The UK And Africa, A Reset of The Relationship

The House of the Lords

Few nations of the Western hemisphere have a more established relationship with Africa, than The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, or as it is commonly known,  the UK. At face value, the latest report from the country’s parliament, could not be more progressive, but without commensurate self-awareness from Africa, it could be little more than a perpetuation of control over the continent. 

The Report, The UK and Sub-Saharan Africa: prosperity, peace and development cooperation, is the result of an extensive inquiry by one of the committees in the upper, revising chamber, of the British Parliament, the House of Lords. 

Like all committees, The Select Committee on International Relations and Defence, took both oral and written evidence from a wide range of witnesses, academics, think tanks, development organisations, among many.

It addresses almost all aspects of the relationship between the UK, and the fourty nine countries of Sub Saharan Africa. It looks at everything from trade, including the Africa Continental Free Trade Area (AFCTA) security, development, engagement with the UK African Diaspora, and how the perception of the UK in Africa, is affected by domestic policy decisions on visas to the UK, for instance. 

The report calls for greater commitment to engage with Africa’s development agenda, and it would be unjust to see this as anything other than sincere, but it is also certainly understood as enlightened self interest.

During her Africa visit last year, the then Prime minister, Theresa May, did more than invent a new dance, even though its unusual nature seemed to overshadow weightier matters. She announced “a fundamental strategic shift” in the UK’s relations with Africa. 

 But not even the reprising of the unique dance on her return home, including at her party’s annual conference, was enough to win her another term of office, and this strategic shift had to be taken up by a new administration.  

As the committee report notes however, the shift in relationship with Africa, has long been heralded by successive governments, but none had given it priority, in the face of competing demands.

“We are disappointed to conclude” the report says, “that the government’s ‘strategic approach’ to Africa falls short-it is not a strategy, but rather, some broad ideas and themes.”

It recommends that, “the government should publish a clearly articulated list of priorities for its engagement with Africa, and an action plan for meeting them. The context of the UK’s departure from the European Union (EU), and the Integrated Review of foreign policy, defence, and international development present a timely opportunity for a renewal of the UK’s engagement with Africa.”

These priorities will be informed by the importance of Africa to the UK. As the report outlines, the population of Africa is expected to double to just over 2billion, by 2050. 

“In the next 30 years to 2050 it [Africa] it will see unprecedented social and economic changes, some of which present enormous economic opportunities. Others create challenges which could be overwhelming for some individual nations. The African Union (AU) has developed a long term strategy to meet these challenges and to harness opportunities. The UK should take a greater interest in, and seek stronger partnerships with, Sub Saharan Africa to support the delivery of the AU’s long term strategy.”

With an expanding young population, a growing middle class, in some of the world’s fastest growing economies, the largest bloc in the UN, the report as might be expected, regards Africa as of “strategic and geopolitical importance to the UK.”

As might be expected, the committee gives particular attention to the ‘British Commonwealth of Nations.’  

“The cultural, educational, language and other soft power connections of the Commonwealth provide a substantial basis for a further strengthening of the UK ties. We believe the UK should work with the 19 African members of the Commonwealth to seek ways in which its work in the continent could be strengthened.”

The Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) that was to have been held in Kigali in June, had to be postponed to 2021, because of Covid-19. It will be interesting what, if any influence the report will have on it, when it does happen.

There are specific recommendations to best position the UK to take advantage of these opportunities, including a change in how African visa applicants to the UK are treated. 

“During the course of our inquiry” the report reads, “it became clear that aspects of the UK’s domestic policy have a direct impact on its reputation in Africa. We received overwhelming evidence that the UK’s visa policies are damaging its reputation. We recommend that the Home Office should urgently review the UK’s approach to issuing visas to people from Africa…”

Typical of the UK’s unfailingly sensitive weather vane, the report gives a nod to the Black Lives Matter movement that has now arrived in Britain, from across the Atlantic in America. 

“We also heard evidence of the lasting impact of the historical legacy of slavery and colonialism on perceptions of the UK in the region. It is necessary to address appropriately both the treatment of black people in the UK, and this historical legacy, including through fostering better knowledge among UK citizens.”

Struggles and campaigns to address racism and inequality in the UK have a long history that predates the Black Lives Matter movement, but there can be no doubt that the movement has galvanised older, more established struggles. 

A lot of the concerns in the report clearly reflect some success from the UK African Diaspora long campaign to be consulted on the UK’s policy on Africa. 

“We were struck by evidence that remittances from the UK to Sub Saharan Africa exceed aid and charitable giving. Remittances are given too little profile in the narrative of the UK’s economic relationship with Sub Saharan Africa, and the government should work to lower the cost of remitting money to the region. We also urge the government to embed consultation with Diaspora communities into policy making.”

The African Foundation for Development (AFFORD) is an organisation that campaigns to engage the African Diaspora in Africa’s development. It has toiled for over two decades for the impact of remittances on Africa’s economies to be recognised. 

The Select Committee report will be a significant step in the organisation’s campaign for the UK government to pay greater attention to the importance of remittances, and the part the Diaspora plays in development of their countries of origin. 

In a rare public recognition of the unequal relationship between Africa and Western nations, the report recommends that “the UK’s future relationship with countries of Africa and their regional institutions needs to be based, as has not always been the case in the past, on a genuine partnership…”

This is characteristic of the UK, always knowing which way the wind is blowing. Not for them the extraordinarily tone deaf French demand that their former colonies pay a tax for “the benefits of colonialism.”

The UK has been and remains one of Africa’s biggest aid donor, and much of the aid is directed at poverty reduction. 

But a major consideration of this relationship is the advantage it brings to the UK. This is brought in sharper relief, by Britain’s exit from the European Union. 

The report recommends that working with international partners in relationships with Africa remain UK’s policy, with China and France, earning special mentions. 

“Working with international partners should remain an important part of the UK’s approach to Sub Saharan Africa…We identify common interests between the UK and France, particularly in the Sahel…”

“Many African governments regard China as an important partner and source of investment, and the UK should seek to work constructively with China where appropriate, especially through multilateral institutions, on such issues as debt, health, climate change and trade, while defending UK national interests and values…”

This is a report that looks at UK’s relations with Africa, from a UK perspective, but also from an African perspective, in as far as that perspective has an impact on the UK. 

What is instructive is that few, far fewer than a handful of African countries will even consider similar reports, from their own perspective. 

The majority will depend on the UK, and “the international community,” which always means Western nations, to recognise that Africa deserves “genuine partnerships.”

In effect, the Western partners will determine where African “interests and values” are best served.  




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