It is a good time for Mexico to approach more extensively and comprehensively its relationship with the African continent. The dynamics and transformations in progress profile Africa as a strategic objective for our international relations. Its relevance is already evident: it houses 55 countries in an enormous and insular continental mass of over 30 million square kilometers and has extraordinary natural resources, especially mineral, oil and productive land. Its population exceeds 200 million—mostly young—which in 2050 will be close to 2.25 billion, threefold the European population expected for that year and twofold that of the American continent. Not even China or India will surpass Africa in terms of population.
Despite its poverty and lag, we can see in Africa—or at least in most of its countries—a clear progress in terms of economic dynamism and stability. Mexico can greatly benefit from a more intense and diversified relationship with this continent. Its connections—generally friendly, with little conflict and few exchanges—have been mainly characterized by discontinuity. They grew slowly and relatively sporadically during the second half of the previous century and sped up after the seventies. Ever since, they have expanded significantly, but without leaving behind their erratic behavior, and are still far from their potential.
Although somewhat arbitrarily, for comparison purposes, we can divide the history of our relations with Africa into two blocks: the North Africa one, linked partly to the Arab world, and the Middle East and Europe; and that of the vast sub-Saharan region, with 48 countries, where relations are scarcer and less intense.
Relations between Mexico and North Africa and the Arab world, in general, date back to the Ottoman Empire followed by Mustafa Kemal’s republican government of Turkey. In 1905, the Porfirio Diaz Administration established a consular office in Alexandria (Egypt) with the aim to document trade and support Mexican ships and citizens traveling through the Suez Canal. However, diplomatic relations were formalized only in 1958. Lebanon is another important and special nation for Mexico because of the migration of Syrian-Lebanese citizens to the country. In this case, diplomatic ties date back to 1945. After the victory of the independent movements of Morocco and Algeria, Mexico established relations with the Rabat government in 1962 and with that of Algiers in 1964. Even though there are no resident embassies in Tunisia or Libya, official relations between Mexico and those countries date back to 1971 and 1975, respectively. Thus, Maghreb was concretely included in formal diplomatic relations with Mexico since then and has good presence in the north of Africa.
In sub-Saharan Africa, it is a different situation. With over 1 billion in population and 48 countries, there are only five resident embassies: Nigeria, South Africa, Kenya, Ethiopia and Ghana, shared with countries of the Pacific Alliance. Up until the full African decolonization in the middle of last century, there were practically no formal relations with sub-Saharan countries. Diplomatic ties take on more importance with Luis Echeverria becoming president, as illustrated by the two presidential visits to Senegal and Tanzania. A period of short-lived embassy openings like Tanzania, Ivory Coast and Angola, followed.
With Nigeria, the African giant of over 200 million inhabitants, diplomatic relations were established in 1976. Almost immediately, Mexico opened an embassy in Lagos, which—for numerous reasons—closed three years later; similarly, Nigeria opened its representation in 1981 and closed it in 1983. Fortunately, since the reopening of the embassy of Nigeria in Mexico in 2000 and ours in that country in 2008, relations with this country have become closer and are on track to normalization.
In 1990, Mexico established the “itinerant ambassador” figure with the purpose of covering 29 African countries. It was undoubtedly an important effort, but very difficult to implement, as evidenced by its subsequent replacement with “active concurrences,” which stayed on paper rather than actions. In the fall of 1993, after the formal announcement of the dissolution of the Apartheid, Mexico and South Africa established diplomatic relations and prepared to open embassies in Pretoria and Mexico City. Mexico’s embassy formally opened in April of 1994 and after Nelson Mandela becoming president of that nation, began a long period of relations building, of all kind.
Between the seventies and 2000, Mexico opened and closed its embassies in various countries, with a very high diplomatic cost. In 2008, it opened its embassy in Nigeria and five years later, it did the same in Ghana. Since then, there have not been more openings,
except an ephemeral diplomatic representation in Angola. In recent years, as stated, we have seen a consolidation of ties between Africa and Mexico, but these are still scarce and do not reach their potential.
Africa is fast changing and in general terms, for the better. Mexico must realize that and act consequently. The expansion of the African economy is linked to a young and growing population, as well as to an accelerated urbanization process that—apart from its problems—is shaping a broad segment of the middle class, eager not only of greater consumption, but of education and improvements in their quality of life.
This “young Africa” is also committed to consolidating real democracies, with governments willing to follow rules, and more democratic transitions of power. The era of “strong men” starts to lag behind. There are, of course, great unresolved problems and conflicts that in some countries exacerbate poverty, humanitarian crises and population displacements.
But we must not lose sight of the fact that over half of the economies in sub-Saharan Africa are expanding, while their representative democracy progresses. Economic growth, despite some ups and downs, has sustained for over 15 years and already exceeds that of other developing regions. Its average growth in the last five years, slightly above 5%, not only is motivated by the boom in raw materials exports and the large flow of Chinese investments; it responds, also, to the dynamism of its domestic market, prudent macroeconomic management and advances in accountability, at least in most of the countries.
