Africa-UK: A new start in 2020?
Posted on 9th January, 2020 in Director's Blog
2019 was a pretty mixed year both in Africa and the UK.
In Africa, there were bright spots like Senegal and Ghana; some dark spots, like Cameroon and Zimbabwe where problems are festering; and a lot of dappled spots in between from Sudan and Ethiopia, where new political arrangements may lead to major reform (or not), to South Sudan, where a ceasefire continues but looks extremely fragile, and Algeria, where the people have been on the streets protesting against an election they believe is premature.
Economically, growth happened, but far slower than is needed to make a real dent in the scale of poverty. And climate change began to take an increasing toll on the continent with floods in Mozambique, drought in Zimbabwe, and a growing scarcity of fertile land in the Sahel for the growing populations of those countries. Climate change may not yet be the top policy priority for many in Africa, but – as in Australia – it will become so if nothing is done.
Overall, though, two important trends can be discerned.
Firstly, there are a growing number of African leaders actively tackling the challenges their countries face. In South Africa, President Ramaphosa has taken measures to reverse state capture, bear down on corruption, and make the state deliver for the people. But there are no easy solutions and cleaning up is tougher work than making the mess in the first place. In Ethiopia, Prime Minister Abiy is pushing political and economic reform to keep the country together despite ethnic and political interests that threaten to pull it apart. In Ghana, an overdue reform of the financial sector is underway. And in Angola, President Lourenço is prising the state and its finances from the grip of the dos Santos family.
Secondly, Africa’s citizens are demanding more of their rulers. As one Sudanese protester explained in African Arguments: “The protests were not about the prices of bread or fuel. It was about the incompetence, the corruption and the oppression which were hallmarks of the regime.” Across the continent – in Algeria, Uganda, Togo, Guinea, Ethiopia and the Congo – the message from people is the same: they want to be heard. In many places, they are still not listened to. But overall, the people’s voice is growing louder.
In Britain, the cacophony of public and political voices was stilled (at least temporarily) by an election which gave a handsome majority to a government that pledged to “Get Brexit done”. Exactly what that means remains to be seen. But the debate is growing over what it will mean for the UK’s relations with the world in general and Africa in particular.
The challenge Brexit poses for Britain’s place in the world and for British foreign policy is being tested right from the outset by the Iran-US crisis. Will the UK follow the US come what may? Will it stick closely with its former (and future) European partners? Will it strike out with an independent policy all its own? What actually can it do?
In the midst of this crisis, Africa is coming to London. On 20 January, the UK government will host a UK- Africa Investment Summit in London. The African leaders attending the Summit will be looking both for reassurance that Africa will be higher up the government’s priority list than in the recent past, and to make the most of the opportunities that Brexit creates for greater investment, more open trade, and more generous support for African economies.
How will the government respond?
I suggest they respond first of all by listening – listening to what African representatives are saying about how they see the relationship now and what they want to see in the future. But then the government will need to respond to these messages.
From what we have been hearing, I think there are four areas where the UK Government could (and should) give a positive, clear and welcome message in addition to the offer of greater trade and investment for the continent, which is what the conference itself is all about. The four priorities are that the UK:
- Provide a commitment to pay greater political attention to Africa and to all the countries in Africa. This should come from the top. The Commonwealth remains popular, but there is a big demand for the UK to be more visible and more present – commercially and politically – in non-Anglophone countries;
- Find a way to re-connect with young people in Africa, who are increasingly looking elsewhere, not to the UK, for their education, business and recreation. Lots of people love the Premier League, the Royal Family and the BBC, but the young are practical, not sentimental, and want to know what is in the relationship for them;
- Build on the UK’s competitive advantage in education by making it more available in Africa as well as in the UK; and
- Make the visa process less onerous for African visitors. The current visa regime does real damage to Britain’s reputation and a few simple improvements, outlined in the recent APPG for Africa report on visas, would help remedy many of the problems.
This is by no means an exhaustive list. Many people in Africa also look to the UK to continue being a global champion of human rights, good governance, free speech and the rule of law, and to influence the global debate on sustainable development and climate change. All this the new British government should reaffirm, not least because it will weaken Britain’s global reputation if they don’t.
One of the purposes of the Royal African Society is to give voices from Africa, in all their diversity and many different means of expression, a platform in the UK. We want people in this country to see and hear about Africa as it really is, not as they may think it is. This was a common thread through many of our activities last year, including the Africa Writes festival, the conference on Mental Health in Africa, and the APPG visa report. It will continue to be in 2020. But it also implies that all of us in Britain, in all our diversity, listen to those African voices and learn from them.
Nick Westcott is the director of the Royal African Society.