May gathers colonies as Brexit bites

Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May. Picture: Jane Barlow/Pool via REUTERS

Photo credit: Reuters

Brexit is turning out to be a messy divorce for the UK, one wonders if it would not have been cheaper to stay married to the European Union (EU). Since that is almost a done deal, Prime Minister Theresa May set about to woo key Commonwealth countries in Africa in preparation for her post-Brexit trade blues. Her three-stop African safari logically took her to South Africa, Nigeria and Kenya.

Her tour delivered a number of awkward moments, along the way. She got a grilling by Channel 4’s Michael Crick over her ‘non-role’ in supporting the anti-apartheid struggle and the release of Nelson Mandela. Then there was that gaffe by Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta who could not recall the surname of Boris Johnson – calling him ‘the bicycle guy’ in May’s embarrassed presence. Almost like a headmaster retrospectively chastising a pupil, Kenyatta nonetheless commended May for stopping by 30 years after the last British premier to do so.

However, May had a reason to dance in wrapping up her trip. She probably succeeded in coalescing key partners behind her post-Brexit life. Well done to her, but all African leaders should be vigilant to equally guard their interests. Without the benefits of scale in the EU, Africa’s major trading partner, the UK needs renewed friendships in Africa – the centre stage of world trade and economic growth for the next half century.

Africa’s 1.2 billion people, projected to top 2.5 billion in 2050 by the United Nations, present an attractive market to any industrialised nation. This is made even more compelling by other megatrends that do not favour first world countries like the UK and the US. It is a fact that these countries are losing ground to emerging markets. For example, the top two selling smartphones are South Korean (Samsung) and Chinese (Huawei) ahead of US brand Apple. It is only natural then to salvage whatever is left of first world’s hold on Africa.

Africa is divided informally into Francophone and Anglophone, among other vestigial divisions from the colonial era. These are not sentimental alliances, but ways the French and British companies can sustain their Africa interests. Already, many African countries, including the three May visited, speak English. But increasingly they are attracting Mandarin influence thanks to China’s willingness to invest in their infrastructure in exchange for access to natural resources and markets for its gadgets. It is a new scramble for Africa, and May had to do something to lay the foundation for the UK to maintain useful trade and investment links with Africa, which will be more attractive after the commencement of the African Continental Free Trade Agreement (AfCFTA).

Why she skipped Zimbabwe remains to be seen. It might simply be due to her punishing schedule or the age-old assumption that South Africa is the gateway to the rest of the region; but a stop-over at the AU in Addis Ababa would make it easier for me to trust her bona fides.

Africa should be aware of the risk that its economic fate will remain beyond its direct influence. Without a coherent strategy on how to optimise the benefits of its billion-plus people by accelerating intra-Africa trade, May is but one of many trade explorers who will play us against one another. For all the trade agreements signed with South Africa, Nigeria and Kenya – leading economies in their respective regions – it is British interests we have just cushioned, not ours, until those agreements vigorously serve to raise intra-Africa trade and investment.

As with the recent BRICS meeting in Johannesburg, where the Chinese premier picked and chose which countries to meet before the summit, African countries continue their plausible deals with superpowers like the UK and China, instead of strengthening their collective bargaining under the AU. The result is a divided Africa with patches of economic success in a mass of underdevelopment.

While there is nothing inherently wrong with bilateral trade and investment deals, the visit by May no doubt served the UK and deepened division among African states. 

Victor Kgomoeswana is the author of Africa is Open for Business; media commentator and public speaker on African business affairs, and a columnist for Destiny Man – Twitter Handle: @VictorAfrica