Hitherto, in my imagination at least, the only link between Poland and Africa was Joseph Conrad’s story Heart of Darkness or the somewhat more controversial writings of Ryszard Kapuscinski. Despite his being generally lauded as an author, I find Conrad’s prose style almost as impenetrable as the jungle through which Marlow travels in search of Kurtz (Kapuscinski’s by contrast – or is it his translator’s- is much better). Be that as it may, Poland is once more looking towards Africa with the economy ministry’s Go Africa campaign which aims to encourage Polish companies to expand into African markets.
To promote this initiative the Polish prime minister recently visited Nigeria, coincidentally a few days before my own, wholly unconnected, visit to Nigeria and Togo, in connection with investment projects in the healthcare and gas sectors. According to the Polish Foreign Investment Agency, construction, energy and defence are particularly promising sectors for Polish companies looking to opportunities in Nigeria, as is Nigeria’s oil and gas industry which has been a major driver of economic growth in Nigeria – oil exports being the primary source of national income. Apart from Nigeria, the Go Africa programme covers Angola, South Africa, Mozambique and Kenya all countries which have experienced recent rates of GDP growth in excess of those of the EU countries. There is no doubt that, given the sense of gloom and doom elsewhere, sub-Saharan Africa offers increasingly attractive opportunities underpinned by abundant raw materials, rapid economic growth, increasing consumer demand, and, perhaps most important of all, increasingly political stability and predictability. The fact that it is now possible to have elections and changes of presidents and governments without it leading a war is a very welcome development albeit that there is still some way to go. And, of course, corruption is still a big problem, with too many seeing political office as a method of personal enrichment at the expense of the country as whole. It is sadly ironic that our own political class seems not to be immune – albeit on a far less extreme scale – from the same temptations.
But what can Poland offer Africa or what advantages does Africa offer Poland? According to a recent report by a Warsaw based think tank, Thinktank, there are four main attractions. First, Poland now offers high quality products comparable to those of France or Germany but at lower prices which should appeal to African markets. Second, Africa is rich in mineral and energy resources but lacks sufficient roads and telecommunications infrastructure (although whether, given the state of Polish roads, Polish road builders would be your first port of call is another matter, of course). Third, the African market is increasingly accessible not just to the largest but to any company which is able to adapt to local needs and conditions, something which Polish companies with their recent experience of adapting to the EU market are increasingly good. Fourth, and in my view the most contentious point, countries such as Poland, which are “new” entrants to the global market are seen positively in Africa because they do not suffer from associations with the colonial times. Indeed, it is claimed, some African decision makers studied in Poland during the communist era and speak Polish. However, many more studied in Great Britain and France and speak English and French and have legal systems based on those of England and France.
I think the colonial resentment argument is vastly exaggerated. Apart from one or two such as Mugabe in Zimbabwe who seek to stir up resentment for domestic political purposes (largely to justify “war veterans” – who were not actually born during the war in question – occupying illegally the land of others) and some isolated fellow travellers in South Africa, this is simply not a factor. Africans, given the chance, are hard-working and as keen to enjoy the benefits of a modern economy as you or I and are generally far too intelligent to blame the white man of yesteryear for the problems of today.
There is no doubt that sub-Saharan Africa after many years of chaos and squandered opportunities now faces a bright future as economic growth – which will not be the same for all countries – outpaces that of other regions. And the political change is not dissimilar in effect from that which this part of Europe enjoyed 25 years ago. Could Africa be the new Eastern Europe and, if so, will Poland be able fully to reap the benefit from these opportunities? There is no reason why not but it will take hard work to make those dreams realities, especially because many others have a head start.