Britain Dances Around Relations with Africa

Africa Integrity finds it remarkable that five years elapsed between former prime minister David Cameron’s attendance at Nelson Mandela’s funeral in 2013 and prime minister Theresa May’s official visit to Africa in August this year. The most recent previous prime ministerial trade mission was in 2011. Quite apart from a tendency to treat the entire continent as one country, it is also striking how limited both leaders have been in their continental ambitions. In 2011, Cameron had intended to spend five days on the continent, visiting South Africa, Nigeria, Rwanda and the then-newly formed South Sudan.  In the event, he cut the visit to just two days and then slashed that paltry window of time by seven hours to return home for domestic political reasons.  He managed to make flying visits only to South Africa and Nigeria, both pretty obvious destinations that already enjoy reasonably cordial trade relations with Britain.

In August, Theresa May did slightly better, calling again on South Africa and Nigeria, and adding Kenya to her itinerary, where she showed off her dance moves and extolled a bright trading future between Britain and Africa.  If this is what she intends, her actions don’t match her rhetoric. A whirlwind tour of the three anglophone giants among the African economies is simply not good enough.  Where is the engagement with francophone economies, some of which (such as Rwanda and Gabon) have made symbolic overtures to the UK by bringing the English language to the centre of their political and commercial spheres? Why are Britain’s diplomats and politicians hesitant to engage meaningfully with the francophone bloc, which – with its currencies tied to the Euro – is increasingly keen to break free of the constraints put on it by the European Central Bank and reduce its dependency on the former colonial power?

Where is the engagement with Angola, an oil-economy to rival Nigeria that has recently embarked on an exciting new post-dos Santos era?  Why did Zimbabwe, historically so close to the UK and now struggling to free itself from the mire of the Mugabe-era, not merit a supportive visit?  And, as for South Sudan – which so badly needs friends in the west – and Somaliland – which wishes to establish itself as independent from Somalia – they might as well not exist.

Africa is a mighty continent, with a young, generally well-educated population that is as hungry for political change as it is for consumer goods. Whether or not Brexit is the right choice for Britain, it is looming large.  And, in Africa Integrity’s experience, many Africans embrace Brexit. They see opportunities for post-Brexit Britain to adopt a more inclusive global immigration policy.  And they are optimistic about the advantages that potentially freer trade with Britain – still held in such high regard and affection by many Africans – will bring.  The youth of Africa no longer see themselves as supplicants for aid but as potential partners to a more globally-orientated Britain after its departure from the EU.  The response from Britain’s political leaders to date has been woefully inadequate, if not insultingly dismissive, and will only weaken its relationship with the continent as other international players increase their engagement.

This article originally featured in Africa Integrity’s October 2018 Newsletter. To join our newsletter mailing list, please contact us.

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