2018/08/10 – As heads of state, diplomats and political advisers from around the world converge on New York for the United Nations General Assembly, we are reminded of the challenges facing UK foreign policy. New alliances and new partnerships are a necessity. Neglected allies, most notably the countries of the Commonwealth with whom we have a shared history, language, and culture are an obvious place to start.
It is for that reason African states and leaders have received significant attention. Theresa May hosted the Commonwealth Heads of State Summit in April, and in August visited South Africa, Nigeria, and Kenya announcing the UK’s ambition to become the largest G7 foreign direct investor in Africa by 2022. Africa matters to the UK now more than at any time since the end of Empire. Renewed relations can, and should, be an important component of the UK’s efforts to re-establish itself as a global actor after Brexit.
Trade is dominating the UK’s efforts in Africa. The first ever Trade Commissioner for the continent was recently announced, and the Development Finance Institution is forging routes to African markets for British investors. However, the UK must do more to strengthen not only economic ties with key African states but also develop political relationships and long-term security agreements beneficial to both parties. We cannot solely rely on trade and investment projects to maintain our diplomatic pedigree.
There has been a stark mismatch between the UK’s vision of its economic, political, and security engagement in Africa, and the realities on the ground. In 2014, while Chair of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, I highlighted a ‘worrying pattern of unsightedness’ on the part of the UK in relation to events in the Sahel region, and called for the urgent expansion of our presence and knowledge about the whole region.
Post-Brexit this argument is ever more relevant. While the risk of diplomatic isolation looms large, we are presented with an opportunity to address the shortcomings of Britain’s foreign policy. Most pressing in Africa, the UK must increase its diplomatic and security footprint on the ground, working with reliable African allies in tackling challenges like terrorism, migration, population growth, climate change, and the democratic deficit.
Nigeria is an obvious partner for the UK. Theresa May’s visit in August was an important step in reviving a relationship which has been significantly neglected. Nigeria is Africa’s largest economy, most populous nation, and a political powerhouse. Under President Buhari, the country has successfully battled Boko Haram and drastically reduced the territory held by the terrorist group in the northeast of the country. The battle is not over and President Buhari, who is running for a second term in office next year in February, seems determined to finish the job.
The UK government is working hard at improving its footprint in Nigeria, signing the first ever UK-Nigeria security and defence partnership which tackles shared threats with increased military training and the supply of vital equipment. Discontent, terrorism, and jihadist ideology know no borders, and the UK’s efforts to partner the Nigerian government to prevent the spread of extremism in the region is commendable.
Theresa May also pledged to create a new civil asset recovery task force to support President Buhari’s worthy mission to stamp out corruption in Nigeria, preventing criminals from using the UK as a financial safe-haven. Such initiatives deliver both tangible benefits, in the form of repatriated funds, and diplomatic benefits in the form of improved UK-Nigeria relations.
The UK Government’s commitment to Nigeria must be replicated across the continent, increasing the size of diplomatic missions and security co-operation in strategically important nations such as Chad, Somalia, and Kenya. There will of course be challenges, most notably in the form of competition from other global powers looking to secure their own position in Africa. In 2017 alone, Chinese companies channelled $8.9bn into greenfield projects in Africa, while British companies committed just $2.3bn. One whistle-stop tour by the Prime Minister is also insufficient. Emmanuel Macron has made nine trips to the continent since taking office in May 2017.
The United Nations General Assembly this week offers a prime opportunity to build relationships, putting Britain’s post-Brexit foreign policy and pivot to Africa to the test. The UK-Nigeria example should serve as an example of what can be achieved. At a time when the UK’s relevance and influence in the world is in question, every effort should be exerted to maintain and develop key strategic relationships. The UK’s place is in the world is at stake.
Sir Richard Ottaway is former chair of the Parliamentary Foreign Affairs Select Committee