UK leans on financial expertise to woo African leaders

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By Nicholas Norbrook

The UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson has promised investment, a greening of development aid and visa reform to delegates from 21 African countries, gathered at the UK–Africa Investment summit.

The presidents of Egypt, Ghana, Kenya and Mozambique were among those in the audience.

Admitting that the UK was just one in a long list of countries currently wooing African countries, including China, Turkey and France, Johnson cited an Akan proverb: “All fingers are not the same.”

In the shadow of the 02 Arena – a gigantic white tent in London’s eastern reaches – the prime minister pushed the UK’s global leadership in financial services, education and technology.

Policy changes

Beyond the attempt to market the UK’s strengths, Johnson also announced two policy changes.

  • Firstly the UK’s immigration system, which Johnson promised would be “fairer”; onlookers suggest a Canadian-style points system is on the way.
  • Second, an end of all UK aid directly linked to coal or coal-fired power stations.

Environmentalists were not impressed by that last promise. “The UK government has not funded a coal plant overseas since 2002. This commitment to ‘no new coal’ therefore makes very little difference to the UK’s lack of climate ambition, and it leaves untouched billions in oil and gas support that the UK will continue to spend worldwide,” said Adam McGibbon from Global Witness.

New era

The UK hopes to launch a new era of economic diplomacy, as it negotiates to exit the European Union.Daily newsletter: join our 100 000 subscribers!Each day, get the essential: 5 things you need to know Sign up Also receive offers from The Africa ReportAlso receive offers from The Africa Report’s partners

The CDC, a UK development finance institution, has announced an extra £2bn ($2.6bn) in funding for African companies.

  • The 700 companies that it currently supports in Africa generate “$1.7bn in annual taxes for African governments”, according to CDC chair Graham Wrigley.

Front and centre

The UK’s financial expertise is being put front and centre of the summit.

The City of London, with its deep capital pools and solid legal frameworks remains a key draw for African countries, argue financiers.

It is too early to speculate on the success the UK will have in generating new business with the conference.

But the addition of the UK-Africa Investment Summit to the annual agenda of Africa-focused meetings is one more ramping up of global interest in what Cameroonian philosopher Achille Mbembe calls the last frontier for global capital.

  • “The UK historically seems to have engaged less in Africa; now they want to put it on steroids”, says Sanjeev Gupta, an executive director at the Africa Finance Corporation, a Lagos-based infrastructure financier. “There seems to be a healthy competition among the global powers to engage with Africa.”

To the nimble governments on the continent who can execute diplomatic arbitrage will go the spoils.