African countries like Nigeria will be relevant in the future shaping of the world economy. In 2050, this nation “[…] will have a little over 400 million inhabitants (by then, it will double that of Mexico and its GDP will have exceeded by far that of our country, at least in terms of purchasing power parity). Ethiopia will reach a population of 280 million and 145 million will live in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Several more countries will have populations of approximately 100 million.” All of this speaks of a growing influence of Africa in world affairs and large consumer markets in the process of formation.”
Mexico’s trade with Africa is very incipient (it does not reach 0.5% of the country’s total trade), a good reason to rethink our trade strategy with that continent. Middle classes are emerging all over Africa and they undoubtedly demand products that Mexico can offer in competitive conditions. However, our trade is not only insignificant, it is also in deficit and concentrated mainly in four countries namely, South Africa, Algeria, Egypt and Nigeria, that together contribute a little over 80% of exchanges. We exported 460 million dollars in 2016 and imported 833 million, a revealing trade deficit.
There is great unfamiliarity about the opportunities those markets offer. At the same time, there are financial, logistic and transportation restrictions. But there are no insurmountable problems if one has long-term vision and will to change the state of things. One should not lose sight of the clear advantage Mexico has in manufacturing and final consumer items for the growing middle and popular classes, although it does face important competition from China, India and Brazil.
Currently, Mexico exports mostly products from the automobile, electronic and pharmaceutical sectors. We purchase goods from the oil and energy sectors, and there is reciprocal and seasonal trade of white corn and other agricultural goods. But there are other areas where we think Mexico should explore African markets, like fluoride, steel tubes and profiles, and cement markets. Also, there is a market for electrical appliances, automobiles and spare parts, glass, vaccines and medical equipment, apparel, fashion jewelry, cosmetics and shoes, to name a few. Likewise, for food and beverage, where there are investment opportunities.
As for services, we have clear opportunities in the fields of construction and engineering; electrical, water and sanitation infrastructure (strategy via consortia); urban and signaling equipment; computer programs, and tourism and the entertainment industry, such as movie theaters and amusement parks (like KidZania). Although investment data are not reliable, it is clearly scarce and concentrated, again, in but a few countries. Bimbo has dabbled in the Morocco market and Cemex in Nigeria, but there are other Mexican companies that, because of their size and international experience, would have advantages in young African countries.
“It is a good time for Mexico to approach more extensively and comprehensively its relationship with the African continent.”
Cooperation is essential to establish solid and long-term relations. In general, countries with medium-high income with a large population and a diversified and competitive economy in some areas, like Mexico, have a lot to contribute to Africa in terms of cooperation.
But in a two-way road: we found in African countries many experiences, technologies, knowhow and practices of great use. This type of cooperation clearly projects Mexico’s “soft power.”
Work can be done both bilaterally and regionally. Also, we can opt for triangular cooperation through those countries with which we have more agreements on the matter (Spain, Japan, South Korea, etc.). It is feasible to explore this type of cooperation with South Africa, by far the most developed country in Africa, as well as those in the Pacific Alliance and the so-called MIKTA.
Without pretending to be exhaustive, here are some examples of cooperation between Mexico and Africa: scholarships and exchanges; science and technology; mining, oil and energy; socioeconomic policies and electoral training; medicine and public health, and ecotourism.
In light of what has been said and facing the future, we outline here the major lines of action to relaunch relations between Mexico and Africa. In general terms, the objective is to gradually expand and delve into—in a sustained manner—our presence in this vast continent.
Let’s start regionally. In Africa there is a clear feeling of belonging and “Africanity” that includes the north of the continent. Africa has a wide network of regional and subregional associations, and currently is immersed in an encouraging process of political and economic integration, headed by the African Union (AU), the only mechanism in which all independent African countries participate. Mexico must seek—without delay—a strategic association with the AU, whose headquarters are in Addis Ababa, where there is a resident embassy. The AU “[…] aspires to supranational unity with democracy and respect of human rights. It has powerful and effective binding instruments, and tries to create a very comprehensive integration […]. Its structure is such that it does not replace but rather, supports and tries to articulate the subregional organizations of the continent […]. Among the strategic partners of this association, China, India, South Korea, Turkey and Brazil stand out. Mexico is the only relevant emerging economy that is not in this list.
As previously noted, Mexico only has seven resident embassies and one more it shares with the Pacific Alliance, which is clearly not enough. Although it is feasible to improve links with countries with which we concur, this scheme is inappropriate given the continent’s current demographic and economic dynamic. Embassies shared with Pacific Alliance countries are a temporary solution, while they consolidate bilateral agendas and exchanges.
“Africa is fast changing and in general terms, for the better. Mexico must realize that and act consequently.”
