What do you do if your cabinet still disagrees with itself on everything, and your EU plan still hasn’t progressed much beyond David Davis’ scribblings on the back of a Chequers napkin? With around 200 days until the EU’s Brexit deadline, Theresa May’s solution to her government’s image problem was a trip to Africa. Her visit to Nigeria, Kenya, and South Africa followed in the footsteps of many leaders, however achieved little in shoring up the projected losses following Brexit.
Let’s be clear: this trip’s chief goal was to give Theresa May a break from the deluge of negative press that the government has weathered over the past month. For once, she had a break from being forced to make any controversial announcements. In Kenya, she bravely proclaimed her condemnation of paedophilia. In Nigeria, she railed against Boko Haram terrorists. In South Africa, she supported land reform. In each country, she stressed the importance of a change in the way the UK gives aid to meet ‘long-term economic and security challenges’. Excluding her dancing, Theresa May’s African holiday made for extremely good PR.
Unfortunately, African economies aren’t yet suited to recoup British trade losses made post-Brexit. Nigeria, for example, is unlikely to be a good market for British goods: nearly half its citizens live on less than $1.90 a day. Few citizens of the three former Commonwealth states that May’s entourage visited have the disposable income to purchase British-made products. European countries (which currently account for around 44% of our exports according to the Office of National Statistics,) are a far more suitable market. May knows this, which is why a cynical pretence of ballooning trade prospects is particularly frustrating, as was her assertion that Africa housed ‘five of the world’s fasted growing economies’. This was correct, but not one of those economies featured on her itinerary.
Of course, there’s another problem with her plan for Africa: the UK’s got a lot of catching up to do when it comes to investment and collaboration with African economies. France is well ahead of the curve: Macron visited the continent twice this year, and Chinese infrastructure investment has also made strong political investments: seven of the top ten recipients of Chinese developmental aid are African. The UK’s aid budget and diplomatic efforts simply can’t compete with stronger, more entrenched investing economies. May’s goal to make Britain Africa’s top investor by 2022 is a fantastical pipe dream
Not to be a pessimist, but prior British investment efforts in Africa hasn’t been particularly successful, either. The UK’s private equity group, the CDC, has received criticism in the past for its work in Africa following a loss of $140 million in a Kenyan cement maker. The institution’s typical strategy to pick low-risk investments like retail construction projects is designed to avoid scandal, but in practise, the conservative approach means that British money does little to alleviate poverty in its target locations, or yield more substantial returns for the British taxpayer in Africa.
The UK’s aid budget for Africa is extensive, and rightly so, but African trade will not be able to plug the holes left by a break from Europe. Theresa May’s proclamation that a no-deal Brexit ‘wouldn’t be the end of the world’ displayed a concerningly blasé attitude to the UK’s future, and ignores the advice of her own Chancellor. Our Prime Minister needs to focus on substantive trade deals and worthwhile diplomatic links to safeguard the UK against economic losses after Brexit. A British resurgence in Africa is not the answer.