By Obadiah Mailafia
I have always been an admirer of German culture and civilisation. I have visited Deutschland more times than I can recall. I have studied German history with assiduity from Leopold von Ranke to Friedrich Meinecke and Golo Mann.
German history, for the most part, has been dark, harsh, slippery, bloody and icy-cold. But I find the Germans of today to be warm, moderate, civilised and cosmopolitan.
No leader embodies the New Germany more than German Chancellor Angela Merkel. She has been the occupant of the high magistracy of the German state for 18 years, having been first elected as far back as 2005. Not too long ago, she announced that she would no longer be seeking a fifth term as Chancellor, thereby clearing the way for a new Chairman for the ruling Christian Democratic Union, CDU.
The greatest actors have always marshalled the wisdom to quit the stage when the ovation is loudest.
Angela Dorothea Merkel was born in the old German port city of Hamburg on July 17, 1954, the daughter of a Lutheran pastor who moved to East Berlin before the communists built the wall separating East and West. She was a brilliant student at school, having secured the perfect possible grade of 1.0 in her Abitur (equivalent to securing A1 in all subjects in WAEC). She also excelled at university, coming top of her class in mathematics and Russian studies. She later did graduate work at Karl Marx University in Quantum Chemistry, in which she earned a doctorate degree.
She began her career as a research chemist at the Academy of Sciences in the course of which she met her husband, companion and soulmate Joachim Sauer. He is currently a professor Emeritus in physical and theoretical chemistry at the Humboldt University of Berlin.
Angela Merkel opted for a career in politics when the Berlin Wall came down during 1989 and when the two Germanies were reunited in 1990. In that same year, she won a seat into the Bundestag, the German national parliament. She subsequently served in several ministerial roles before her election as Chancellor in 2005.
Merkel has been credited in helping Germany steer the course to being the stable and prosperous democracy that it is today. According to the influential Financial Times of London, Angela Merkel’s entire economic philosophy is anchored on three figures: 7%, 20% and 50%. She has always noted that the EU makes up 7% and contributes 20% of the global GDP while accounting for a whopping 50% of social spending. She is a strong believer in financial prudence while shoring up economic fundamentals that ensure prosperity for all.
In 2007, the government raised sales taxes by three percentage points to 19% in order to lessen the strain on public finances. The public deficit was reduced in line with the EU Stability Pact. The government also raised the retirement age from 65 to 67 in order to reduce the demographic challenges facing an ageing society. Corporate tax reforms were also undertaken to give a new lease of life to the famed Mittelstand family-owned businesses that have been the life-blood of Germany’s post-war economic prosperity.
The administration was criticised for allegedly being slow in responding to the financial crisis of 2008-2009. The government passed a stimulus package worth €81 billion ($119.9 billion). A staggering €500 billion rescue fund was also created for ailing banks. Germany was able to weather the storm, unlike the countries of Southern Europe, particularly Greece, Portugal and Spain.
The Greek financial crisis was a particularly sore point in Europe, as the Germans were blamed for implementing what was essentially a “shock therapy” in the Greek Archipelago. Greece was virtually put under a receivership supervised by a consortium of the IMF and the European Commission. Things were so bad that it seemed Greece might have to be thrown out of the single currency, which in itself would have led to a catastrophic unravelling of the Euro. It has been a relief for the Old Continent that, at last, sanity prevailed.
Her insistence on fiscal discipline, German-style austerity measures and refusal to throw money after problems has won her few friends. But the fact that Europe has recovered and is on the path of steady growth has earned her more respect, if not admiration.
Another great achievement is in the area of energy. Following the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan, Merkel announced that Germany would be phasing out all her 17 nuclear reactors by 2022 and would embark on a long transition to alternative, more sustainable energy systems — the so-called “Energiewende”. Today, Germany is a world leader in clean energy.
Merkel also scores several points in her reform of the defence sector. In 2011, her defence minister Theodor zu Guttenberg announced abolition of compulsory military service in the Bundeswerh, the German army, thereby reducing the numbers from a costly and unwieldy 240,000 to a more manageable 170,000. The German military have been involved in UN peacekeeping missions as well as in NATO military actions – the first time they have done so since 1945.
In foreign policy, the administration was able to paper over the cracks in the Atlantic Alliance following Germany’s opposition to the American invasion of Iraq. Germany has been a strong and respected voice for peace and a law-based international order.
Within the EU, Merkel has been widely regarded as the “undisputed leader of Europe”. During her six-months Presidency of the EU Council last year, she succeeded in getting member states to agree on a framework for tackling climate change while laying a groundwork to unclutter decision-making processes in the EU.
She has kept the door of dialogue open with Russia following the Crimea crisis with Ukraine. A fluent Russian speaker, she has been in constant touch with Russian strongman Vladimir, who is said to unleash his Labradors around her when she visits, despite fully knowing of her fear of dogs. She has also avoided confrontation with China, although remaining tough on human rights issues in both China and Russia.
Like all politicians, she is not without her contradictions. She cuts the image of the boring academic that she is. She can make sudden U-turns in public policy, often dubbed as “Merkelisch”. Some smaller members of the EU resent her hegemony.
This humble daughter of a Lutheran pastor rose from the status of a humble research chemist to becoming head of one of the leading nations of the world. She was once described as the most “powerful woman in the world” and as “de facto leader of the free world”. She broke the glass ceiling in a world dominated by Alpha men from Bismarck to Konrad Adenauer, Willy Brandt and Helmut Kohl.
She achieved that feat through her strength of character, her intellect and her unique wisdom and courage. Reminds me of a line in the famous novel, Angela’s Ashes, by Irish-American writer, Frank McCourt: “You might be poor, your shoes might be broken, but your mind is a palace”.
Merkel has hardly changed her wardrobe in decades. A journalist once asked her why she often wore the same suits. She replied: “I am a government employee and not a model”.
She and her husband have lived in the same small apartment that they bought when they were a young couple, with no servants at their beck and call.
If today Germany is a prosperous democracy and voice of civility, enlightenment and moderation in international relations, it is thanks to her outstanding leadership.
Nigeria and Africa are in dire need of such leadership. God give us such men and women! As one of her great admirers recently prayed:
God be upon this silent leader.
God be upon the greatness of Germany.