May heads to Abuja as she bolsters UK-African charm offensive

May says she wants to see strong African economies that British companies can do business with in a free and fair fashion.

Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May is greeted by schoolchildren waving British and South African flags, during a visit to the ID Mkhize Secondary School in Gugulethu, Cape Town, on 28 August, 2018. Picture: AFP

CAPE TOWN – British Prime Minister Theresa May continues her African charm offensive on Wednesday in Abuja where she’s scheduled to meet with Nigerian President Mohammadu Buhari.

She's likely to press home the same message she delivered in Cape Town on Tuesday that Britain is prepared to invest billions of pounds and expertise into African countries so that their economies and the UK's can grow over the long-term.

“So I’ll set aside development budget and expertise at the centre of our partnership as part of an ambitious approach and use this to support the private sector to take root and grow.”

May says she wants to see strong African economies that British companies can do business with, in a free and fair fashion.

“By 2022, I want the UK to be the G7’s number 1 investor in Africa, with British companies taking the lead in investing the billons that will see Africa’s economies growing by trillions. We have the tools to do so.”

May returns to London, and her continuing Brexit woes, later this week after meeting with Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta on Thursday.

The longer-term shift to “trade not aid” will have to be dramatic if it is to compensate for the setback of severing close ties with the European Union.

There are strong reasons for Britain to promote African development. As May noted in a speech in Cape Town, a more prosperous continent is less likely to breed international jihadists or economic migrants eager to sneak into Europe. The economic rationale, however, looks more suspect.

Total trade with Nigeria, South Africa and Kenya – the stops on May’s three-country trip – amounted to £13.1 billion in 2016, according to UK government figures. That’s less than 2.5% of the £554 billion in goods and services that Britain exchanged with the European Union in the same year. In other words, if UK trade with the bloc drops by 2% after it departs, commerce with the three countries – which include Africa’s two largest economies – would have to almost double to make up the difference.

At the moment any pickup looks a stretch. Over the last decade, the value of UK-Africa trade has grown at around 1% a year – a trend that is likely to continue given the subdued economic trajectories in South Africa and Nigeria. Besides, the EU already has a trade deal with South Africa, suggesting limited scope for any dramatic gains.

Nor can Britain rely on a fountain of goodwill from its former colonial outposts, especially when compared with the diplomatic and commercial clout of China, far and away Africa’s biggest trading partner. Buhari, a former military dictator who is running for re-election next year, has been reluctant to join a pan-African free trade deal on the grounds of protecting domestic industry.

In contrast to Chinese President Xi Jinping, a regular visitor, May is the first British leader to venture south of the Sahara in five years. While greater UK-Africa trade would be welcome, it’s a tiny plaster for Britain’s Brexit wounds.

Additional reporting by Reuters.

(Edited by Leeto M Khoza)