No easy road for UK and Africa trade relations in 2021

On January 1 2021, Big Ben rang in a new era for the United Kingdom. Brexit was confirmed. On the same day the UK left one of the world’s strongest free trade areas, African countries united to form ACfTA, the world’s largest free trade area, worth more than $3 trillion.

The developments mean challenges and opportunities, especially in trade and politics, for both.

Years of cemented UK-Africa trade and mutual agreements totalling about $46 billion, as of 2019, were put in doubt, internal pressure led to Britain slashing its overseas aid budget and talks of new post-Brexit bilateral agreements with African countries still hang in the balance.

Add to that a global pandemic threatening a recession for Africa and the UK and this relationship was under strain.

Under former Prime Minister Theresa May, Britain was clear that its relations with Africa needed a reset. She toured the continent’s economic giants trying to curtail China’s influence and made some inroads pledging Britain’s allegiance and trying to forge paths post-Brexit. But both the UK and Africa were seemingly unsure and uncertain of Mrs May’s future as Prime Minister. And Africa’s other allegiances to nations still in the European Union such as France and Germany, and the EU itself, raised doubts over renewed and mutually benefitting trade relations with Britain.

African trade experts were worried that the UK would first and foremost look inward and invest in an economy battered by Brexit and a pandemic. And then that it would prioritise trade agreements with the United States, Australia, China, South Korea and major countries in the EU, all ahead of Africa.

This didn’t take long to materialise.

In March 2021, May’s successor Boris Johnson published a policy paper titled ‘Global Britain in a Competitive Age’. The paper, a comprehensive articulation of the UK’s national security and international policy, highlighted the UK would place highest priority on ties with world superpower, the US, then shore-up trade ties towards the Indo-Pacific. Recently, Mr Johnson invited the leaders of Australia, South Korea, and India to attend his G7 summit.

Against this backdrop other countries are gradually and assertively shoring up their investments in Africa.

The EU, China, Japan and Germany are committed to helping create a new Africa and their growing popularity on the continent has been enhanced with their support for Africa’s fight against the pandemic and economic measures such as investments in infrastructure, innovation and climate change.  This could pose a huge threat to UK-African ties.

However, for both, Africa and the UK, the emerging opportunities for trade and growth are immense. Britain’s global push for climate change laws that would affect more than 400 million people on the continent would be of benefit to Africa; and Africa’s support for its cause is of utmost importance to making other powerful countries to do more in this area. The UK can also pick up stalled plans for renegotiating and formalising new trade deals with African countries guided by lessons learnt from the EU- Economic Partnership Agreements (EPA) with Africa. In addition, the UK can take advantage of ACfTA by sharing knowledge and advising policy that builds an inclusive free market that employs innovation and best practice in achieving its dreams. 

In turn, Africa can develop inroads for UK companies to operate on the continent by building centres that provide a ‘One Stop Shop’ for business and investments. African countries can also invest in high yielding agricultural products such as tea, coffee, nuts and fruits, which the UK imports in bulk and support the UK’s role in global issues such as human rights and fighting terrorism.

With China’s economic growth and influence continuing to grow and with the new US government once more committed to the global stage, Britain must pick-up its pace and Africa should explain why it should be at the forefront of UK minds post-Brexit.

For the UK, Africa can be a key driver of its post-Brexit growth and for Africa, making steady and informed policy decisions on these new ties will be key for the continent if it is to mutually agree on critical issues such as global trade and foreign policy.

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Eugene Ng’ang’a

insights and opinions