UK-Africa Relations, a Renewed Focus for ‘Patient Diplomacy’?

On July 31st, Foreign Secretary, James Cleverly, touched down in Ghana to begin his third visit to the African continent since his appointment. With Africa a growing epicentre for investment from both allies and rivals alike, Cleverly’s sought to use his four-day journey across the continent, which included visits to Zambia and Nigeria, as well as Ghana, as an opportunity to cultivate forward-looking partnerships with nations that haven’t historically been top of the UK’s priority list.

During his travels, the Foreign Secretary made a number of new announcements, including a new UK-Zambia clean energy partnership, a programme to tackle illicit flows in illegal gold, and pledged £40 million in funding through BII to support small businesses in Ghana. But what will the lasting impact of the trip be? And what does this renewed focus on UK-Africa relations say about wider UK foreign policy?

The premise behind ‘Patient Diplomacy’ lives on

Underpinning this visit were the principles of ‘Patient Diplomacy’ – a vision of diplomacy, announced by the Foreign Secretary last December, which prioritises longer-term strategic engagement with a wider range of partners – chiefly via diplomatic investment in a range of so-called ‘middle-ground powers. While the phrase ‘patient diplomacy’ never really caught on, the premise was embedded in the Government’s Integrated Review Refresh, and its values continue to guide the current administrations’ approach to foreign relations. 

With the UK putting renewed energy into its diplomatic and trade promotion resources outside of Europe –  e.g. acceding to CPTPP and becoming an ASEAN dialogue partner – Britain has illustrated its steadfast commitment to long-term engagement with a broader range of partners. While there has been a strong Indo-Pacific focus on much of these efforts so far, Cleverly’s trip to Africa highlights the range of nations which the UK will increasingly look to engage with as it embarks on a mission to diversify its economic and strategic partners. It also provides an interesting insight into the methods by which the UK may look to do this, including through ad-hoc, issue-specific partnerships with nations where there is a strategic benefit to be derived for both parties by doing so.

Another front to counter strategic rivals

Cleverly’s visit was also undoubtedly driven by a desire, and need, to counter China and Russia’s growing presence in Africa. Africa has been a priority for both nations in recent years and the UK’s strategic rivals now have deeply embedded economic ties across the continent. As of April 2023, 44 nations in Sub-Saharan Africa were signed up to China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Large investments include Hainan Mining’s acquisition of a majority stake at a lithium mine in Mali, and a US$94 million Chinese-Namibian joint venture to develop a wind power plant. 

While the UK is unable to compete with China when it comes to the size and scale of trade and investment opportunities it can offer potential partners, the UK nonetheless sees the strategic importance of providing credible alternatives to the BRI in Africa. The pledges made during Cleverly’s visit to Africa make clear how the UK will draw on our knowledge and expertise in areas such as finance, law and education to provide a unique offer to partners in Africa. An offer that might not come with China’s level of financial banking but nonetheless will provide opportunities to benefit from the UK’s unique knowledge and expertise, and which will help strengthen these nations’ reputations on the world stage.

Where to next?

None of the announcements made during Cleverly’s trip were earth shattering. They didn’t fundamentally shift UK foreign policy, or even our relationships with the specific nations visited. What they did do though, was mark an important step in strengthening relations with potential partners in the region and towards building relationships based on mutual trust, respect and strategic collaboration. What we are witnessing is a shift away from traditional aid-centric partnerships in Africa, instead towards the leveraging of the UK’s specific knowledge and skills, to help partners develop the institutional know-how to thrive. 

Looking forward to next year, the UK will host the UK African Investment Summit, bringing together Heads of State from 24 African countries with British and African business leaders. The Summit will serve as both a test of the UK’s efforts to strengthen its relationships in the continent and for ‘patient diplomacy’ more broadly, and as an opportunity to strengthen these further. Doing so will be central to the UK’s future success and prosperity. 

Fatima Irfan

Fatima Irfan is a Research Intern for BFPG