Few who voted for Brexit were actually racists, much as those opposed to the project would like to have you believe. There were probably as many reasons as the 17.4 million people who voted to leave the EU.
For example, I am an African-born British citizen who enthusiastically campaigned for Brexit, hoping that an independent United Kingdom would offer mother Africa a better future. Brexit should create an opportunity for Africa, not only to escape the crippling EU Common Agricultual Policy but also to trade itself out of the dehumanising poverty through equitable trade deals.
Even the EU's supporters accept that the Common Agricultural Policy is a disaster for its southern neighbour. The programme sees unwanted European produce dumped on Africa — forcing down profits for the continent’s farmers — while blocking imports, again weakening the economic viability of African agriculture. No wonder Tanzania and several other African countries have repeatedly refused to sign a new Economic Partnership Agreement with the European Union.
It was heartening therefore to see the new Prime Minister Boris Johnson organise the first UK-Africa investment summit in London last year, just a few weeks after the election.
With 21 African heads of state in attendance, including those of Nigeria, South Africa, Egypt, Kenya, Ghana and Rwanda, the Prime Minister announced a series of ‘new initiatives and funding which will: strengthen the joint trading relationship, support African countries in their ambition to transform their economies, launch a major new partnership with the City of London, turbo-charge infrastructure financing and enable Africa’s clean energy potential’, according to the No. 10 policy paper on the summit.
Britain has also promised to promote democracy and human rights in its dealings with the continent. Yet save for a precious few bright spots — notably Ghana, Malawi and most recently Zambia — elections in the vast majority of African countries are predictably unfair because the ruling party and state are two sides of the same coin.
Even worse, corruption in Africa has become institutional. During his official visit to the UK in 2016, Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari told the press that David Cameron did not have to apologise for his comment that Nigerians were fantastically corrupt because he had told the truth. All that Nigeria wanted was for the UK to return the stolen fund hidden on these shores. The problem is not just confined to Nigeria. Last month the UK imposed new sanctions on several African leaders including the vice president of Equatorial Guinea, and the son of the current President, who is accused of diverting state funds into his own personal bank accounts.
This presents Boris Johnson’s Global Britain agenda with an unpalatable choice. Either the UK can follow the Chinese and invest in Africa without asking questions about democracy, corruption and human rights, or it can insist on promoting these fundamental British values. For the UK this risks not only being accused of neo-colonial interference but also losing lucrative investments opportunities.
The clue to how this dilemma might be resolved lies in two separate but related publications produced ten years apart. The 2010 Chatham House report, ‘Our Common Strategic Interests: Africa's Role in the Post-G8 World’, advised that:
“For many countries, particularly those [like the UK] that have framed their relations with Africa largely in humanitarian terms, [improved links] will require an uncomfortable shift in public and policy perceptions. Without this shift, many of Africa's traditional partners, especially in Europe and North America, will lose global influence and trade advantages to the emerging powers in Asia [read China].
Then there is the new book by Lord Peter Ricketts, Hard Choices. The former Foreign Office permanent secretary spent over 40 years at the heart of British foreign policy. He tells us:
“Outside the UK... Britain’s foreign policy will necessarily be heavily weighted towards securing trade deals. This mercantilism will mean a difficult balancing act between commercial interests and pursuing values-based foreign policy, standing up for democracy and human rights. Countries such as China and Saudi Arabia [and African nations] will not hesitate to use Britain’s need for exports contracts and investments to press for criticism of their wider policies to be muted.
In other words, Global Britain will not have her cake and eat it; hence the Prime Minister’s silence on values when he addressed the two UK-Africa summits.
Given a choice, most Africans who prefer a closer relationship with Britain would reluctantly opt for fair trade to democracy and human rights. After all, the latter is not achieved at an event, but through a long painful process. British trade is surely part of that process.