MADRID (AP) — Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez is on a mini-tour to two African nations that are key in the European country's new push to bolster ties with the neighboring continent and mitigate the migration flows that many fear could increase as a consequence of the coronavirus pandemic.
Angola’s President Joao Lourenço welcomed Sánchez during his stop in Luanda on Thursday declaring he wants Spain to be a “key partner” in the diversification of his country's economy. The European leader, who is traveling with representatives of a dozen Spanish companies, is scheduled to hold talks with Senegal’s Macky Sall in Dakar on Friday.
Sánchez is also scheduled to pay a visit to Spanish police working with Senegalese counterparts to crack down on human trafficking across the West African coast. The contingent comprises 57 members of Spain's Civil Guard and National Police, two patrol boats, and a helicopter based on the port of Dakar.
Africa has proportionally reported fewer coronavirus cases and deaths than Europe. But officials in Madrid fear that the fallout of lockdowns in jobs and the shockwaves of the global economic slump could send even more Africans on the perilous journey to European shores, many of them via Spain.
Over 41,000 people from Morocco and West Africa crossed to Spain in 2020, and more than half of them did it by embarking on flimsy boats to the Canary Islands, the Spanish archipelago in the Atlantic Ocean, off the northwestern African coast.
Spanish authorities are holding thousands of migrants, including potential asylum seekers, in camps set up on the islands, hoping to return as many of them to their home countries either voluntarily or through agreements with African governments. Part of that solution is to resume flights of forced returns to Senegal, a program that has been halted since 2018.
Another step is to increase Spain's limited investment and trade exchanges with the neighboring continent as a way to lift African economies and dissuade potential migrants. Nearly one-fifth of Spain's exports in 2019 went to Africa, amounting to 19 billion euro ($22 billion). Spain imports from the continent were worth 27 billion euros in the same period.
But Sánchez, a Socialist leading a left-wing coalition, has said that he wants to turn 2020-2030 into “Spain's decade in Africa," with both Angola and Senegal among the top priority countries in his three-year “Focus on Africa” policy drive.
Briefing journalists ahead of Sánchez's tour, officials said that the two African countries had been chosen due to their growth perspectives and influence in the continent. Angola is also seen as a main player against regional tensions and as a safeguard of maritime security in the Gulf of Guinea, where Spain has pledged to send a warship to fight piracy.
In a televised statement Thursday after his meeting with Sánchez, Lourenço said there were opportunities for Spanish investments in such areas as agriculture, fishing, manufacturing, textiles, and the pharmaceutical sector. He noted that producing goods in Angola would give Spanish companies a competitive edge in exporting to the rest of Africa.
He also urged Spain to consider Angolan public sector investments in infrastructure, energy, health care, and education.
The economy of Angola, a member of OPEC, is highly dependent on oil production, but the COVID-19 pandemic has crunched prices on the world market. With an unemployment rate above 30%, the southwest African country is expected to record a fifth straight year of recession in 2021.
The Angolan government is preparing to privatize around 200 companies.
Sánchez has also a pending visit to Morocco, the southern neighbor and a key partner to contain flows of migrants trying to reach European shores through irregular means. But the last attempt by the two leaders to meet, in December, was called off with officials citing the coronavirus pandemic as the main reason. No new date has been set for the visit.
Sánchez will wrap his tour in Senegal on Friday by visiting a military base for Spanish and other international forces fighting extremism in the Sahel region and the center in Dakar that will host the first Cervantes Institute in sub-Saharan Africa for studies of the Spanish language and culture.
Hatton reported from Lisbon, Portugal.