The hallmark of Britain’s policy towards Africa is continuity. Under the coalition, Africa has not taken the morality flavoured prominence it had in Labour’s foreign policy, but the core of the relationship has nonetheless been upheld.
Of course, Britain’s colonial past in Africa still weighs heavy, especially with regard to countries such as Nigeria, Kenya, Zimbabwe and Somalia. But Britain is also tied to Africa by its permanent seat and veto power on the UN Security Council.
The Security Council spends a lot of time on Africa, where some of the UN’s largest and most costly peacekeeping operations are deployed. Since no future UK government would want to give up this privileged position, Africa is destined to be a permanent fixture on Britain’s multilateral agenda.
Justice and aid
The coalition has stood firm on two more recently established principles: support for the International Criminal Court, in spite of growing criticism of the court’s overwhelming focus on Africa, and the considerable foreign policy role now played by the Department for International Development (DfID).
DfID is now at the centre of the UK’s Africa policy, most clearly in the ongoing efforts to keep the UK to the UN target spend of 0.7% of GDP on official development aid.
That this level of aid spending has been upheld is remarkable given the coalition government’s strict adherence to austerity, while the former no doubt in great part explains why Britain has generally maintained its support to Rwanda, one of DfID’s long-time favourites, in spite of growing evidence of the country’s involvement in the on-going violence in the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo.
As far as Africa goes, the coalition years have also been defined by Britain’s role in two major crises.
The British government organised a high-profile international conference on Somalia in May 2013, which helped bolster international support to the country’s transitional road map. Somalia remains plagued by political instability and attacks from al-Shabab, but the funds gathered on the occasion have helped finance the African Union’s mission AMISOM and an on-going reform of the national security sector.
The second is the Ebola crisis, which has claimed nearly 10,000 lives in West Africa. Alongside the region’s other former colonial power, France, the UK has led the international state response – and frustratingly slow and limited as it was, there is evidence showing that it has saved lives and has also enabled the further development of good practice and research essential for future prevention and rapid response efforts.
The next government’s relations with Africa will probably be dominated by a similar mixture of principles and reactions, but the overall direction will nonetheless depend on the leading party’s defined priorities and foreign policy philosophy – and political pressure at home.
In or out
Of course, the election will have some effect on Africa policy, but the consequences of the various possible outcomes are far from clear.
A Conservative-led government would be under serious pressure to at the very least renegotiate its relationship with the EU, and Cameron has already committed to a referendum on leaving it entirely. But if Britain were to leave the EU, it would have to radically rethink the way it engages with Africa, where the European regional organisation has deployed a vast and more politically-minded external action service and nine Common Security and Defence Policy missions – for example in the Horn of Africa. Britain cannot do these things on its own, but it can hardly cast off its post-colonial and commonwealth responsibilities simply out of euroscepticism.
A Labour-led government, on the other hand, would be more likely to stick wholeheartedly to a multilateral agenda. That philosophy has long guided the party’s foreign policy approach (at least in theory), and it was recently reaffirmed by Miliband at Chatham House, particularly with reference to Libya.
The party has stayed relatively vague on its European plans, but it would clearly be keen to put Britain back at the heart of EU foreign policy.
But whatever the political orientation of the next government, its policies in Africa will also be shaped by towering crises that are already well underway.
Chief among them is the threat of Islamic State (IS), Boko Haram and al-Shabab, some of which count British citizens among their fighters and have in the case of IS set their sights on Europe. Britain has to decide how to support the African armed forces fighting these groups on the battlefield – even if only financially and logistically.
Just as pressingly, the recent deaths of hundreds of migrants trying to cross the Mediterranean are testing the next government’s Africa policy – and again, forcing the issue of European co-operation front and centre in what is, in many ways, a pan-African crisis.
The mutilateral tangle of interests and political agendas that these crises have exposed are a preview of what awaits the next government – whatever it looks like.