UK’s mission to Africa was a little off beat…just like May’s dancing

The feeling around Africa about the British premier’s visit was that of a child whose father never showed up while he was growing up. Now that the father needs his youth for support in a time of growing competition in the father’s world, he turns to this long-forgotten son. Theresa May’s three-day trip to Africa is over and it came with a lot of promises and commitment to working better with Africa henceforth. But if there wasn’t a Brexit, would May have made the trip to Africa?

Call it desperation and you ‘May’ be right. Ahead of her visit, the British Prime Minister had expressed Britain’s commitment to deepening relations with Africa. The country has made it its post-Brexit goal to “strengthen […] global partnerships” and Africa’s importance in this is evident. But Britain is not alone in the renewed scramble for Africa as the continent’s population rise and potential grow; China, India, Russia and Germany have all shown an unusual commitment to Africa in recent months.

May pledged £4 billion into supporting African economies and creating jobs for the youth and promised to continue the UK’s existing relationship with Africa. Before she left, she sealed a landmark cooperation deal to protect £10 billion ($13 billion) of free trade with Africa after Brexit. Deals worth more than £300 million have been agreed within a variety of sectors, creating close to 3,000 jobs across Africa.

She also signed a security cooperation deal with Nigeria, promised to help Kenya get back stolen funds kept in the UK and avoided questions about her role in apartheid.

May’s intentions are good, but like most foreign interest in Africa, selfish. Forget what she said about cooperation and what aid from the UK will do for Africa. Remember instead, that she said this in Cape Town: “I am unashamed about the need to ensure that our aid programme works for the UK.” She added that development spending must “support our own national interest”, and the UK must ensure “our investment in aid benefits us all”.

“I can today announce a new ambition, by 2022 I want the UK to be the G7’s number one investor in Africa, with Britain’s private sector companies taking the lead in investing the billions that will see African economies growing by trillions,” May said in South Africa.

UK’s overseas aid is currently 0.7 percent of the country’s GDP. It’s no longer going to be aid but “aid for trade”, as the focus will be on investing funds from the UK in certain sectors that will benefit private UK businesses. This is all fair, if only it is treated as trade. When we get a full picture of May’s “ambitious new approach”, economists can argue on whether to treat funds from the UK as aid or investment income, and whether they are taxable. All we know is that British companies are going to  benefit from May’s renewed partnership with Africa and immigration to the UK will become more difficult, as one measure of success of the new approach is that Africans stay where they are, rather than migrate to Britain. Aid is expected to stimulate trade and economic growth in Africa.

In matters of aid, humility can ensure you keep getting the largesse, but in trade, you need to agree to what’s best for you. African leaders are beginning to see this and they are choosing their friends themselves and carefully.

Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta did not forget to tell May that his country was keen to seek investment from anywhere in the world. He just returned from the US, where he met Donald Trump. He is off to China for the Forum on China–Africa Cooperation (FOCAC). He said Kenya is “keen to seek friends across the world” and “this is the basis of the discussions we’ve had with the prime minister today, as with President Trump and as we shall continue with China”.

Kenyatta also reminded May that “it has been 30 years,” since a British premier visited Kenya, “but I don’t want to dwell on the past – we want to look to the future”.

Whatever May’s intentions are, Africa seems ready to decide its own fate. Even if Chinese loans are dangerous for the continent, its leaders want to be the ones to decide when to stop. Africa will enjoy the benefits of the renewed partnership, but will remain wary of veiled altruism.

May will do well to ensure that the new partnership with Africa benefits the continent as much as it does the UK. The effort she put into dancing in South Africa and Kenya is great but her visit to Africa means nothing without bearing the right fruits. While it may be an achievement to the giant of Africa, Kenya has made it clear how it could mean something.