Around the time of Emmanuel Macron’s latest visit to Nigeria, RDF Strategies asked whether the UK could do with taking a leaf out of the French President’s book. After all, if there are to be new alliances formed in the post-Brexit world, then surely existing relationships would be at the top of the agenda?
Last month Theresa May did indeed visit Africa, making her first trip to the continent since becoming UK Prime Minister in 2016. But with a string of criticism surrounding the visit and a March 2019 Brexit deadline looming, is it too little too late to create stronger UK-Nigeria relations?
A quick glance at the travel schedules of our two recent European visitors reveals a stark discrepancy between French and UK attitudes towards Africa. Visiting the continent for the first time since becoming Prime Minister in 2016, Theresa May visited three African countries in three days: South Africa, Nigeria and Kenya. President Macron, on the other hand, has visited 11 countries on his nine trips to the continent since becoming French President in May 2017. Based on these topline figures alone, it would appear that the UK has quite a lot of catching up to do.
It didn’t help that the Kenyan President was quick to point out the passage of time that had elapsed since the previous visit to the country by a UK PM: “Yes, it has been 30 years,” Uhuru Kenyatta told reporters, “but I don’t want to dwell on the past – we want to look to the future.” He told Theresa May directly that he was glad she had “found time” to visit.
The diplomatic tour came under greater scrutiny still, when UK-Nigeria relations were placed under the microscope. Longstanding BBC radio presenter, John Humphrys, suggested Bolanle Austen-Peters should “go back home” when she told him that “a disconnect” currently exists between Britain and Nigeria. The Nigerian filmmaker lives in Nigeria. When the UK’s national broadcasting corporation lacks such basic facts, is it any wonder that Nigerian President, Muhammadu Buhari, told Theresa May that the country was “nervously watching” her Government’s negotiations on Brexit?
But in 2018, even lukewarm diplomacy may find itself eclipsed by the importance of commerce. The UK stands on the cusp of losing its pass to the largest free trading block in the world. With the fifth largest national economy on the planet seemingly struggling to visualise its future, the job of Nigeria and the wider continent must surely be to demonstrate how to rebuild it.
A fascinating article appeared in The Economist just as Theresa May was embarking upon her whistle-stop tour of Africa. The cover piece, titled ‘Why startups are leaving Silicon Valley – The new geography of innovation’, looked at dwindling US investment in media tech startups, with the number of first financing rounds in the country down by around 22% since 2012. But interestingly, in an article examining the ‘new geography of innovation’, the piece stopped short of identifying Africa or Asia as new international tech hubs, choosing instead to conclude that “technological innovation everywhere is becoming harder”.
In Nigeria we know that this is not the case, so why are our politicians and our business leaders not doing more to promote the role that the country could play in the new global trading landscape? From the new developments around the business and technology of agriculture to the independent tech-hubs sprouting up across Lagos and Abuja, innovation is everywhere in Nigeria. And where private enterprise is leading, government institutions are beginning to follow with organisations like the Bank of Industry extending funds, support services and training to small and medium businesses, such as its recently launched Aba Finished Goods Cluster Financing initiative, all in an effort to promote industry and trade.
But such efforts must be communicated to the outside world. President Macron has set the example of how Europe and the rest of the world should engage Africa – purposefully, honestly and openly. I hope our own leaders pay attention to his points on addressing demographics as a significant challenge in tackling poverty, on making the environment viable and attractive for our people to stay, and for new people to come. We need to make Africa habitable and functional for the upcoming generation to thrive, grow our middle class and create hope and actual opportunities. That’s our own Mark Zuckerberg story, we don’t want a borrowed one.
Ironically though, the most inspiring images of Africa have come from the West Coast of America in recent years, as Wakanda’s technological might has captivated audiences around the world. Black Panther depicts a land of high-tech innovation, endless opportunity, and international collaboration hidden from the world by a shroud of secrecy. That shroud is very real. Even the film’s central protagonist has been misinterpreted as an emblem for African-American politics throughout the years, and it is only when viewers peel back the forest of mythology and misinformation surrounding the continent itself that they see a true depiction of Africa.
International markets are beginning to take notice. In August, Nigeria pledged to further strengthen trade and investment ties with Russia. Last week, at the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC), President Xi Jinping announced that China would be providing US$60bn in financial support to Africa, including $20 billion in credit lines, $15 billion in grants, interest-free loans and concessional loans, and $10 billion in investment financing. Even the much criticised Theresa May took to Instagram during her trip to the continent to wax lyrical about the Nigerian textile industry. Hashtag #UKAfrica.
Emphasising progress and inspiring future growth is the communications job that Africa now needs to do if it is to redefine its appearance and consequently its position on the world stage. Of course Hollywood sensationalises things, as do the PR & marketing vehicles of industry around the world. But an open and transparent demonstration of the opportunities that now reside within Africa, and the greater commercial prosperity that stronger trading relationships with the West can bring, is now firmly within our grasp.
Both public and private sectors must do more, and in greater harmony, to communicate this messaging to the world. If the UK, in particular, feels fearful about losing the economic prowess of its past, then it is our job throughout Africa to follow the lead of the Kenyan Prime Minister’s words, in helping it look to the future.