African countries hold over 25 percent of the seats in the UN General Assembly, and Africa is rapidly growing, both economically and in terms of population. Furthermore, it has a relatively young population, while the rest of the world is ageing.
China and Russia have been exerting increasing economic and political influence in the region, with Beijing investing big money and buying up resources while Moscow’s former mercenary force, the Wagner Group, has been used by Putin in several African countries, from Libya to Zimbabwe, to offer security in return for lucrative gold and diamond mining concessions. These resources could then be used to evade sanctions by selling and exchanging them outside the regulated banking sector.
But it is not just China and Russia that have noticed the importance of Africa. Czechia, although only a small European country without huge amounts of money and power to throw around, is also hoping to establish relationships with the future leaders of the continent. And to this end, its Foreign Ministry is trialling a pilot project this year, with the aim of introducing the potential future leaders and representatives of the African continent to the small central European country.
Entitled ‘Cool Czechia’, the program invites young African leaders on a study trip to the country, with the stated aim of presenting Czechia as an ‘attractive, dynamic, cultured and democratic country’, as well as presenting the central European perspective on global geopolitics – especially the context of the Russian war in Ukraine.
In the course of one week, the participants are taken on a whirlwind tour of Czech institutions in Prague and Telč, including government institutions, Czech Radio, and the NGO People in Need. Culture is also a big part of the programme, with a trip to the Václav Havel Library, a screening of the Oscar-winning 1996 film Kolya, and a circus performance by Cirk La Putyka featuring.
The list of programme participants, who were selected with the help of Czech embassies in Africa, reads like a Forbes 30 under 30 list of young people doing impressive things that would cause even a much older person to question if they are doing enough with their life. Drawn from countries spanning the entire African continent (and the alphabet), from Algeria to Zambia, they are young people working mostly in the fields of human rights, climate activism, and gender equality, as journalists, junior diplomats, or in NGOs.
Meron Anteneh Getachew from Ethiopia is only 24, but is already a communications consultant and chair of the communications committee for the Ethiopian Youth Sounding Board, which represents the views of Ethiopian youth to the EU Delegation in Addis Ababa. For her, this trip represents a unique opportunity.
“This is my first time in the EU actually, so I’m pretty excited, and it’s just the first day.”
However, she says at home, people see Czechia as more of a holiday destination than a place to go for a work trip.
“When I told some people, including my boss, that I’m travelling here, they asked if it was for work or pleasure, because everybody takes a vacation trip here. He didn’t believe me, so I had to show him my invitation letter!”
However, Czechia wasn’t unknown to all the participants. Souhail Khmira, a Tunisian journalist who works with the BBC, Aljazeera English, and Euronews, among other well-known media outlets, told me that although he had never been to Czechia before this trip, he had worked with Czech media in the past.
“One time I worked with Czech Television – I think that was my first interaction with the Czech Republic. In December 2020, we were reporting on the 10-year anniversary of the revolution, where Tunisia is now and how things are there. I was working with two Czech journalists in Tunisia.”
Some participants have even visited the country – and one has an even closer connection. Salah Eddine Bakor is from Morocco and is not yet 30 but works as a youth activist and entrepreneur in two NGOs, on topics such as building inclusive communities, gender equality, and environmental sustainability.
“Every time before I travel I visit my grandma to say goodbye, and this time she asked me where I was going. And when I told her ‘Prague’, she said ‘Wait a minute’ and she surprised me with a diploma from Radio Prague. She told me that she is a super mega fan.’”
He even showed me a picture of the diploma – sent from the French section of Radio Prague for answering a quiz question correctly, dated 3 March 1970.
Whether the ‘Cool Czechia’ programme achieves its stated goals still remains to be seen – the participants arrived in Prague on Wednesday and travelled to Telč on Monday, with their departure back to their home countries scheduled for Thursday. But if this pilot project goes well, then the Foreign Ministry hopes to make this study trip an annual occurrence.