Britain’s new scramble for Africa?

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THE UK-Africa Investment Summit, the first of its kind on British coasts, came and went in London recently.

And 21 African countries, more than a third of the continent, attended the one-off event.

One senior British Government official said focus was on African countries with the ‘strongest’ ties or with the ‘greatest potential’.

The invitees included Guinea and Rwanda, whose trade with the UK is worth less than £30 million a year. 

However, countries with more valuable trade links like Namibia and Zimbabwe were left out.

With the summit shrouded in secrecy, the Britons did not release names of invited countries ahead of the summit. 

The air of secrecy continued on the day, when officials refused to provide the list of speakers at the summit. 

About 13 African leaders made the frosty trek to a blocky Inter Continental Hotel on the Greenwich Peninsula, an industrial stretch in south-east London.

Outside the Docklands Intercontinental, the venue of the event, were pressure groups with banners reading ‘Stop the New Scramble for Africa’ and ‘No to Empire 2.0’.

The summit was supposed to play out as the maiden voyage of ‘Great Britain’.

The attention Africa is now receiving from the UK Government is as much about Brexit than anything else.

After Brexit, the UK wants to boost trade with Africa, but the question is: Will there really be new opportunities for the African continent?

In his welcome address, Prime Minister Boris Johnson described Britain as a “…one-stop-shop for investment and business.”

He also spoke fervently about his ambitions to develop strong trade ties with Africa. 

Africa, with its rapidly growing populations and economies, rising middle class and recent ratification of a continent-wide free trade agreement, was as good a place as any to start.

In the pre-conference announcement, the organisers declared that their objective was to make London not only the destination of choice for ‘development financing’ but also the largest source of Foreign Direct Investment for Africa.

They also aim to make Britain the largest investor in Africa, among the G7 nations, by 2022 and the “obvious partner of choice.”

The event was hosted by the Department for International Development (DFID) and featured prominent British leaders in government, industry and finance. 

The DFID also announced they are creating a partnership fund with the African Development Bank (AfDB) for investment in African infrastructures development.

In addition to the Prime Minister, among the prominent British leaders who featured at the event were: International Development Secretary Alok Sharma, Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab, Trade Secretary Elizabeth Mary Truss and Business Secretary Andrea Leadsom. 

British captains of industry who also featured at the event included Vodafone boss Nick Read, CEO of British Petroleum (BP) Bernard Looney, Standard Life Aberdeen boss Keith Skeoch, G4S chairman Ashley Martin Almanza, CEO of Associated British Foods George Weston and managing director of the London Stock Exchange David Schwimmer.

Sharma was in Kenya in mid-January, causing a bit of destruction at the Nairobi Securities Exchange along the way.

Johnson himself likes to boast the attention he gave to Africa during his two-year stint as Foreign Secretary when he visited 11 countries on the continent. 

He prefers not to reminisce about things he said about Africa before then; such as when he wrote in The Spectator in 2002: “…The problem is not that we were once in charge (of Africa), but that we are not in charge anymore.”

Johnson had one-on-one sessions with Nigeria’s General Muhammadu Buhari, President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi of Egypt, Nana Akufo-Addo of Ghana and Paul Kagame of Rwanda. 

As the UK exited the EU at the end of January, it has 11 months to come up with a trade deal with the EU to avoid reverting to WTO rules.

The likes of Johnson, Sharma and Africa Secretary Andrew Stephenson often cite that the continent has eight of the 15 fastest growing economies in the world and, by 2050, will be home to a quarter of the world’s consumers. 

That spells opportunity and a way of mitigating the damage Brexit has posed for the UK.

But an awkward underlying truth is that African trade has been in decline for the UK. 

It accounted for 4,2 percent of UK trade in 2012, but it has been closer to 2,5 percent in the past couple of years. 

Most of that trade is with a handful of countries. 

South Africa, Nigeria and Algeria account for more than half of all UK-Africa trade. 

This is in line with some wider trends. 

“For all the talk of impact investment, the amount of capital (committed to Africa) is falling,” says Nick O’Donohoe, CEO of CDC Group, the UK’s development finance agency. 

