Britain’s message to Africa

Monday, 27 August 2018
Nicholas Westcott

On 28 August, Theresa May will pay her first visit to Africa as British Prime Minister, the first substantive visit to Africa by any British PM since 2011. This is good news, and a golden opportunity to reset Britain’s relations with the continent. But what should her message be?

For one thing, there is some ground to make up. The recent lack of high level government visits, the rapid turnover of Ministers responsible for Africa, and a focus often apparently limited to development and security, has left many in Africa feeling neglected by Britain. Many Commonwealth African leaders came to the UK for the Heads of Government meeting in April this year, but it has been largely one way traffic.

Britain’s relations with Africa have been long-standing, intensely close, important for both parties, and frequently bumpy. The legacy of the slave trade and decades of colonial rule leave a deep mark. But Africa has now been independent (again) for nearly as long as it was colonised, and this enables us to put a fresh perspective on relations.

There is certainly great potential for excellent relations in the future. As the Commonwealth summit demonstrated, there remains a strong residual sympathy towards Britain as a country and its monarch as a person. London and the UK remain important cultural reference points for many Africans, whether through football, the English language, education or family connections. Many dream of visiting, though the current visa regime does seem to make it as difficult and expensive as possible.

Equally, there are many in this country for whom Africa is important. In towns and cities throughout the country there are thousands of people with deep links to African communities all over the continent, through local aid initiatives, town and hospital twinning arrangements, cultural links, business contacts, personal friendships and family links. The bonds are far deeper and wider than we think.

Britain is also proud of its status as a ‘development superpower’, committed to maintain an aid budget worth 0.7% of national GDP, making it one of the biggest bilateral donors in the world and with major programmes in a number of African countries. 

But still Britain’s current impact in Africa is limited. The footprint of British diplomatic missions on the continent has grown slightly since the mid 2000s (from 27 missions to 31), though still lagging well behind Germany (39), France (41), China (46) and the US (49). The number of ministers visiting in the past year has gone up, but none of this has really translated into the kind of close relationships we want, and need - as demonstrated by the UK’s failure to attract African votes in recent UN elections, eg for the WHO and ICJ. 

This is compounded by two challenges: to identify exactly what the UK’s policy on Africa is; and to tackle the uncertainty arising from Brexit. 

On the first, British policy has appeared fragmented, with different departments doing different things, and a focus only on a few countries considered of strategic importance such as Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa, Ethiopia and Somalia. Though every country is different and fiercely independent, Africa does see itself collectively and we should respond appropriately. A more coherent overall policy makes sense.

On Brexit, Africans expectations are high that Britain will (have to) pay more attention to Africa after exiting the EU. They see an opportunity that a new relationship will offer Africa more than it used to receive from the UK through the EU, especially on trade where the EPAs remain unpopular with many. But this will require extra resources and new concessions - on market access for example - that may be hard to deliver in practice given the costs and constraints of the Brexit process. So there is a risk expectations will be disappointed.

All this points to the importance of the Prime Minister using her visit to bring a message that outlines a clear, concise and coherent strategic vision of Britain’s future relations with Africa. This message should have three crucial components.

First and foremost, it needs to demonstrate a new and vital partnership with African countries based on mutual respect, mutual interests and a higher level of engagement. This visit should not be a one-off. It needs to be followed up regularly.

Secondly, the purpose of this engagement, the focus of British policy, should be two things: promoting Africa’s prosperity, in particular through encouraging faster economic growth and supporting African entrepreneurship, infrastructure and basic services; and increasing the security of African people by ending conflicts, improving governance and preventing terrorism. These are easier said than done, but they provide a clear strategic direction for more practical interactions and interventions. 

Thirdly, to achieve these objectives the Government needs to identify the critical areas of change where the UK can most usefully support practical action.

First among these should be support for African efforts to improve governance. Unlike some other parts of the world, in Africa democracy is still moving forwards, not backwards. Accountable government is spreading, not because donors are demanding it but because Africans are. It is an uphill task, as some recent elections (and in some countries, the lack of them) have shown. But the UK has many years of experience in building and maintaining accountability in government: through parliaments, improved financial management, audit offices and court systems, through reinforcing the rule of law and in combating corruption. Programmes on these issues, though small and labour intensive, have over the years yielded more benefit than many of the higher spending projects. None of these are easy, and where corruption is an integral part of the political system our efforts will often be frustrated or ineffective. But programmes to tackle such evils as trafficking in people or illegal wildlife products, or action to improve counter-terrorist operations, will not succeed without greater democracy and better overall governance.

A second critical area is stimulating economic growth in a way that actually creates jobs for young people, above all by enabling them to use their entrepreneurial capabilities. These are too often stifled, and economic support too often focussed on attracting foreign investment. Africa’s greatest resource lies within, and it is the people not the raw materials. It is in everyone’s interests that young Africans find opportunities in Africa, rather than seek them elsewhere. The basic infrastructure, physical and educational, needs to exist, and foreign investment remains an invaluable contribution; but more needs to be done to stimulate opportunities for individuals and local businesses in the countries themselves. 

A third critical issue is migration. Support for action against illegal trafficking and people smugglers is necessary, but it is not sufficient. The latest Afrobarometer data illustrates clearly that it is the more educated that migrate, not the less educated. So this tendency can be turned to the UK's advantage if we attract the brightest of the young generation, the rising leaders of Africa, to work in or be educated in the UK before returning to build businesses and provide inspiration - just as young Britons also benefit from studying abroad. But this means making legal migration, especially for education, easier not more difficult. This is a key test of whether Britain will be truly ‘Global’ in the future, or whether it is merely a hollow slogan.

Finally, it is worth reviewing where to focus these efforts geographically. The big strategic and Commonwealth partners remain important. But there is an equal imperative to help the most fragile regions - the Horn, the Great Lakes and the Sahel. It is a good thing to expand Britain’s footprint on the continent, to open posts in countries like Chad and Niger as well as in Commonwealth ones like Lesotho and eSwatini. But to have impact, we need critical mass, and that means reviewing the distribution as well as volume of our support now we will no longer be able to lean on the EU in some parts of the continent. Close coordination with EU partners will remain essential. But the tough questions are whether, for example, we will continue to pay our share of AMISOM costs, or continue to support training missions in the Sahel.

This is a moment to renew and strengthen our partnership with Africa. But it needs an investment, an increase in resources, and a clear public message - even if ultimately, in this new world of post-truth politics, it is not words but actions that will matter.