Stuart Comberbach (photo), Ambassador of Zimbabwe, is the Dean of African Diplomatic Corps in Japan. In this position, he met Faure Gnassingbé twice during his stay in Tokyo, which ended last Saturday.
For the diplomat, the visit is a strong message of solidarity from Togo in respect of Japan, and Africa in general. In an interview with republicoftogo.com, he analyzes the potential investment by Japanese firms in Africa facing a pervasive China on the continent.
Republicoftogo.com : You met the President, Faure Gnassingbe, earlier this week. What was the content of your discussions?
Stuart Comberbach : I was fortunate enough to have been accorded an audience with His Excellency the President at the beginning of his visit to Japan. I paid a courtesy call upon His Excellency in my capacity as the Dean of the ADC, specifically to extend to him, on behalf of my Colleagues, a warm welcome to Japan and to provide His Excellency with a brief background on the activities of the ADC in Japan, and also to provide His Excellency with a brief overview of the current situation with regard to the overall Japan-Africa relationship - encapsulated in the TICAD Process (Tokyo International Conference for African Development).
The TICAD IV Conference took place in Yokohama in May 2008, and ended with the adoption of a 5-Year Action Plan (2008-2013) and an agreed, three-tiered Follow-Up mechanism, to oversee and monitor the implementation of that Action Plan. Each year, a Ministerial-level follow-up meeting is held in order to review progress. This year, the 3rd TICAD Ministerial Follow-Up Meeting was held in Dakar, Senegal, from 1 to 2 May.
I was able to brief His Excellency on the outcome of that Ministerial Meeting - the most important element of which was the reaffirmation, by the Government of Japan, that, notwithstanding the challenging situation facing Japan at the present moment, the pledges made at the 2008 TICAD IV Conference, would be fully honoured.
His Excellency is the first African Head of State to visit Japan after the tragic events of 11 March, 2011, and I was able to brief His Excellency on the events of that day and their aftermath, and of the continuing impact those events upon day to day life, in the political, economic and social sectors in Japan.
I was among a group of African and Arab Ambassadors who visited the City of Ishinomaki, in Miyagi Prefecture, just one month after the earthquake and tsunami of 11 March. We were able to see with our own eyes the extent of the devastation and, also, the impressive efforts being made, even then, by the affected communities, to rebuild their lives.
The fact that His Excellency visited Japan at this time, and that he specifically requested to be able to visit part of the devastated area and to meet some of the people affected by the tragic events of 11 March, I believe, sent a very powerful message of solidarity and support, not only from the Republic of Togo, but from Africa as a whole, to those communities and to the people of Japan as a whole. It is an important message which says, basically, 'you are not alone - there are others, out there, beyond your shores, who care deeply about your situation and who want to help'. This message, and these simple but heartfelt gestures of support and friendship, from a far-away country, will have had an enormous impact here in Japan.
Republicoftogo.com : China is very much present in Africa. In this context, does Japan have the ability and willingness to support African countries in their development policies both in terms of bilateral aid and private investment
Stuart Comberbach : It is of course quite correct to say that China is very present across the African continent. It is a very welcome presence and the efforts made by China, under the umbrella of the FOCAC ( the China Africa Partnership ), have seen a very significant increase in two-way trade between China and Africa and also in Chinese inward investment, across a range of sectors, in many areas of the continent.
China's requirement for mineral and metal resources, and indeed other commodities, has contributed towards the firming of international prices of these commodities - which, in turn, has contributed towards the solid economic growth rates enjoyed by the majority of African countries over the past several years.
Trade with China is genuinely a two-way flow - with China taking increasing quantities of African produced goods - over and above the trade in minerals, metals, oil and gas.
In our discussions with the various component parts of the Japanese Administration, we have encouraged the Japanese not to be discouraged by the speed and extent of China's presence, and influence, across the Continent, but to concentrate, rather, on their own areas of expertise and specialisation.
Japan is a world-leader in terms of technology - and Japan can offer Africa a great deal as our continent embarks, now, on its inevitable accelerated industrial development path. Japan - probably more than any other country - is able to assist Africa to undertake this massive development ( which must include the accelerated development of road, rail and port networks, together with a massive increase in the continent's capacity to generate and to transmit electric power ) in a manner which will facilitate such development whilst enabling Africa to play a responsible role in terms of ensuring protection of the environment and limiting CO2 emissions.
The Japanese ODA Budget has been under pressure for some time now - and, against the backdrop of the current situation in Japan, and the need for funding to rebuild the north-east of the country - this pressure is likely to continue. This, though, means that more attention must be paid to the Japanese private sector.
The past three years, since TICAD IV, have seen a gradual but noticeable increase in the interest and engagement of the Japanese private sector in Africa - in countries which, hitherto, had not enjoyed any real trade or investment relationship with Japan.
This enhanced interest and engagement is due, partially, to what China itself is doing and the realisation, in Japan, that it too has to become more active, more visible and, indeed, more aggressive in its trade/investment approach to Africa, if it wants to gain benefit from the opportunities which abound, in all sectors of economic activity, across the continent.
As ADC, we have been urging the Government of Japan to continue to actively encourage and support - in concrete ways - its private sector in its growing interest and engagement with Africa.
We believe the interest is certainly there, but the Government really does need to come up with more creative mechanisms and measures to support its private sector - specifically with regard to the mitigation of the perceived risks associated with doing business in/with Africa.
This is a call echoed by the Japanese private sector itself.
It is our hope that, as we go forward, the Government will respond positively to these calls and that both Japan and Africa can move towards a relationship stretching considerably beyond one based on ODA and humanitarian-related funding, to a genuine partnership based on recognised and shared mutual benefits.