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Africa-UK: Business as usual

By Olivier Caslin
Posted on Friday, 26 February 2021 13:27

At the previous UK-Africa investment summit, in London, January 20, 2020 © Photo by REX

Some 15 heads of state and government travelled to London to partake in the “New Partnership” proposal put forward by Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

Twelve days later, the UK officially left the European Union, ushering in a transition period which, on 1 January 2021, led to the effective implementation of the Brexit agreement.

As Johnson pointed out on 20 January, “a lot has changed in a year”. The head of the British government then addressed, by video conference, the participants of the second UK-Africa Investment Summit.

Held online due to the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, this second edition was far less glamorous than the first.

Although opportunities have become scarce, the British cabinet nevertheless took advantage of the meeting to reassure the continent, one year to the day after the first summit. “One thing that absolutely has not changed is my ambition for the UK to be Africa’s investment partner of choice,” said Johnson in his opening statement.

Originality and pragmatism

A year earlier, Johnson had deserted the corridors of Davos to welcome some of his “African friends” personally: Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame, Egypt’s Abdel Fattah al-Sissi and Senegal’s Macky Sall.

Accompanied by his principal ministers and in the presence of Prince William, he had proposed – with British pragmatism and originality – hosting an extraordinary event that would combine diplomacy and business.

The summit concluded with a dual promise from the British government to mobilise almost £4bn (€4.5bn) in public aid and by the private sector to invest a further £6.5bn in more than 25 industrial or energy projects across the continent.

Thus bringing a real “wind of Afro-optimism to London”, according to the local press. Today, the pace of investment has been somewhat slowed by Covid-19 and a timetable overloaded by the new priorities of a post-Brexit UK under construction.

Politically and economically, the concept of a “Global Britain” – dear to Johnson and the Brexiters – that of a Great Britain freed from the chains of Europe and ready to sail into the winds of globalisation remains largely to be built, especially on the international scene.

“It is too nationalist a vision to be shared outside the United Kingdom,” said a London-based editor, as is the case for the African continent that intends to take advantage of the upheaval caused by Brexit.

There is not much change for the time being. “The trade agreements now signed in Africa with London are not very different from those previously signed with Brussels,” notes the editor.

Cultivate its difference

The so-called “rollover agreements” have made it possible to respond to the most pressing needs by guaranteeing the same conditions of access to the British market as in the past, without really making any further improvements.

“Clearly the UK has neither the time nor the resources to build its bilateral trade relationships with key trading partners in the African continent post-Brexit,” says Kieran Davis of the National Institute for African Studies.

The same is true for security and migration issues. The UK has indeed “regained control” of its borders as well as its labour market, but – for the moment – within the same framework as before.

The Prime Minister has repeatedly promised that his country would be “more open to migrants from Africa”, but “the UK has not demonstrated enough vigour and commitment for improving its migration policy,” says Davis.

In terms of security, London continues to cultivate its difference on the continent by opening its own embassies in the Sahel and by engaging in the training of the Nigerian army against Boko Haram.

It also continues to support its European allies, as the British air force provides air support for Operation Barkhane in the Sahel. It does so to ensure its own security and economic interests.

Now in direct competition with the rest of the world, which also has a keen eye on Africa, the UK will soon have to move out of the community comfort zone it has been in for several decades, both in terms of its partners and its know-how.

Although the idea has been touted, it is not very likely that the Commonwealth and its nineteen African countries could replace or rival the European market any time soon.

“This institution should be reorganised so that it takes more into account the economic weight of India and other countries like Nigeria,” says a source familiar with the Commonwealth’s operations. This transformation does not seem to be on the agenda of the organisation’s next summit, which will take place in Kigali in June.

Dissensions within the family

In the meantime, London is strengthening its ties with members of its community. Of the fifteen African countries that have so far signed bilateral agreements with the UK, only Mozambique, Côte d’Ivoire, Morocco and Cameroon are not English-speaking.

But even within the family, dissension exists. While traditional partners like South Africa and Mauritius have been able to drag their neighbours along in their wake, Ghana signed up late and Nigeria is still refusing to do so.

Kenya meanwhile has been reprimanded by its peers within the East African Community (EAC) for its readiness to reach an agreement with London.

The competition looks set to be tough for the UK – which is already losing ground commercially on the continent – with the arrival of new international partners from African countries, which have long since learned to source their supplies elsewhere.

With the City, London of course has a trump card to capitalise on in the immediate future. However, many of Britain’s partners in Africa and elsewhere want to see if London’s “global” vision will be different from business as usual.

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