Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s president, has visited 23 African nations. China’s top leaders made 79 visits to 43 African countries between 2007 and 2017. France’s youthful president Emmanuel Macron is nipping at their heels. He has visited 13 African countries in 15 months. German chancellor Angela Merkel has also made regular stops, arriving in Senegal on Wednesday. Red carpets are becoming worn.
Yet until this week, the last occasion a British prime minister headed south of the Sahara was when David Cameron was pictured taking selfies with Barack Obama at Nelson Mandela’s 2013 memorial service. For a nation supposedly intent on reinventing itself outside the EU as a global player that record looks decidedly weak. Prime minister Theresa May’s tour of South Africa, Nigeria and Kenya was long overdue.
State visits may not necessarily reflect strategic priorities. That said, for Africans there has been no mistaking Chinese or Turkish or French intent in recent years.
It is two decades now since Beijing began prioritising its relations with Africa, recognising the continent’s value as a source of minerals and other raw commodities and its potential as a market for Chinese goods produced at low cost. The relationship has grown at a staggering pace since, encouraging other emerging nations in turn to look at Africa with different eyes. On the heels of the Chinese, Brazilians, Indians, Russians and Turks, among others, have all intensified their courtship.
The net effect has been to shake up an old and fraying order dominated by cautious western donors and former colonial powers, prompting the most significant shift in the continent’s relations with the outside world since the end of the cold war.
Much of the irrational exuberance about Africa’s prospects that accompanied the commodity boom has dissipated. But that too has served to emphasise how fickle western investors can be when compared to the Chinese. Beijing has held steady, repeatedly restating its commitment even at times when continental growth has slumped below the rate of population expansion. While successive US governments have focused their lens on Islamist extremism in Africa, and Europeans increasingly turn theirs to immigration, Beijing’s contribution to infrastructure has continued apace, although there are concerns Africa is being lured into a new debt trap.
By contrast, Mrs May’s trip served as a reminder of how much more the UK must do if it is to remain relevant. The security and development initiatives she rolled out on her trip were a bizarre potpourri including financing for a cyber network in Kenya to track paedophiles. This diluted the prime minister’s central message, which was an unabashed pitch for business, and, for the home crowd, a shift to linking British aid to British interests. If the UK government has developed a fresh and winning strategy to seduce the continent, it was not discernible this week.
Like other European countries, Britain has tended to view Africa as a source of trouble and instability rather than opportunity. If that is changing it is for the good. But African countries have gained more bargaining power, have greater choice these days and are served by other powers with products more tailored to their needs. They also have more space, not always judiciously used, to set their own national agendas.
During the last Great Game, when the continent was carved up, the cards were heavily stacked in Europe’s favour. This time, Europe in general and Britain in particular are playing with a weaker hand.