Africa Diary
Africa Diary

Growing Interest of the UK in Africa

Being an important development and security partner of Nigeria and Kenya, the UK conducts annual military training in the latter African country with six infantry battalions per year.

British Prime Minister, Theresa May, visited South Africa and a number of other countries in the African mainland as part of her tour to strengthen bonds with the continent post the Brexit; a move which comes as the European Union’s ex-president raises a question on Britain’s existence. The impact of Brexit on its Africa policy could be traced in 2016 when a planned trip by the then UK Prime Minister David Cameron was cancelled with just five days’ notice because of the Brexit referendum and its results.

For her visit, PM May had chosen Kenya, Nigeria, and South Africa. None of these countries are on the United Nations' list of Least Developed Countries (LDCs). That is one of the expected reasons she choose them. They are bigger economic players in the continent and also emerging economies; there is more to be gained from the commercial relations with them.

Why Nigeria, Kenya, & South Africa: Is it Sudden?

Out of three countries, two of them — Nigeria and South Africa are the UK’s biggest trade allies in Africa, with trade worth $3.3 billion and $8.7 billion respectively in 2016. They are also the continent’s two largest economies. All three exert notable economic influence across their sub-regions and are major gateways for investment into Africa.

Though PM May's visit is the highest profile visit, it is just the latest of a number of significant engagements with Africa under May’s leadership. She committed to hold Somalia Conference in London last May; Phillip Hammond, her chancellor visited South Africa in late 2016; and her secretary of state for international trade, Liam Fox, visited Ethiopia, Mozambique, South Africa, and Uganda in 2017.

UK’s former Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson who resigned over the Brexit issue, undertook more visits to the African continent than any senior UK government official in the last few years — visiting Ethiopia, Gambia, Kenya, Liberia, Nigeria, Somalia, and Uganda in 2017. He also attended the EU-African Union summit in Côte d’Ivoire. Moreover, former International Development Secretary, Priti Patel and her successor Penny Mordaunt, have made a significant number of visits to African countries over the past two years as well.

However, the UK is not alone in seeking to forge ties in the African continent. The presidents of France and Turkey, for example, have made far more visits to Africa since 2010, and even the geographically distant Japan has managed to send more representatives than British heads of government. India-Japan Dialogue on Africa is a good example of building ties in Africa; the Asia-Africa Growth Corridor (AAGC) is an important component of the India-Japan Vision 2025 for Indo-Pacific Region. It further converges with Japan’s Free and Open Partnership for Quality Infrastructure (EPQI) and India’s development cooperation with Africa.

Given that policy bandwidth and policymakers in London are overwhelmed by Brexit, it is also significant the UK’s National Security Council confirmed a new Africa strategy in early 2018. Kenya, Nigeria, and South Africa were obvious destinations as they are priorities for British foreign policy and key members of the Commonwealth. Prime Minister's agenda of discussing the threat of Boko Haram in Nigeria, and the role of British troops based in Kenya (who are helping countries fight Al-Shabab militants in Somalia) are a reflection of London's policies for the continent.

Being an important development and security partner of Nigeria and Kenya, the UK conducts annual military training in the latter African country with six infantry battalions per year. Also, in 2016, it pledged £40 million of counter-terrorism and counter-extremism support to Nigeria in combating Boko Haram. Nigeria is among the top five recipients of the UK's aid globally, receiving the second-highest assistance in the continent after Ethiopia; and on the other side, Kenya’s is one of the largest travel markets for the UK with over 168,000 British visitors in 2017.

However, trade is the biggest of all agendas as Nigeria and South Africa are the UK’s biggest trading partners in the continent, — with trade worth $3.3 billion and $8.7 billion respectively in 2016 — and are Africa’s two largest economies; Kenya ranks ninth. All three exert significant economic influence across the region and are key gateways for investment into the rest of the continent.

