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Juliette Bonkoungou, Ambassador of Burkina Faso poses for a portrait at her home in Gatineau, Quebec. (DAVE CHAN/THE GLOBE AND MAIL/DAVE CHAN/THE GLOBE AND MAIL)
Juliette Bonkoungou, Ambassador of Burkina Faso poses for a portrait at her home in Gatineau, Quebec. (DAVE CHAN/THE GLOBE AND MAIL/DAVE CHAN/THE GLOBE AND MAIL)

Campbell Clark

Diplomat warns of Canada's fading chance in Africa Add to ...

The woman who became the face of African diplomacy in nearly nine years in Ottawa is leaving with a warning: time is flying in Africa. Juliette Bonkoungou says the continent wants Canadians to come for business, but it wants political respect, too.

Burkina Faso’s ambassador was the spokeswoman in 2009 when 18 African ambassadors made an unusual public plea for Ottawa to pay attention to the continent. As the dean of the African diplomatic corps packed to fly home Wednesday, her appeal has a different twist: Canada’s interests in Africa are being passed by.

“We are aware that Africa is a major aspect of a new world order that’s in gestation,” she said in an interview at her residence in Aylmer, Que., across the river from Ottawa. “We’re saying to Canada, China is there. Brazil is there now. India is very strong. Come too, but in an official way. That means having high-level political rapport.”

It’s not that Canadian firms aren’t in the rush. Their investments in African mining have boomed in the past decade. But Ms. Bonkoungou warned African nations expect more: high-level diplomatic and political ties that signal interest in their future.

At a time of fierce competition, and when Western mining companies fear a potential new resource nationalism, with countries nationalizing resources or raising royalties, that warning may ring in Ottawa after Ms. Bonkoungou is gone.

“We can’t just have commercial relations, where Canadian firms can come get resources in Africa when at the level of the Canadian state and government there’s no policy to go with that interest,” she said. “For us Africans, trade, diplomacy and policy go together. … To say, ‘Our companies will go and get oil and other things, and we don’t want to know,’ that won’t work.”

Western companies are putting efforts into corporate social-responsibility projects – environmental or social programs aimed partly at convincing their hosts they’re not pillaging resources. It’s an expanding focus of Canadian aid policy. Ms. Bonkoungou says diplomatic and political ties matter, too.

She notes that the World Bank dubbed Africa the new Silk Road. Its population will double to two billion in 20 years, a key to global labour, environment and security, and its 54 nations will have political weight. Canada can’t be a global player “if it doesn’t reinforce its presence in Africa,” she argued.

China, offering loans, roads and railways to grease $120-billion in trade with Africa, has held regular political summits with African leaders. Turkey and India have, too. Brazil is sending political missions. Australia is expanding diplomatic ties. Canada seems less interested.

Ms. Bonkoungou makes a waving, roller-coaster gesture to describe African-Canadian relations since she arrived in 2003, when Jean Chrétien was still in power. He launched an Africa fund and promoted a G8 partnership. Paul Martin focused foreign aid there.

Stephen Harper’s government, in its early days, dropped the rhetorical focus, closed some embassies in Africa and cut eight African nations from the list of main bilateral aid recipients. One result was weak African support when Canada ran for the UN Security Council.

Ms. Bonkoungou, a former senior politician in her country, was more outspoken than most of her career-diplomat colleagues. She said relations have improved since. International Co-operation Minister Bev Oda has worked to ensure Africa has a place in Canadian aid programs, she said. Former foreign affairs minister Lawrence Cannon and successor John Baird started to talk. But African presidents aren’t welcomed for visits to Ottawa, and high-level political interest is coming slowly. African nations don’t just want to ask for aid, or just do business, she said.

“We want private investors,” she said. “And we also want, politically and diplomatically, for Africa to have some consideration vis-a-vis Canada. And we don’t really have the sense that consideration really exists.”

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