It was conceived as a coming-out party for “Global Britain” — a signal of new trading ambitions as the UK sails free of the EU and takes advantage of commercial opportunity further afield.
In the event, Monday’s first UK-Africa summit in London finds prime minister Boris Johnson’s government still in Brexit limbo, constrained by protracted divorce proceedings with Brussels and uncertainty over the extent to which the UK will remain aligned with Europe.
African officials are nonetheless intrigued as to how Britain will set out its pitch after a decade in which the former colonial power has been slow to adapt to the continent’s rapidly changing fortunes.
“You can argue we are late to this game. But better late than never,” said one senior UK official, acknowledging that when it came to Africa summits, London was entering a crowded field.
China, India, Japan, the US and latterly Russia, have all sought to strengthen ties with Africa through summitry — in Tokyo’s case for almost three decades, as an old order dominated by multilateral donors and former colonisers has been shaken up by more fleet-footed emerging powers.
“I was with Theresa May on her (2018) trip to Africa and it was clear then that on a continent where we have deep historical relationships and lots of advantage . . . it wasn’t getting the attention it deserves,” said Nick O’Donohoe, head of CDC Group, the UK’s development finance institution. “Since then I get the impression we have really tried to raise our game. This conference is part of that,” he said.
Organisers are expecting around 15 African heads of state, including Muhammadu Buhari of Nigeria, Uhuru Kenyatta of Kenya and Felix Tshisekedi of the Democractic Republic of Congo.
The UK meanwhile, has quietly been on the offensive. Over the past year it has recruited 400 staff, both locally and from the UK, to trade, security, and development positions across its African diplomatic network, according to Emma Wade-Smith, commissioner for Africa at the UK’s department for international trade. To take advantage of changing times it needed to expand its footprint, she said.
The summit will include a focus on renewable energy, housing and technology, with the City of London at the heart of the UK government’s aim of leveraging more investment into Africa.
Britain retains a strong suit, Ms Wade-Smith argued. It is the second largest G7 investor on the continent. Trade with the continent was up 13.8 per cent last year to £36bn, while investment, dominated by the energy sector, increased by 7.5 per cent to £38.7bn, according to the DIT.
There is some scepticism however, about what is new about Britain’s offer. It cannot strike out on its own trading terms until it has established future relations with the EU. For now London is scrambling to roll over trading agreements on the same EU terms it already has.
“Twenty years ago . . . the UK led international efforts to deal with poverty and debt in Africa and to train AU peacekeepers, and the UK shaped EU policies on development, security, immigration and human rights,” said Tom Porteous, author of Britain in Africa, an account of the state of relations a decade ago.
“I don’t see a coherent policy on Africa today or any serious thought on how to compensate for the loss of influence that comes with leaving the EU,” he said.
Ms Wade Smith disagreed, arguing that a lot of work had gone on under the radar and that the UK was building on strong foundations, while looking forward. “No one else has the City. No one has the breadth of relationships we have,” she said. “It’s a different dynamic and we should be clear and proud of that.”
Some African officials are encouraged by a change of emphasis from aid to trade.
“Britain for a long time focused on what it sees as its core values without taking into account a transforming world,” said Manoah Esipisu, Kenyan high commissioner to the UK. He sees opportunity as the old colonial power sheds its paternalistic skin.
“The focus of this summit is about the economics. It’s about promoting prosperity and mutual partnership,” he said. “We have to negotiate a new relationship in which our terms could be better.”
The prime minister’s past views were no real hindrance, Mr Esipisu added. In the Spectator magazine 18 years ago Mr Johnson unashamedly touted a neo-imperialist worldview when opining on Africa. “The problem is not that we were once in charge, but that we are not in charge any more,” he wrote.
“He’s in office now. His perspective then and now is different,” the high commissioner said.
Lai Yahaya, a policy adviser to the African Union, put it differently. In African eyes, he said, the Brexit process had demystified and weakened Britain. He pointed to one central irony: the UK was breaking out of the EU single market, just as African countries — after years of encouragement by London — were seeking strength in alliance, most recently with the African Continental Free Trade Area which 54 nations have signed up to.
“The role the UK now plays in Africa I don’t think is even clear yet to the UK,” he said.
Additional reporting by David Pilling in London