Based on the large African subregions and the location of our current embassies, we propose increasing Mexico’s presence in the continent via the concurrences scheme and the assignment of public servants from the current embassies for the ad-hoc attention in certain countries in the west, center, east and south of Africa, as well as the so-called “African horn.”
In the west, the embassy in Nigeria can serve as the “anchor” of our regional policy, due to the fact it is a relevant country and headquarters of the influential subregional Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). Attention to this region would be complete with the opening of an embassy in the Ivory Coast and perhaps another one in Senegal, later on. Indeed, the Sahel countries must be considered as part of the renewed diplomatic and trade tasks of Mexico in Africa.
In the east of the continent and in the “horn of Africa,” a very complex region, the relationship can be anchored through the embassies in Ethiopia and Kenya. In Addis Ababa, we must follow up on the AU and on the complex countries of the Horn, as well as the still unstable and young country of South Sudan. It would be advisable to reopen, in a reasonable time frame, an embassy in Tanzania, a country with over 50 million people, and eventually another one in the increasingly thriving Uganda, and its over 40 million in population.
In the south of Africa, trade and investment links must be driven from Mexico’s embassy in South Africa, and also follow up promptly on the Southern African Development Community (SADC) and other regional bodies of cooperation and integration.
Obviously, it would be a priority to again have an embassy in Angola, which could share the hefty number of concurrences of the representation in South Africa. In the north of Africa, Arab and Mediterranean, we have presence in three important countries: Egypt, Algeria and Morocco. We can see, in the mid-term, the opening of a small embassy in Tunisia, a relatively prosperous and stable country.
Last, the center of Africa, a region of great poverty but of dynamic demographic growth and economic expansion, where Mexico is ostensibly absent. In this region, the Democratic Republic of the Congo stands out in importance and potential, a country with 81 million inhabitants and the largest area in sub-Saharan Africa. In order to play the anchor role, it would be convenient to open a Mexican embassy in this country in the short term. Despite the serious and prolonged conflict in the east of the country, the current government has consolidated and its economy is growing rapidly (close to 6% annually in the last five years). It should also be noted that the recently announced participation of Mexico in the UN Peacekeeping Missions makes the opening of the embassy in that country more relevant.
With the application of the gradual but systematic measures outlined here, Mexico’s relationship with a young continent that is called to play an important role in decades to come will be strengthened. It will add to this purpose a broader diplomatic tie and a slow but continuous program of new embassies that should reach 12 in a 10-year period, with the case concurrences, as well as a clear and long-term strategy to drive exports, investments and cooperation with different countries and subregions of the continent.
*He holds a bachelor’s degree in economics from the UNAM, and a master’s degree and PhD from the University of Wisconsin, specializing in agricultural economics and international affairs. He was the first ambassador of Mexico to South Africa and is currently a researcher in the Development Studies University Program at the UNAM.
This way, Mexico has a total of eight representations by 2018.
Cassio Luiselli Fernández, “Nota sobre la cooperación con México: Revisión 2016,” internal document, Development Studies University Program, National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM).
Cassio Luiselli Fernández, op. cit.
National Institute of Statistics and Geography (INEGI) figures.
When it comes to trade with Africa, expensive triangulations are often used with European countries and companies.
For example, Alfa, América Móvil, Carso, Cinépolis, Femsa, Herdez, Jumex, La Costeña, Mabe, Maseca, Minera México, Peñoles, Sanborns and Telmex (Claro).
Informal space for dialog created in 2013 for Mexico, Indonesia, the Republic of Korea, Turkey and Australia.
This section is based on two publications by the author: “Nota sobre la cooperación con México: Revisión 2016”, op. cit., and “Entorno global e inserción internacional”, third main theme of the Development Report in Mexico 2017, Development Studies University Program, National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), 2018.
Created in 1999 and formalized in 2002, greatly thanks to Mandela’s inspiration and in replacement of the Organization of African Unity. It is the direct heir of pan-Africanist movements after decolonization and national independences in the early seventies.
Morocco was fully incorporated in 2017.
Cassio Luiselli Fernández, op. cit.
Brazil, as part of its previous South Americanist strategy, forged an excluding association between South America and the African Union, leaving outside Mexico and the rest of Latin America. Mexico can and should correct this.
Brazil has 32, Cuba 21 and Argentina 11.
Faced with the upcoming closing of ProMéxico, this scheme becomes even more relevant.
Somalia, Djibouti, Eritrea and Ethiopia tend to be included.
Like the Southern African Customs Union (SACU), the African Economic Community (AEC) and the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA).
Methods considered and included vary, but it can be said that at least the following belong to this region: Cameroon, Chad, Central African Republic, Gabon, Equatorial Guinea (Spanish speaking), Santo Tome and Principe, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Note that, along with Pakistan, these are the only countries with a large demographic dimension in which Mexico does not have an embassy open. Its current population is equivalent to that of Colombia and Peru added together and by 2050 will be the same as that of Mexico (145 million).
Cassio Luiselli Fernández, op. cit.