At its peak in 2012, UK-Commonwealth trade accounted for US$120 billion. While this figure has fallen away in recent years, Brexit undoubtedly offers the UK an opportunity for better trade relations with Commonwealth nations and other emerging economies.
With its existing UK relationship and large (and growing) population, Nigeria stands well placed to be at the forefront of this growth. However, to actualise these opportunities, a number of key considerations need to be addressed, requiring effective stakeholder communications on both sides.
Earlier this year the Chairman of the Commonwealth Enterprise and Investment Council (CWEIC), Lord Marland of Odstock, spoke of the potential for growth in the UK-Nigeria trading partnership once Brexit occurs. When asked which products Nigerians might be particularly interested in purchasing, he reportedly replied: “Everything.”
While this may seem like a bombastically optimistic approach to future trade relations, it does pay homage to the level of business already being done between the two countries, and the potential for more. Last year, the UK Foreign & Commonwealth Office put out a press release based on a speech by Paul Thomas Arkwright, the British High Commissioner to Nigeria, titled Brexit – Lessons, Challenges and Opportunities for Nigeria. The 2,000+ word article covers everything from encouraging more Nigerians to apply for visas in the UK, to exactly what Brexit could mean for the Nigerian economy, to a bilateral trade relationship that was, at the time of writing, still worth £3.8bn per annum.
Cleary, the economic relationship between Nigeria and the UK remains strong, and there is an appetite to make it even stronger. When you factor in Nigeria’s own economic struggles in recent years – namely migrating a previously heavily gas and oil-dependent economy into new areas of industry – then it is easy to see how these two large, transitioning economies, could benefit from more exchange.
But for this blueprint to become a reality, a number of key considerations need to be addressed that require effective communications from senior stakeholders on both sides.
Firstly, Nigeria needs to communicate itself better, not only to the UK but more widely on the international stage. For example, just two months ago, Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari faced major backlash on social media for insinuating that Nigerian youths are lazy: “We have a very young population. More than 60% of the population is below the age of 30. A lot of them haven’t been to school, and they are claiming that Nigeria has been an oil-producing country; therefore they should sit and do nothing and get housing, healthcare, education free,” he said at a Commonwealth event in London.
This is, of course, unhelpful, but it is only a small piece of the reputational puzzle that Nigeria must solve if it is to thrive in an increasingly globalised economy. In actual fact, the Government has sent strong anti-corruption messages to the international community, and we see an increasing amount of investment into new areas of technology and innovation. For example, at the 2018 Direct Investors’ Summit, which held in Abuja in May, the Vice President, Professor Yemi Osinbajo, spoke to the current administration’s efforts on the creation of an enabling business environment in Nigeria, efforts which have led to the World Bank recognising Nigeria as one of the top 10 most improved economies in the world in 2017, and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) citing Nigeria’s business climate reforms as a significant contributor to lifting the economy out of recession last year. Also, Nigeria’s CEOs are beginning to stand up and take greater responsibility for safeguarding the Country’s reputation, and where those building blocks are being put in place, investors and trading partners will undoubtedly follow.
However, a second issue arises in the form of the UK’s international aspirations, and how it sees itself within the economy of the wider world. UK Prime Minister, Theresa May it could be argued, could do with taking a leaf out of Emmanuel Macron’s book. The French President has now visited Africa six times including his most recent trip to Nigeria. On the other hand, no British Prime Minister has been to the Continent since 2013, and former Prime Minister, David Cameron, certainly did not express a huge wish to do so when describing Nigeria as a ‘fantastically corrupt’ country to none other than Her Royal Highness The Queen, coincidentally just before the Brexit vote took place in 2016.
The UK needs to do better on the international stage and particularly on the Continent, where it is in danger of losing its advantage. The old divisions between Anglophone and Francophone Africa are, like many of the previous century’s international customs, quickly eroding. If Nigeria is in danger of talking itself down from a strong international trade agreement, then equally the UK is in danger of talking itself out of one, by refusing to acknowledge the opportunities that its partnership with Nigeria provides.
Such syntax may seem inconsequential against the power of corporations and commerce, but particularly in a Trumpian era where language can be weaponised and tweets can move markets, effective communications is key. Soft power, diplomacy, attention to detail, all of these things play a crucial role in effective trade negotiations, but just like in the world of day-to-day business they can often be the last thing on senior stakeholders’ minds.
Brexit represents an opportunity for the UK in rethinking and reshaping business and trade. However, perhaps more importantly, Brexit is an opportunity for Africa to rethink and quickly reconfigure the way it does business with itself. As the business of the UK and the USA become less predictable, intra-African trade and regional integration ought to become the new standard – which of course will then require much needed effective stakeholder communications in Africa.
This article was written by Nkiru Balonwu, Managing Partner for RDF Strategies, for Business Day Newspaper, and first published on Monday 9th July.