The Future of British Foreign Policy in Africa

Zachary Barker - Assistant Editor

The flags of the members of the African Union fly outside it's 17th summit. | Photograph: Embassy of Equatorial Guinea

“Africa was not created piecemeal.  Africa was born no later and no earlier than any other geographical area on this globe.  Africans are no more, no more and no less than other men, possess all human attributes, talents, deficiencies, virtues and faults”

Haile Selassie

Why should the British Government and it’s people have an interest in having anything to do with Africa?  Not half a century ago de-colonisation was accelerating, relinquishing large areas of Africa from British colonial control in an effort to balance the books of an unruly economy back at home.  Our foreign policy usually centres around two axis, that of security and prosperity.  In terms of the former parts of Africa continues to be a concern.  Jihadist groups have proliferated in North, West and the Horn of Africa with groups like Boko Haram and Al-Shabab becoming a part of a loose nexus of such groups in Africa.  In the wake of Libyan leader Colonel Gadaffi’s demise Libya has become a land of warring militias and refugees who are struggling to get to Europe, while the Islamic State announces it’s sinister presence in the country.  Prosperity wise there are interesting opportunities.  In recent years over 10 of the fastest growing economies of the world have been African.  African economies are evolving, albeit in an uneven way across the continent, with some of them becoming more Service Sector orientated closer to our country’s model.  However various structural deficiencies in the African economies limit their growth, providing a possible opportunity for Britain to play a constructive role.  In the meantime, regional trends hint at new opportunities as well as dangers.

While our footprint in Africa seems to be quite modest, other nations seem to have much more grand designs for the continent.  Our neighbour France has long been intimately closely involved in Africa.  France has not always been on the right side of history in terms of it’s involvement on the continent, leading to accusations of neo-colonialism.  While France still has ulterior motives such as promoting exports from it’s arms industries in recent years it has taken more of a positive role on the continent.  On 1st August 2014 France initiated Operation Barkhane; a 3,000 strong military deployment in it’s former West African colonies including Mali, Chad and Burkina Faso.   This was a follow up to Operation Serval, the French intervention in Mali against a separatist and Islamist insurgent takeover of that country.  The US meanwhile under the United States Africa Command has carried out missions on the continent such as drone strikes in Somalia and Special Forces raids against IS in Libya to keep Jihadists at bay.  Meanwhile US aid efforts have ambitiously taken aim at one of Africa’s biggest economic problems, such as the lack of power generation capability.

However the big story of great power involvement in Africa in the past 10 years has been that from China.  China’s energy hungry economy has had much to gain from extensive economic links with a continent brimming with minerals.  Chinese construction and infrastructure companies have also penetrated a market desperate for development in both fields.  Research by Foreign Policy magazine has shown that the Chinese are making serious efforts to invest in skills and training in African workforces, suggesting that their interest in the continent is long term.  The Chinese Government has also announced plans to construct a military base in Djibouti, a country already crowded by foreign military base.  Many Africans and Western powers alike are unsure about China’s interests on the continent.  Since China is run by an authoritarian government it stands to reason that it has very little interest in fostering civil society in Africa, the roots of sustainable democracies.  African civil organisations in the past few years have stood against Chinese property developments that they have eyed with suspicion, showing the potential flowering of African democracy to come.

The past year has seen attitudes to liberal ideas heavily challenged.  Some Presidents of African countries such as Paul Kagame of Rwanda have sidestepped constitutional term limits with little consequence.  In Burkina Faso the former President Blaise Campaore was ousted from power when he tried the same trick.  The President of Burundi, a country long plagued by ethnic violence, threatens to plunge his country into bloody chaos over his plans to remain in power.  At the top of the African Union (AU) the megalomaniac President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe is chairman.  With his encouragement African Governments, including South Africa, are pushing for AU countries to leave the International Criminal Court (ICC) in preference for an AU run court.  Considering that most of these governments have made it clear that in principle they do not want international courts to put serving African leaders on trial, it is obvious that their commitment to a liberal vision of Africa is questionable at best.

Africa is currently faced by many economic challenges.  These can broadly be presented as three main problems; a lack of infrastructure, underdeveloped agriculture and the collapse in oil prices.  A lack in infrastructure hampers everything.  A lack of schools hampers training skilled workforces. A lack of railways and roads means that goods cannot be supplied to markets and security forces cannot respond to emergencies quickly enough to properly combat insurgent forces such as Boko Haram.  Shortages of electricity keep African economies moving at a snails pace in a super-connected and energised global economy.  African agriculture has great potential.  That sector used to make much of the continent a breadbasket until state control, war and strife squandered this.  But African agriculture needs technology transfers, skill transfers and a genuine global commitment to free trade.  European Union and American subsidies stand in the way of the latter.  Many of Africa’s fastest growing economies in recent years are major oil producers.  The collapse in oil price, which has much to do with China’s slowing economy, has hammered the finances of many of these countries.  These economies need to diversify if they are to avoid being vulnerable to further oil price shocks.  Helping to solve this dilemma is something that the British Government should set it’s mind to.

Britain should have a long term strategic interest in Africa.  The economic opportunities are massive.  Britain’s engineering expertise can help tie African countries together with infrastructure projects.  These projects should be geared towards inter-African trade, which remains shockingly underdeveloped, as well as trade for further abroad.  Britain also has an opportunity to help tackle the problem of Africa’s power supply problem, with the assistance of it’s world class university research capacity as private sector expertise.  In the former the University of the West of England has started on an interesting project to use human urine as a power source.

In terms of the illiberal turn on the African continent Britain can turn to reforming the Commonwealth to make it more trade orientated and an organisation that promotes liberal values.  If the Brexit from the EU occurs organisations such as the Commonwealth may take on a new importance and meaning.  if it remains in the EU then the UK should push for the reform of EU agricultural subsidies, so African produce can enter world markets on fair terms and ultimately reduce food prices for all. Opportunities for increasing links between our Service Sector and their young African equivalents should also be explored. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Department for International Development may also want to consider having greater involvement in civil society schemes, much like how the US State Department does which trains local democracy activists.

About Zachary Barker 42 Articles

Zac is a graduate in BA Hons International Relations and Politics and MsC International Development and Security. He is Bristol’s Local Coordinator for the political organisation, Republic. His favourite journalists include Nick Cohen and Hunter S Thompson. Zac is currently working on a novel. His interests include Model United Nations, current affairs, travel, video games and reading and writing. Follow Zac on Twitter @ZacharyBarker1