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Reassessing the UK’s Muddled Approach to Africa

A parliamentary report documents the lack of strategic foresight in the UK’s approach to Africa.

Just before the end of the parliamentary term, the House of Lords’ International Relations and Defence Committee published its report, ‘The UK and Sub-Saharan Africa: Prosperity, Peace and Development Co-operation’. The report set out to explore the UK’s future strategic relationship with sub-Saharan Africa, but instead uncovered large gaps and an incoherent approach to the African continent, suggesting that the ‘strategic approach’ launched in 2018 ‘does not live up to its name’, and lacks genuine and lasting partnerships. As a result, the committee’s report found that the ‘UK's reputation in Africa has taken a real hit’ and remains a collection of ‘broad ideas’ with little clarity on how to put them into action.

In essence, the report concludes that ‘it is time to press the reset button and use the timing of the UK’s exit from the EU and the Integrated Review to develop an action plan for a new relationship’. The report goes on to say that ‘there are concrete steps the UK can take now … including supporting initiatives to improve African representation at the UN and in other international organisations … and using our exit from the EU to open up our domestic market to a new fairer trade relationship with African countries’.

General Sir Richard Barron’s evidence argues that although ‘politicians… and officials’ often say that ‘Africa really matters’, ‘almost in the next paragraph, Africa becomes the fourth priority’. This is evident by the fact that since 1989, there have been 20 ministers for Africa within the Foreign Office, an average tenure of just over 18 months.

The UK also lacks a long-term strategic end goal in Africa, particularly concerning peace and security issues. For example, in regions such as the Sahel, the UK is deploying troops as part of the UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali but lacks a clear vision of what its specific long-term objectives are in the Sahel. This is particularly important given the spread of instability which may impact the UK's partnership with Ghana. And it is not helped by the fact that the UK has not contributed to most missions in Africa in recent years, aside from the missions in the SahelSouth Sudan and the Horn of Africa intended to secure the seaways from Europe to Asia.

Vivid Memories Turn to Fantasies

In 2018, Prime Minister Theresa May set out the UK’s ‘fundamental strategic shift’ in its relations with Africa by expressing her aspiration that the UK would overtake the US to become the G7’s leading investor in Africa by 2022. The UK’s private sector was urged to take the lead in investing billions that will see African economies growing by trillions and help to create jobs across the continent.

May also set out to support efforts to tackle extremism, instability and to deal with migration flows. Finally, the prime minister had ambitious plans to attract up to £4bn of private sector investment to the continent. May aimed to outline a vision of a ‘Global Britain’ which would rely heavily on its reinforced cooperation with Commonwealth countries. However, the UK may have significantly overestimated its relevance and influence across Africa.

Before the coronavirus pandemic, many African states enjoyed a selection of lucrative partnerships with the EU, China, India or the US. These options are a far cry from what Africa had in the early 1990s when many African leaders were trying to restructure their states, fight conflicts, attract investment and build democracies. Today’s Africa is in a position to play one partner off against the other, choosing the best for their clientele, which would not necessarily favour the UK given the strong bargaining position of other major challengers. Despite its historical ties, the UK is yet to offer something new or distinctive.

Missed Opportunities And Misaligned Priorities 

Early this year, the UK hosted the UK–Africa Investment Summit, where it outlined the foundations for a new medium-term post-Brexit economic partnership by diversifying investment in Africa. Nevertheless, the UK still lacks a coherent plan, and the one-day summit offered very little in terms of a follow-up agenda and appeared to be led by government officials scrambling to engage Africa’s next generation of leaders without a strategy or agreed set of priorities. While UK–Africa trade increased 7.5% last year to £36 billion and was meant to be enhanced by Brexit, this still lags behind the US, the Netherlands and France.

Two additional flaws continue to limit the UK's approach to Africa. First, Africa is often viewed through the lens of rivalry and with strong criticism of Chinese investment. It is no surprise then that the committee's report warns of an alienating relationship between the UK and African countries, in terms of trade and investment, at a time of growth in the continent and increased integration through the African Continental Free Trade Area. Second, the UK still views and presents its relationship with Africa through the lens of what the UK can get from Africa or as a humanitarian cause instead of asking why Africa should look to the UK, especially now that China, the US, the EU and France are all providing Africa with competitive options.

The committee’s report should, therefore, be seen as a way of resetting and strengthening the UK's position in Africa by creating a robust new foreign policy post-Brexit, and not one dependent on perceptions of historical allegiance which continue to decline.

Capitalising on The Integrated Review

In February this year, Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced ‘the largest review of the UK’s foreign, defence, security and development since the end of the Cold War’. Alongside the committee’s report, the review can be a guide for adjusting to new dynamics across the African continent. This helpful in the context of Brexit, creating opportunities to not only reconsider the UK’s interests and values but to understand where the UK is best placed to sustain its support for Africa.

For example, lessons could be learnt from Turkey which since 2002 has supported several UN missions in Africa with personnel sent to missions in Côte d'Ivoire, the DRCLiberia, and Darfur.

Supporting Stability as Part of The UK’s Strategy 

The UK has a unique opportunity to support the work being done by the African Union on ‘silencing the guns’ as well as the work of regional economic communities like the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD).

The UK could start by helping shift African and international responses away from a reliance on counterterrorist solutions to security challenges, and towards conflict prevention, mitigation and peacebuilding. This should extend to supporting the UN peacebuilding and sustaining peace initiative and fund, which the UN Secretary-General outlined in his 2020–2024 strategy. The UK should increase its commitment to peacebuilding, conflict management and resolution in Africa, which over the last five years has mainly relied on counterterrorism responses through military means, which fail to address the underlying socio-economic and political drivers of conflict, at the expense of broader economic and political approaches. Commitment here does not mean dominating the agenda and telling people what to do but it means supporting locally established solutions and bottom-up approaches to conflict resolution. This should extend to diffusing and supporting African solutions to African problems through the expertise of the Stabilisation Unit using the Conflict, Stability and Security Fund. The UK (with support from ECOWAS, primarily Nigeria) has the experience to support these initiatives, as evidenced by its intervention in Sierra Leone, and its support of disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration and security sector reform initiatives. All of which would support the AU ‘silencing the guns’ initiative.

The UK first needs to understand its place in Africa and either invest in or work alongside countries through strategic partnerships. Part of this approach requires the UK to reset its thinking, consider Africa on an equal footing and answer the fundamental question of why Africa should now look back to the UK. Countries like China, France and Turkey are examples of actors that have a unified plan and are devoting resources to their strategies.

The merger of the Department for International Development with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the Integrated Review and the House of Lords’ International Relations and Defence Committee report, all provide the UK government with an opportunity to rethink and set out a clear strategy that keeps up with where the world is heading. The UK government has been a champion and world leader in providing developmental aid to Africa for several decades. However, while eliminating poverty is important, it is not in itself a coherent strategy for how to solidify future engagement with the world, but in particular the African continent.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author's, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.


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