Operation Fear: A Deal before Brexit

Britain leaving the EU without a deal posed an "existential threat" to the country, as it would have a "big impact" on "regions such as Scotland". The government ministers were part of Operation Fear, whose intention was to scare the EU into compromising on a deal. PM May’s trip to Africa focused on "deepening and strengthening its global partnerships" ahead of her country’s departure from the EU in 2019. The main objectives that her nation – through her – was hoping to achieve were boosting the UK’s fortunes via a trade mission after the Brexit period. This marked her first trip to the country following her election as the PM in 2016.

The Africans are being wooed by multiple economies, and they need to declare their pick: a go-getting but welcoming China, the huge European Union community, the yet-to-be-explored potential of the United States, or the historically-connected United Kingdom. The trade figures also clear matters; in 2015, trade between the UK and Africa amounted to $36bn (£28bn), which was way behind EU’s $305bn. In the same year, Africa's trade with China reached $188bn; and between the US and Africa, it totalled $53bn.

Standing Alone: How Far UK Could Go?

African influence in geo-economics should not be underestimated; a united African position can be a powerful force as the recent African support for the Paris climate change agreement showed. Revisiting its term with African states can be an important part of the May administration's efforts to shore up its international relevance and influence after it leaves the European Union.

The UK accounts for just three percent of trade with the entire African continent's goods and services imports. The UK’s trade presence in Africa was not always this low: until late-1990s Britain accounted for nearly seven percent of the continent’s imports.

The present UK administration appears optimistic that it can change this. “As the Prime Minister announced during her speech in South Africa, the UK’s post-Brexit ambition is to be the G7’s number one investor in Africa by 2022,” said George Hollingbery, International Trade Minister.

A spectrum of measures was announced to help to grow trade and achieve this ambition including the rollover of the ambitious UK-Southern African Economic Partnership Agreement on trade as soon as the EU deal no longer applies to the UK and the Africa Investment Summit 2019 to be held in the UK.

Can this affect Indian and Chinese Prospects in the Continent?

Recently, China held a forum on cooperation with Africa in Beijing, where talks were around China offering new trade and finance deals. Would Africans consider China over the UK? Tunji Andrews, an economist based in Nigeria's commercial hub Lagos has an answer; she says, “We welcome both Mrs May and the Chinese, and like any other developing economy we'll do the business that suits us best... I think it's impossible not to look at the British market at this point, but I'll also say that while the UK remains a viable trade partner, it just doesn't hold the same value to Africa as China and to a lesser extent, the United States".

Not only China and the United States, but May must keep track of the Indian proactive policies in Africa where the bilateral trade between India and Africa touched $56.9 billion FY2015-16 comparing to $11.7 billion FY2005-06. It is further expected to exceed $100 billion by the end of 2018 according to AfDB. India is the fifth biggest investor in Africa, with investments over the past 20 years amounting to $54 billion — 19.2 percent of Africa’s foreign direct investment. This not only helped finance the projects in African countries but have also contributed to skill and capacity-building and education.

Looking into the below graphs we can see China and India, along with other European giants such as France and Germany, are way ahead of UK in their investments in the continent. Recently Angela Merkel’s visit at almost the same time as May in Senegal, Ghana, and Nigeria was focused on seeking new opportunities in the resource-rich continent. The German chancellor, with nearly a dozen top German CEOs in tow, pushed for increased investment to create jobs in the region which will offer the locals viable livelihoods and disincentivise migration. This also has a co-related plan to control the African migration to Germany most of which are for employment and better livelihood. She had success at some extent as Automobile giant Volkswagen announced plans to expand operations in both Nigeria and Ghana promising more investment and jobs in two of West Africa’s largest economies. However, there’s a political upside for Merkel too. Being a soft target for her handling of the growing migrant influx in Germany, reversing the course will be crucial for her party during the next federal elections.

Prime Minister May's message of “partnership” and sharing “mutual benefits” during her visit was somewhere a disguised reference to Beijing’s model on Africa which has been criticised by many as “Debt-trap Diplomacy” or neo-colonial model.

However, it will take more than impassioned statements by London to make up for the head-start China or India or Germany currently enjoys. As Africans have increasingly looked East rather than West over the past decade, will these factors help solidify Britain’s relationship with the African countries? Only time will tell.

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