Britain’s pledge to turbo-charge relations with continent must compete with China
Kampala, Uganda | RONALD MUSOKE | The first ever UK-Africa Investment Summit held in London on Jan. 20 is being seen for what it was; a copycat of what development experts refer to as “Africa-Plus One Summits” where several African countries plus one non-African country occasionally meet. China, France, Japan, the U.S, India and Russia have hosted such summits in the last 20 years.
Last October, Russia hosted 43 African heads of state and government and in the same month, France hosted its second annual “Ambition Africa” business summit. In 2018, China welcomed 51 of the continent’s 54 leaders, one more than the United States four years earlier.
The UK could assess its rating based on the delegations from over 20 African countries; including Presidents Yoweri Museveni of Uganda, President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi (Egypt), Uhuru Kenyatta (Kenya), Muhammadu Buhari (Nigeria), Nana Akufo-Addo (Ghana) and Paul Kagame (Rwanda).
Boris Johnson, the British Prime Minister told them that he wants African countries to fully tap into his country’s enormous market potential when the UK eventually quits the European Union later this year. He said the UK intends to be Africa’s investment partner of choice. And he also announced a few other ‘sweeteners.’
But with eight of the 15 fastest growing economies being African coupled with the continent’s ever burgeoning population, majority of whom are youth (420 million youth out of 1.2 billion), analysts say the heads of African countries are getting used to being courted and have become quite choosy.
Many are happy Britain has woken up and see many opportunities in engaging with Africa—just like China, France, the U.S have been doing over the last three decades.
But they also see the investment summit as just one of the mechanisms through which the British are trying to re-invent themselves after realizing that the Asians and other powers have made inroads on the continent in terms of trade and investment.
“This is a survival strategy by the British and they are trying to make up for lost ground,” said Isaac Shinyekwa, a research fellow at the Makerere University-based Economic Policy Research Centre in Kampala on Jan. 20. “Britain may be viewed by some as a laggard in the race.”
Britain faces strong competition mainly from China which has increased its influence across the continent in recent decades. Chinese exports to Africa are eight times larger than those of the UK and even bigger than the top three exporters—Germany, France and the U.S combined.
If other countries, including the UK, are interested in generating the kind of interest that Chinese summits produce, then they should learn a few lessons from China, Hannah Wanjie, the CEO of Development Reimagined, a Beijing-based international consultancy firm told Quartz recently.
Wanjie said summits are only the ‘shiny jewel-in-the-crown’ of years of hard work and engagement and it would be helpful if the UK’s attitude towards the continent changed.
Wanjie says when the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) summits started in 2000; China’s various foreign ministers had been making trips to three-five African countries every year for 10 years.
Since then, that tradition has continued, bolstered by fairly regular visits by the different Chinese presidents and premiers, meaning that in just one decade—over 2008-2018— top-level Chinese leaders visited 43 of the 55 African countries.
While on these visits, China has got the chance to do normal government-to-government deals to help its companies feel safe when investing in African countries, Wanjie said. Today, China has signed 20 bilateral investment treaties.