Africa is a missing piece of the ‘Global Britain’ jigsaw, one that needs to be put in place. And it is a continent where Britain needs to work not only with African countries but with European ones too. This requires a more positive relationship with both.
From the moment Boris Johnson became Foreign Secretary in 2016, he boosted the idea of a post-Brexit ‘Global Britain’, outward-looking and a friend to all nations. The then FCO laboured to put flesh on the bones of this idea, which eventually emerged in March 2021 as the Integrated Review. Its main themes were a focus on security and a pivot to Asia, though there were warm – if brief – words about almost everything else, including Africa. In line with the government’s policies elsewhere, it promised all things to all men.
The rest of the world, however, has learnt to judge the government by its actions, not its words. For African countries, the drastic cut in aid budgets, particularly bilateral ones, the rolling over of existing trade arrangements and the tightening of immigration controls are more real than encouraging rhetoric about increased investment. Even the Commonwealth seems to have dropped down the government’s priority list.
Of course, British relations with Africa are far more than government policy. Business and personal links remain strong. But what the government does still matters, and other global trends make it more important than ever.
The world is going through a shifting of gears. The comfortable and familiar world where international cooperation gathered pace, multilateral institutions were strong, the US underpinned the system, and Britain played a significant and constructive role in the world, has not only frayed but is being fundamentally undermined.
The emergence of a more powerful China, alongside more assertive regional powers such as Russia, Turkey, Iran, India and Brazil, and a global proliferation of populist nationalists, including in the US and the UK, is a sign of deeper structural change. Many people were clearly not comfortable with an increasingly global and collaborative world. They wanted something closer to home, more closed, ‘safer’, rooted in a better past rather than a belief in a better future.
So the old world is dying and the new one struggles to be born, as Gramsci put it in 1930.
The response of Brexiteers to this shift (if they thought about it at all) was that Britain should cut itself free of international obligations and sail unrestrained on the tide of history, ‘free’ to choose its own path and the profitable bits of a globalised world, and to shut out the rest, such as refugees and migrants. This fantasy is reflected in the Integrated Review – strangely, from the pen of a devotee of realpolitik in John Bew. It failed to take account of the decay of international institutions and the rule of law, to which Brexit so notably contributed, or the return of power politics to international relations. As I have argued here before, Brexit diminished Britain’s power. If we are to maintain our influence, and protect our interests, Britain needs a more collaborative and less combative foreign policy.
For now, however, the consequence is that the British government has prioritised a subordinate relationship to the US over a more equal partnership with Europe. Bad relations with both the EU and its member states (which, contrary to Brexiteer belief, cannot be separated) look set to continue for the foreseeable future. For forty-four years, the EU was the mechanism by which we resolved policy differences with our European neighbours. With no effective alternative mechanism in place, Brexit is a recipe for continuous political conflict – as we are seeing.
This impacts on Britain’s relations with Africa. Britain is seen as increasingly uninfluential, un-present and un-useful in Africa. There is still a good deal of sympathy, warmth, even nostalgia for Britain’s Royal family, for London, the BBC and the universities; there is lively interest in the football, and there are strong family ties with the African diaspora in the UK. But for business Africans are looking to China, for education to the US, and for fun to Dubai.
The annual rotation of Britain’s Africa minister and the lack of interest in No 10 mean there is no sustained engagement at the top level. Many African leaders came to Glasgow for COP 26, but few got into No 10.
Despite this, what happens in Africa still matters to the UK. It remains the continent with the greatest growth potential, powered by its growing population and the entrepreneurial talent of its youth. British business should be getting in early, building contacts and partnerships. But there are impediments: African governments too dependent on vested interests to promote open economic policies; bureaucratic inefficiency and political corruption; and a growing vulnerability to both climate and conflict; all these impede the prospects for growth and need to be managed by outside investors.
Climate change in particular is having an impact on Africa, exacerbating conflict and displacing growing numbers of people. That Africa’s most unstable countries lie in the most environmentally vulnerable areas – the Horn and the Sahel – reflects this. One of them, Ethiopia, was considered a developmental model, but is now mired in a vicious civil war. What it means is that those who cannot make a living in Africa, will move somewhere that they can.
Such changes will impact Europe. Both Britain and its European neighbours need to act swiftly to support African growth, stable and accountable governments, and efforts to resolve conflicts. There is a growing tension between the liberal democratic model of development and more authoritarian models encouraged by China, Russia, Turkey or Gulf states promoting their own economic or political interests. African governments will pick the partner that best suits them, or benefits them the most.
Recent Afrobarometer polls show that 70-80% of ordinary Africans want to live in a democracy where their governments are chosen in free and fair elections, and where their human rights are protected. It is in Europe’s interests to support those aspirations. European governments cannot do it alone; they need to work together. So Britain needs to work far more closely with its European neighbours and pay more consistent attention to Africa if it is to preserve its influence on the continent.
This matters at the United Nations too. The African bloc of 54 countries is a crucial force, and Britain needs to be its best friend at the UN if it is to sustain its credibility as a Security Council member for the future. Without their votes, we will be seen as a much diminished power.
Author: Nick Westcott is Director of the Royal African Society and Research Associate at the Centre for International Studies and Diplomacy at SOAS University of London. From 2011-17 he was Managing Director in the EU’s External Action Service in Brussels, firstly for Africa and then for the Middle East and North Africa. After completing a PhD in African history at Cambridge University, he worked from 1982-2011 for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in a number of posts in London, Brussels, Washington DC and in Africa, including as British High Commissioner to Ghana from 2008. He is the author of Imperialism and Development (James Currey, 2020) and articles on African history and British and European foreign policy. He tweets @NickWestcottRAS.
The blog was first posted on Encompass.
The views are those of the authors and not necessarily those of ETTG.