Exclusive: The UK joins new scramble for Africa

The UK has some catching up to do in Africa as it prepares for a post-Brexit future.


The UK’s post-Brexit diplomatic push is in full swing this week, with Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt touring Africa and proclaiming that Britain wants to be the ‘partner of choice’ across the continent, writes the BBC’s former Africa Bureau Chief Peter Burdin.

The Foreign Secretary’s sweep through five African countries underlines the UK’s need to develop new markets as it prepares for a post-Brexit future.

It also sees the new reality that after years of cooperation, the UK will soon be competing with former European partners like France and Portugal.

The Foreign Secretary’s diplomatic push has also taken him to Senegal in the Francophonie, traditionally seen as part of the French sphere of influence.

This mirrors the gauntlet thrown down by President Macron’s visit to English-speaking Kenya earlier this year.

This European battle, however, might be just a side show when we see how the rest of the world has already embraced Africa.

Playing catch-up

Six of the fastest growing economies in the world are in Africa.

With a growth rate of 7.7% Ethiopia is arguably the most attractive to the more sluggish European economies. Moreover, Africa has a population of a billion people and a growing middle-class with disposable income.

China is determined to dominate this new “Scramble for Africa”. Since 2000 China’s trade with Africa has grown twenty times over to $220bn per annum, making it the continent’s largest trading partner.

The value of Chinese trade with Africa is more than five times that of the UK, with their commitment further demonstrated by no less than 79 leadership visits in the past decade.

Compare that to the solitary three-day whistle-stop visit made by Theresa May last year to South Africa, Nigeria and Kenya.

This was the first visit to the continent by a British Prime Minister in five years.

While the Prime Minister was dancing her way through the continent, however, most African leaders were heading to Beijing for a China-Africa summit.

These dramatic diplomatic and economic developments have garnered relatively little attention in the Brexit-obsessed British press.

Another relatively under-reported development is the role of the Gulf States who have been quietly developing their diplomatic and trading presence on the continent.

The United Arab Emirates has been building on its diplomatic success last year when it helped broker the Jeddah Peace Agreement between Ethiopia and Eritrea, bringing an end to decades of war between the two countries.

It has since invested $3bn into Ethiopia and has plans to build an oil pipeline between the two countries, signalling a commitment to the region the UK has so far lacked.

Jeremy Hunt speaking with the Ghanaian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Shirley Ayorkor Botchwey.

The UAE has recently opened nine new embassies in Africa, with plans afoot for further openings in the Ivory Coast and Mauritius later this year.

These expanding diplomatic ties also serve to boost trading and security links.

The Emirates has invested $35m in a counterterrorism force in the Sahel and has taken part in supplying training and equipment to the African Union force in Somalia.

This reflects the UAE’s desire to play a more pro-active role on the world stage and in diplomatic endeavors beyond the confines of the Middle East.

Jeremy Hunt has much to do if his charm offensive is to achieve his Prime Minister’s target of making the UK the G7’s biggest investor in Africa by 2022.

Currently that position is held by the US which invests $44.3bn into Africa compared to the UK’s $42.7 billion.

Both countries have been late to wake up to the rise of China in Africa, not helped by President Trump’s crass description of some nations on the continent as ‘shitholes’.

There is also the supreme irony that as the UK seeks to leave the European Union, Africa is building its own Free Trade Agreement which is seeking to create a single market of more than a billion people stretching from the Cape to Cairo and projected to boost Africa’s GDP by $62 billion a year.

As the Foreign Secretary flies home to London and more Brexit woes, he could perhaps take a leaf out of the UAE’s book as it forges forward in Africa with its own brand of effective, targeted and sensitive diplomacy.

The UAE also has a Minister for Happiness and Wellbeing in its Cabinet – both in short supply in the UK government at present.

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