Tunisia hosts Japan-Africa economic cooperation meeting

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TUNIS – African heads of state, representatives of international organizations and private business leaders gathered in Tunisia on Saturday for the Tokyo International Conference on African Development, a three-year event launched by Japan to promote growth and security in Africa.

The economic fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic, a food crisis worsened by Russia’s war in Ukraine and climate change are among the challenges facing many African countries that are expected to define the two-day conference.

Tensions between African countries also weighed on the meeting: on Friday, Morocco announced a boycott of the event and recalled its ambassador to Tunisia to protest against the inclusion of a representative of the Polisario Front movement fighting for independence of Western Sahara.

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The conference comes as Russia and China have sought to increase their economic and other influence in Africa.

While 30 African heads of state and government attended the event in Tunisia’s capital Tunis, many key talks are being held remotely, including those involving Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, who tested positive at the COVID-19 before the summit.

The Japanese government established and hosted the first TICAD summit in 1993. The conferences are now co-hosted with the United Nations, African Union and World Bank. The summits generated 26 development projects in 20 African countries.

This year, discussions around increased Japanese investment in Africa are expected, with a particular focus on supporting start-ups and food security initiatives. Japan has announced its intention to provide aid for rice production, alongside a food aid pledge of $130 million.

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The Africa Center for Strategic Studies, an academic institution of the US Department of Defense, compared the conference format to the annual World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, “where leaders from government, business and civil society participate on an equal footing”.

However, this weekend’s summit has sparked controversy in Tunis, which is dealing with its own acute economic crisis, including a recent spike in food and fuel shortages.

Critics have denounced organizers’ alleged “whitewashing” of the city, which has seen cleaner streets and infrastructure improvements in preparation for the conference summit. A local commentator said the North African capital seemed to have put on makeup to impress attendees.

Meanwhile, Tunisia’s journalists’ union released a statement on Friday condemning restrictions on reporting and information around the summit.

Morocco’s complaint stemmed from the fact that Tunisia had invited the leader of the Polisario Front to attend. Morocco annexed Western Sahara to Spain in 1975 and the Polisario Front fought to make it an independent state until a ceasefire in 1991. This is a very sensitive issue in Morocco, which seeks international recognition of its authority over Western Sahara.

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“The welcome given by the Tunisian head of state to the leader of the separatist militia is a serious and unprecedented act, which deeply hurts the feelings of the Moroccan people,” the Moroccan foreign ministry said in a statement.

Morocco announced its withdrawal from the conference and the recall of its ambassador for consultations. But the ministry said the decision did “not call into question the commitment of the Kingdom of Morocco to the interests of Africa”.

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Tarik El-Barakah in Rabat, Morocco contributed to this.

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