“People are pulling back; banks are pulling back. That’s partly because the cost of capital post the financial crisis has gone up. The cost of compliance has caused doing business to be more expensive.”

Beyond the 2020 horizon, trade arrangements between many African countries and a fully-Brexited UK are also set to remain the same under a number of ‘continuity agreements.’

To date, London has signed trade continuity agreements with 12 African countries, to replace existing trade deals via the EU.

These basically say that the trade conditions (tariffs, quotas, standards and so on) remain the same as they are currently between a number of African countries, trading blocs and the EU.

In January 2019, the UK signed an agreement with four Eastern and Southern Africa countries (Madagascar, Mauritius, Seychelles and Zimbabwe). 

Trade with them was worth £2 billion in 2018, although in the case of Madagascar it has still only been agreed in principle. 

Such deals are unlikely to mean an entirely seamless transition though. 

The UK describes the deal as replicating EU trading arrangements “…as far as possible.”

In November, the UK initiated an Economic Partnership Agreement with the Southern African Customs Union (SACU) — which is made up of South Africa, Botswana, Namibia, Lesotho and eSwatini and Mozambique.

That covers trade worth £10,3 billion a year.

The UK has also signed association agreements with Morocco and Tunisia while agreeing to mirror the EU’s generalised scheme of preferences, which will give 35 other countries reduced or zero tariffs into the UK. 

Other continuity agreements with Algeria, Cameroon, Côte d’Ivoire, Egypt, Ghana and Kenya are still under negotiation.

And that seems to be the UK’s approach — keep the same conditions in place that already exist between the UK and African countries under EU deals. 

Worldwide, the UK has in place about 40 such ‘continuity’ deals, covering some 70 countries.

At the summit, the UK Government announced £1,5 billion (US$2 billion) of initiatives, including £350 million to develop sustainable infrastructure projects. 

London is also setting up ‘infrastructure partnerships’ with Egypt, Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya and Uganda alongside the AfDB, with the aim of generating billions of pounds of private sector investment in sustainable energy, transport and telecoms.

There was plenty of commercial activity too, with 27 deals worth more than £6,5 billion (US$8.5 billion), including a £167 million investment by brewer Diageo in Kenya and a £222 million deal by NMS Infrastructure to build six hospitals in Côte d’Ivoire.

But the question is: Who will benefit more from these partnerships?

One cannot help revisiting Boris’ 2002 statement:

“The problem is not that we were once in charge (of Africa), but that we are not in charge anymore.”

Will relations between Africa and the UK be mutually beneficial?

Horse and Rider relationship

The UK likes to say its trading relations are far more than profit.

“Impact investing can have a huge Impact in Africa,” says the UK’s trade commissioner for Africa, Emma Wade-Smith. “It’s not just about returns on investment. We also care about the wider positive impact of doing that business.”

On a similar theme, in his opening speech, Johnson said the UK would no longer provide public money for coal mining in Africa. 

“Not another penny of UK taxpayers’ money will be directly invested in digging up coal or burning it for electricity,” he said.

“Instead, we’re going to focus on supporting the transition to lower and zero-carbon alternatives.”

Indeed, during the summit, several oil and gas deals were announced. 

Among them, Savannah Petroleum is investing £315 million in the acquisition of gas assets in Nigeria and Tullow Oil announced a £1,2 billion investment in oil production in Kenya.

And for Africa, it is all about the opportunity to raise funds in London.

Kenya launched a US$40 million Green Bond on the London Stock Exchange on the morning of the Summit and others may follow.

For all the ambitions of the UK agenda, however, the Summit was a rather muted event.

There was no show of force to rival the Russia-Africa Summit last year, when Russian President Vlamir Putin showed off his jets and tanks at his seashore in Sochi.

Neither was there any of the grandeur of the most recent Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) when Xi Jinping feted 51 African leaders in Beijing’s Great Hall of the People.

Nor did it seem to show the same significance of the US’s last Summit in 2014 when 37 African Heads of State gathered in Washington as then President Barack Obama advanced a range of health, security and investment opportunities.

The only highlight of the British-Africa Summit was the banquet at Buckingham Palace hosted by Prince William, Duke of Cambridge.

For all the talk of a new relationship, money is headed in the same direction-the West- always.

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