A few weeks ago I flew out to Nairobi, Kenya for the last of a series of seminars looking at UK-Africa relations. The theme of the last meeting was ‘African Agency and UK-Africa Policy’. In this final blog post on the series I will provide a summary of the day and some of the key themes that stood out for me from the discussions, which were held at the very hospitable British Institute in Eastern Africa.
The first session considered the role played by African actors in security and defence relations. Kasaija Phillip Apuuli (Makere University) discussed the African Union (AU) and its significance as an African actor. He noted how the UK government has worked with the AU on combatting terrorism and violent extremism but also offered us some ongoing challenges, including the continuing existence of a number of unpalatable regimes in Africa, which undermine the AU’s coherence. We also heard from Jens-Peter Kamanga Dyrbak who works for the UK’s Department for International Development in Somalia. He observed how during the last decade the relationship between the UK and African governments has become much more of a genuine partnership, as attention has switched to supporting domestic processes of state building. The final presentation by Brigadier Mark Christie (Defence Advisor to the British High Commission in Nairobi) considered the UK’s defence footprint in Kenya. He suggested that military training is central to this relationship and that more is being done in an effort to increase Kenya’s agency.
After lunch we heard from Nic Hailey who is the current British High Commissioner in Kenya. He urged us to move beyond the narrative of Africa as a single coherent place and also introduced the important role played by the diaspora when considering agency.
The third session began with Alex Vines (Director of the Africa Programme at Chatham House). He switched attention from security to economic relations and in particular foreign direct investment (FDI). Alex considered the role of the UK (and the West more broadly) in Africa within the context of the so-called rise of the emerging powers and China in particular. He noted that the differences between these external actors can sometimes be overplayed and that often Chinese firms investing in Africa have the same concerns as UK firms. He argued that the story of the rise of the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) in Africa should be tempered somewhat given that the top three sources of FDI into Africa are the US, UK and France according to the 2015 UNCTAD investment report. The result, he claimed, has been that African states (maybe with the exception of South Africa) are engaged in a politics of diversification in their external relations, rather than simply a ‘look East’ strategy.
Latif Ismael (CEO of Transparency Solutions) then gave us a more case-specific account of his experiences from Somalia. He outlined how Turkey has been very active over recent years, particularly in providing both humanitarian relief for the 2011 famine and providing scholarships for students to study in Turkey.
In the final session of the day we heard from Sally Healy (Rift Valley Institute) and Mary Harper (Africa Editor at the BBC World Service). Sally shared some thoughts from her extensive experience as a political analyst in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. She put current trends in UK-Africa relations into historical context and in particular the approach that New Labour took during its time in government. Sally argued that since 2010 the UK has moved away from a ‘saving Africa’ approach to working with specific countries where the UK has a comparative advantage.
Mary Harper then reflected on her time working for the BBC and the question of who can speak for Africa. She noted that during her time working for the BBC World Service there has been a proliferation of both domestic African radio and TV stations and alternative external players such as Chinese CCTV Africa and Al Jazeera.
It was a shame that some of the other Africa-based speakers who had been invited were unable to make it given the focus on African agency. Nevertheless, the day was another thought-provoking seminar that raised a number of interesting issues for me. I will just sketch out briefly three of these here.
- Dynamics of power within UK-Africa relations need to be considered in our analysis. During the seminar we heard a lot of talk about ‘partnership’ and notions of African agency. However, we should not ignore the fact that the UK’s relationship with Africa is forever shaped by its colonial past. During the rest of my brief stay in Nairobi this was abundantly clear to me. Put simply, ‘African agency’ is shaped by the past and should not be considered ahistorically.
- When thinking about African agency we need to think about which actors we are ascribing agency to. Africa is not a coherent voice and we heard during the day about some of the limitations of both the AU and the various regional organisations. While South Africa’s membership of BRICS represents an attempt to speak for the continent this is not something that is welcomed by other key states in Africa. At the very least we need to start from the ‘bottom-up’ by looking at specific actors and their ability to shape external relations with the UK.
- The rise of emerging powers in Africa means that UK-Africa relations should not be understood as a zero-sum game, whereby less influence from the UK simply equates to more African agency. During the seminar discussions we heard about China’s increasing influence across the continent and Turkey’s extensive impact in Somalia. What matters more for Africa is the impact that these external actors have. For example, the type of FDI and its potential to boost African development, matters more than where it comes from. Africa now has more choice in who it engages with than it did before, which has resulted in what Alex Vines called the ‘politics of diversification’ and this clearly poses challenges for the UK’s relations with the continent.
My blog posts on all of the six previous seminars are available here. There are a number of planned outputs and publications so watch this space! All the details of the seminar series are on the official website and for latest news you can also follow @UKAfricaSeminar on twitter.