Shiny new toys

MARK NAYLER

Last spring, Pedro Sánchez ambitiously announced that he wanted the 2020s to be Spain's "decade in Africa".

Now, almost a third of the way through said decade, relations with several countries on the continent have only worsened. There's an ongoing immigration crisis in Spain's north African enclaves of Melilla and Ceuta; Algeria, a major supplier of liquefied natural gas, is furious over Sánchez's decision to back Morocco's claims to Western Sahara; and the impressive-sounding Focus Africa 2023 plan, revealed by the Socialist leader in spring 2021, has since languished in the shadows.

Spain's coalition government, then, will have high hopes for Sánchez's trip to Kenya and South Africa this week.

In Nairobi on Wednesday, he agreed a new trade deal with Kenyan president William Ruto, although concrete details remain unknown; and on Thursday (the day of writing) he met South African leader Ciryl Ramaphosa in Pretoria.

Even if that meeting yields more than a couple of announcements packed with diplomatic clichés, though, there's something irritating about Sánchez's latest trip to Africa.

It took me a minute to figure out exactly why, but then it hit me: like a lot of governments at the moment, Spain's is like a kid with a heap of new toys, completely enamoured of one while it's playing with it, until another is presented for its inspection - then the first is forgotten, discarded forever.

The floor is littered with abandoned toys, a collective testament to the child's one-minute attention span.

Obviously any government has to do lots of things simultaneously. There's no reason, in principle, why a Spanish prime minister can't improve economic ties with Kenya and South Africa, revamp infrastructure in Angola and Senegal, patch up relations with Algeria without angering Morocco and do something about the thousands of illegal migrants entering the Canary Islands from west Africa and scaling the walls separating Ceuta and Melilla from Moroccan territory (18 died trying in June). All at the same time. But Sánchez isn't that prime minister.

Focus Africa aimed to improve infrastructure and stability in the Sub-Sahara, with a long-term view to stemming the flow of illegal migrants from the region.

At the time it was refreshing to hear of a plan to make lives better at home for those who take mortal risks seeking sanctuary abroad. The initiative was far-reaching and, yes, a little Utopian - but that wasn't necessarily a criticism. It was a Big Idea, and they're in seriously short supply in modern politics.

Over eighteen months later, though, we know nothing about how Focus Africa is progressing. After introducing it with fanfare and zeal, Sánchez hasn't since made a single announcement about its status. It's just not shiny enough to play with anymore.