Shinzo , January 2014

The world was shocked earlier this month when former Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzo, the longest-serving prime minister in Japanese history, was fatally shot while campaigning in Nara for an upcoming election. Abe, whose grandfather was a prime minister and father a foreign minister, was a political giant whose influence endured even after his resignation in 2020.

His legacy on Japan’s approach to African development was and remains part of that enduring influence. And with less than a month to go before the eighth Tokyo International Conference on African Development (TICAD) convenes in Tunis, it is pertinent to explore that legacy – with lessons for the current Prime Minister Kishida Fumio.

Several African leaders offered their condolences following the tragedy. President Uhuru Kenyatta of Kenya said he lost “a dear friend” and Kenya lost one of its “foremost development allies.” President Akinwum Adesina of the African Development Bank offered his condolences, saying that Abe was a “powerful voice for good in the world” who “drove TICAD for a very strong Japan-Africa partnership.”

No doubt, Kishida has big shoes to fill for the upcoming TICAD 8. Abe was a trailblazer in strengthening Japan-Africa relations during his tenure from 2012 to 2020 for several reasons.

First, under Abe, the 2016 TICAD 6 Conference was held for the very first time in Africa (Kenya), despite TICAD’s existence since 1993. For the first time, leading Japanese businesses, universities, NGOs, and organizations visited Africa all at once. Over 200 Japanese companies, including leaders from 77 organizations, accompanied Abe and introduced the Japanese private sector’s initiatives.

This was historic because many Japanese people still consider Africa as a very distant and risky market. Hence, Abe organizing TICAD 6 in Nairobi was a strong stamp of approval by the Japanese government for Africa’s future potential and growing significance to Japan’s future.

Second, Abe also launched the Africa Business Education Initiative (conveniently called the ABE Initiative) in 2013 to enhance Japan-Africa business relations by providing thousands of scholarships to African government officials, private sector individuals, and scholars to study in Japanese universities and do internships in Japanese companies. To date, over 1,200 students from all 54 African countries have participated in the program and interned at over 600 Japanese companies.

Seti Arthur, the current chairperson of Kakehashi Africa, the alumni association of ABE Initiative scholars, said after Abe’s assassination: “We are grateful for his contributions towards the growth of Japan-Africa relations, and his legacy lives on within us.” By initiating youth-oriented programs like the ABE Initiative, Abe helped forge a robust human network between Japan and African countries that will benefit Japan and Africa for decades.

Third, Abe also shifted the focus of TICAD from aid to private sector-led African development cooperation with Japan. TICAD 7 was held in Yokohoma in 2019 and emphasized that business should take the center stage of future TICADs rather than Overseas Development Assistance (ODAs) loans. The Yokohama Declaration called for investments in Africa to exceed $20 billion. Abe publicly said, “The Japanese government would do everything possible to support Japanese companies expanding into Africa.”

However, despite Abe’s strong rhetoric about private sector-led Japan-Africa engagement, it has been difficult to realize this vision, especially given the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic. Many have criticized Abe’s Africa policy as an unrealistic wish of the Japanese government that is not shared by the Japanese private sector.

And perhaps rightly so. Although the number of Japanese companies doing business in Africa has steadily increased in recent years from 520 in 2010 to 796 in 2019, continent-wide Japanese investments have been declining since 2013. Total investment stocks stood at $6 billion in 2019, down from $12 billion in 2013. Over 65 percent of Japanese companies in Africa cite development and implementation of regulation or legislation as a risk in investing in Africa, according to a 2021 JETRO survey.

There are also few supportive Japanese government-level policies that reduce the risks for Japanese companies seeking to enter Africa. Japan has no Free Trade Agreement (FTA) or Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA) with any African country. Only five African countries, Egypt and Kenya among them, have existing International Investment Agreements (IIA) with Japan, which protect companies and investment assets.

Hence, even though Japan’s investments in other regions mostly bounced back to pre-pandemic levels in 2021, this has not been the case for Africa, which saw a 47.4 percent decrease in Japanese investments, from $590 million in 2019 to $310 million in 2021, according to data from Japan’s Ministry of Finance.

Given this background, what should the Japanese government under Kishida do at TICAD 8 to build on Abe’s legacy?

First, to actualize the shift from government-led to private sector-led development cooperation with Africa, the Japanese government could enact more policies and agreements to encourage business engagements between Japan and Africa – for example, by negotiating trade agreements and other investment treaties. Indeed, no country has yet proposed a preferential trade agreement with the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) – with a clean slate, Japan has an opportunity to set the bar in this regard.

Second, Kishida should lead by example as Abe did to engage African countries – encouraging two-way visits of African leaders and engaging in African-led frameworks and flagship projects to boost confidence and trust in Japan’s new partnership with Africa.

Third, the Japanese government should continue Abe’s approach and not let TICAD regress into a “more aid for Africa” approach, despite the challenges posed by COVID-19 and the ongoing Ukraine crisis. Although more aid will provide Africa relief in the short-term, it is unlikely to make African countries more resilient to future shocks and self-reliant in the long-term. Instead, increased, highly concessional loans that encourage Africa’s structural transformation, including in areas such as urban transport where Japan clearly has a lead over other development partners, are needed, and must not decline due to debt sustainability concerns. As Japan knows from its own economy, it is the use of debt to fund productive means that matters.

Certainly, Abe did more than any other Japanese prime minister to strengthen the economic and diplomatic ties between Japan and Africa, especially through TICAD. But his efforts were sometimes unsuccessful. If it was difficult for a political giant like Abe to convince the Japanese private sector to take Africa seriously, it will be even more challenging for others to do so. But it is possible, and will deliver significant return on both sides.