Boris Johnson woos Africa as post-Brexit Britain seeks a new role

HOW TO PROMOTE a “global Britain” after Britain leaves the European Union? One step is to try to regain some of Britain’s influence in Africa, where it had once been the leading colonial power. Boris Johnson, Britain’s prime minister, will be hosting about a third of the continent’s leaders at an “investment summit” in London on January 20th. Many of them are en route to a bigger shindig in Davos; a handful from pariah states such as Zimbabwe have not been invited. But most of the presidents or prime ministers running the beefier or friendlier African countries—including Egypt, Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, and Rwanda—are expected.

Mr Johnson will tell them that Britain, shorn of the European Union’s trade constraints, is keener than ever to do business and strengthen ties. The prime minister will be hoping that they respond enthusiastically (and ignore his past newspaper columns that made reference to “piccaninnies” and “watermelon smiles”). But behind the virtuous talk of partnership and goodwill, British officials are engaged in a sharp debate over how to scramble back into Africa.

In the past two decades, the influence of Britain’s Department for International Development (DFID), responsible for dispensing handouts to the African poor, has surged. At the same time the muscle of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), responsible for the harder-nosed practice of traditional diplomacy, has shrunk. “Africa has become a development issue,” laments a senior diplomat, referring glumly to “the DFID-isation of foreign policy” in Africa.

Partly this is because of cash. Whereas the FCO’s core budget, now £1.1bn ($1.4bn) a year, has shrunk greatly in the past decade, DFID’s has swollen steadily, since by law it must be at least 0.7% of GDP, a figure enshrined in an act of Parliament in 2015. In 2018 Britain disbursed foreign aid worth £14.6bn, mainly through DFID.

DFID gained its independence as a separate department in 1997, under Tony Blair. Mr Johnson recently sounded keen to bring it back under the control of the FCO, perhaps even to merge the two departments. But he seems to have been persuaded that DFID should continue to stand alone. Nor has he bowed to the many Conservatives (and others) who have urged that the 0.7% pledge be broken. They complain that many government departments are still chafing under the brutal spending cuts imposed nearly a decade ago after the global financial crash, yet the aid budget continues to soar. For the time being, however, the aid lobby and the liberal wing of the Conservative Party have ensured that the 0.7% promise is kept.

In any event, it is widely agreed that Britain’s diminished network of diplomatic missions—some of which share premises with DFID—should be bumped up. As foreign secretary from 2016 to 2018, Mr Johnson promoted a plan to open or reopen a string of smaller embassies and high commissions (as they are called in Commonwealth countries). He himself visited more African countries than any foreign secretary since the Conservatives returned to office in 2010. In the past year the Treasury has been persuaded to pay for 400-odd extra diplomatic posts focused on Africa (based at home or in the continent). Britain’s diplomatic footprint in Africa is increasing after decades of decline.

Still, it is tiny compared with what it was, and about a sixth the size of France’s diplomatic operation. According to a report issued last year by the British Foreign Policy Group, a think-tank backed by former ambassadors, in 2017 Britain had 231 diplomats (excluding local hires) in 31 out of sub-Saharan Africa’s 48 countries. In 16 of those British missions, only one or two diplomats were in situ. Missions to five more countries have since been opened or reopened. France, which had 42 embassies south of the Sahara, counted 1,373 diplomats (excluding local hires) in 2018; China probably has more. Diplomats from Brazil, India and Turkey, eager to do business and diplomacy in Africa, also outnumber Britain on the ground in various countries.

Another token of Britain’s failure to punch its weight is the paucity of trips to Africa by British prime ministers, compared with the constant round of visits by French and Chinese leaders. The shrinkage of Britain’s diplomatic engagement in Africa in the past two decades was “a massive error of judgment,” says Rory Stewart, one of eight ministers for Africa since 2010. The extraordinarily rapid turnover in that post was yet another reason why Africans got the impression that Britain cared less about the continent than it should have.

In hard power, the French far outgun the British in Africa, with a base in Djibouti and more than 7,200 troops on the ground, mostly in the Sahel, where they have been seeking to beat back a sprawling jihadist insurgency. Britain, for its part, is sending 250 troops to Mali to assist a French-led UN force there, is helping to train Nigerian soldiers to fight the jihadists of Boko Haram in north-eastern Nigeria, has sought to bring peace to South Sudan and played a key part in ending the civil war in Sierra Leone in 2001. Britain also trains units of its own forces in northern Kenya under a long-standing arrangement, and there are some British special forces in Somalia. But its military presence is much diminished across the continent.

In development aid, however, Britain is well to the fore. It is the only member of the G7 group of rich countries to meet the 0.7% goal (others include the three Scandinavian countries and Luxembourg). In absolute terms, only the United States is more generous, with Germany at last count a shade ahead of Britain (in 2017 it was just behind); France is far behind both. Britain, said a minister previously in charge of aid, has become a “development superpower”.

But Mr Johnson is likely, at the London summit, to stress trade and investment over aid. He may hail the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA), signed in 2018 by 44 members of the African Union and so far ratified by at least 22 of them, as a harbinger of Africa’s future as a trading bloc. His predecessor, Theresa May, declared on her sole trip to Africa as prime minister, in 2018, that Britain would strive to become the biggest single investor in Africa by 2022, with the CDC (formerly the Commonwealth Development Corporation), the government-owned private-equity group, leading the way. In terms of investment since 2014, according to Brookings, a think-tank in Washington, DC, Britain comes fourth after China, the US and France. But it still has by far the biggest stock of investment in South Africa, Africa’s second-biggest and most mature market.

Britain will need to deploy a mix of hard and soft power to advance its interests in Africa. A good starting point would be to facilitate visas. For many Africans, including business people, government officials and scholars, getting a visa to visit Britain is extraordinarily tricky, time-consuming and often humiliating. Many of Britain’s understaffed diplomatic missions have no passport office, thus requiring would-be visitors to travel hundreds of miles to neighbouring countries. It may sound a petty impediment set against the wider aspects of how to increase British investment in Africa. But Africans are hardly likely to welcome British investors if they feel unwelcome in Britain themselves.

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