Africa: Six years of change
Posted on 28th June, 2023 in Director's Blog
The past six years as Director of the Royal African Society have been fascinating and richly rewarding, not just in terms of Britain’s relations with Africa, but in the relations of Africans – and all people of African heritage – with Britain. Britain itself has changed, and they are central to that change.
It has not been an easy time: Brexit, Black Lives Matter, Covid, and the Ukraine war have all impacted on our work, as has the real and accelerating impact of climate change in Africa. As a Society, we have addressed and adapted to these changes, both in policy and personal ways. We work more flexibly; we’ve devoted more time and effort to fund-raising to ensure we can continue to pursue our objective of making African voices heard; we’ve held conferences and debates on the major issues, and we’ve mobilised Parliament to ensure Africa is not neglected by government, is more accurately portrayed to children in school, and to ensure Africans have fairer access through visas to visit this country.
Africa itself is changing, faster than any other continent on the planet. Its astonishing demographic growth – one of the fastest and most sustained in human history, by almost 10 times since 1900 (from 140 million to nearly 1.3 billion) – has been accompanied by economic growth that has significantly reduced poverty, but not yet brought the affluence to which many Africans aspire – at least, not for most. The combined impacts of Covid, climate and conflict are now driving the process into reverse in some places, increasing poverty and depopulating areas as people flee for their lives from flood, famine or fighting.
This increased competition for scarce resources – fertile land, forests, minerals and money – exacerbates the unequal distribution of resources resulting from the imbalance of political power, often in the form of corruption. People take the money because they can, because political accountability and the rule of law are weak. This itself then further undermines the political processes and governance structures needed to ensure that all citizens, not just a few, benefit from a state’s revenues and assets.
Since independence, nationalism and development have been the twin ideological pillars of most African governments. Both are eroding. Jihadism and ethnic fragmentation give the disadvantaged a dream of better, easier access to the resources they lack, while in reality undermining the stability and transnational cooperation needed to accelerate investment and growth to the benefit of all. Yet, as Afrobarometer has shown, African citizens are looking for more accountability from their governments, for more democracy, not less. This can have a good outcome if governments listen. But if they turn a deaf ear, grievances mount and can turn into outright conflict, compounding the cycle of inequality and suffering – exactly as we have seen in Sudan.
At the same time, I have never seen such a flowering of creativity out of Africa as in the past decade, at least not since the 1960s. In the creative arts, in the creative economy and in high tech, fintech and low-cost, high-impact people-tech, Africa is leading the world, with a growing influence across the globe. This is why we focussed the Society’s 120th anniversary last year on ‘Creative Africa’. There is therefore still hope in Africa, amongst its youth and its growing diaspora, that things can and will get better.
And what about Britain?
In many ways it’s been a bad time. Brexit and the savage cuts to the aid programme – presented by now-disgraced Prime Minister Johnson in a way that added insult to injury – severely diminished Britain’s standing in Africa. Britain has been fading from view, supplanted by the US, EU, China, the Gulf states, even by Russia as an influence on the continent. It alienated those who still wanted to visit Britain through its vicious and arbitrary visa policy. This is the government’s fault. They have neglected Africa, and Africans have noticed.
This is serious strategic mistake. If the global weight of Africa’s economy remains small, its influence, through its diaspora, and its importance in a world of geostrategic competition between China and the US-Europe, has grown. The most recent iteration of Conservative government under Rishi Sunak, with James Cleverly the first foreign secretary of African heritage, seems to recognise this and has started to remedy past neglect.
But it needs a change of mindset not just of action. The planned ‘UK-Africa Investment Summit’ in April 2024 is old-style diplomacy: ‘come to us and we’ll both make money’. President Macron (despite, or perhaps because of, France’s current unpopularity in Africa) and the Biden Administration in the US have both moved beyond this, Macron hosting the climate finance summit in Paris this month which directly addresses Africa’s own priorities, and opening up, rather than trying to shut down, the debate about restitution of cultural property. The US’s new Africa Strategy is a model the UK could sensibly follow.
Nevertheless, at the level of ordinary people, UK-Africa links are growing ever stronger. People of African heritage in Britain, now numbering nearly three million, are a growing influence – socially, culturally, economically and, gradually, politically. Through the impact of Windrush, the Black Lives Matter movement, the demands for restitution and reparations, the reality is beginning to sink in that people of African heritage are now an integral part of what Britain itself is, and their views count. Like the south Asian community, they have changed Britain, through their culture, their cooking, their talents and their contribution to health, society and economy. That needs to be recognised.
Interestingly, the monarchy seems to understand this better than the government. In launching a study of the Royal role in British colonialism, and in reaching out proactively to African communities, they are seeking to listen and learn, understand, not gloss over, the mistakes of the past and chart a better way forward.
The Royal African Society has an important role to play in that journey. The Society has always been a meeting place, where all can engage, listen and understand, speak and be heard. Its origins as a learned society, as a place of debate, as a platform for African voices, is more important than ever – because Africa is no longer just ‘over there’ but right here, right now, a central part of the Britain we all live in.
I am sad to leave, even if not leaving very far (to SOAS University of London). But the RAS will go on, building on the foundations we have laid, so that African voices are heard louder and clearer than ever, in Britain and across the world.
Nick Westcott is the (outgoing) director of the Royal African Society.