Rhetoric without detail marks the UK’s scramble for Africa

‘There are so many summits. It’s hard to keep up,’ remarks one diplomat when quizzed about his view of the UK’s long-awaited African investment summit which was held earlier this week. EPA-EFE/Hollie Adams / POOL

The long-awaited UK-Africa investment summit, staged just days before London formally leaves the EU on 31 January, left little to be remembered by.

‘There are so many summits. It’s hard to keep up,’ remarked one diplomat when quizzed about his view of the summit. In keeping with Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s style, the two-day event (20-21 January) was long on optimistic rhetoric but decidedly thin on details.

The summit’s pre-publicity focused on the UK’s desire to take advantage of leaving the EU to secure trade and investment opportunities in Africa. That should not be too difficult. UK trade with Africa starts from a low base – only about 2% of current UK trade is with the continent.

So it was curious that only 21 African countries were invited, of which Nigeria and Kenya were the attendees with the most significant pre-existing ties to the UK. South African president, Cyril Ramaphosa, pulled out just a few days before the gathering, citing domestic commitments.

UK officials know that despite the old colonial and Commonwealth ties, there is no shortage of competition for African business or of summits competing for it.

Recent months have seen similar grandiose events in Russia, Japan and China, and an ambitious Franco-African summit will be held in spring.

“We have no divine right to that business,” said Johnson.

But “in the words of an old Akan proverb that I picked up while I was in Ghana, all fingers are not the same,” Johnson told his audience.

Yet the Johnson government put little new cash on the table.

It announced a total of £1.5 billion (€1.9 billion) worth of initiatives, as well as “infrastructure partnerships” with Egypt, Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya and Uganda, alongside the African Development Bank (AfDB). Five oil and gas deals worth £2.1bn (€2.5 billion) were announced after the summit.

Surprisingly there was no detail on whether post-Brexit trade policy will create opportunities for African countries to increase their exports.

With the immediate threat of a ‘no deal’ Brexit now off the table – which would have hurt many African economies – the continent’s leaders see the UK’s withdrawal as an opportunity to extract better and more favourable trade terms.

Talks on new UK-Africa trade pacts could start on 1 February but the UK’s Department for International Trade is over-stretched and is more likely to prioritise bigger markets. Johnson is also expected to reshuffle ministers and re-organise departments in the coming weeks.

African officials are urging Whitehall to outflank the EU’s regional Economic Partnership Agreements, most of which have never been fully ratified, by offering a generous pan-African deal on goods and services.

An all-Africa deal offered by the UK would recognise the plans for a single market on the continent, the African Continental Free Trade Area, due to be launched in July.

“In recent years, our relationship – particularly economically – has become increasingly defined by Britain’s membership of the European Union,” Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari said ahead of the summit.

“A new free trade agreement would reconfigure this, presenting new opportunities for both,” Buhari added.

Alok Sharma, the UK’s international development secretary, trumpeted the UK’s desire for “a closer trading partnership with African nations” adding that the government has already signed trade agreements with 11 African countries, covering over 40% of the UK’s total trade with Africa and has seven more in the pipeline.

The talks on roll-over deals offer some pointers on future EU-Africa trade. The agreement to roll-over the trade deal with the five-member Southern African Customs Union extended the tariff-free quotas for unrefined and refined sugar, canned fruits and wine.

Britain is said to favour removing rigid rules of origin on products, which would boost African exports to the UK in the future. The EU insists on a regime under which primary products are the major export, leaving little incentive for African exporters to process local commodities and minerals.

Another policy where the UK could outflank the EU is on visas.

Chi Onwurah, chair of a cross-party UK parliamentary group for Africa, has described the UK’s visa system as “embarrassing, patronising and insulting to African applicants and leaves the slogan of “Global Britain” empty and meaningless.”

In his owning speech, Johnson acknowledged that the UK’s visa regime is a major limitation to the UK-African partnership and said that imminent reforms would make the system fairer and more equal. But like with everything else, there is no detail for the moment.

“Don’t get scared of Brexit. You can exit and look the other way and Africa will be there,” Akinwumi Adesina, the president of the AfDB, told the summit.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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