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Vol 63 No 18

Published 8th September 2022

What will Truss mean for Africa?

Although she heads the most diverse cabinet in Britain's history, new prime minister Liz Truss has shown little interest in engaging with African states

When it emerged on 5 September that Britain's new Prime Minister Liz Truss was likely to appoint politicians of African descent to four of the most senior positions in her cabinet – finance, home affairs, foreign affairs and international trade – officials on the continent reported a rare wave of interest in Whitehall's power struggles. Despite the monumental economic and political management problems facing Truss, a few African governments see a chance to benefit from this strong diaspora representation in the government in London.

For those officials who dislike the patronising tone of some development aid organisations, the ruling Conservative Party's agenda of Global Britain and boosting trade opportunities holds an untested appeal. And Truss's boosting of fossil fuel production and lack of enthusiasm about net-zero carbon targets will please Africa's oil and gas producers. Plenty of African-owned companies favour the small state, deregulation, and low-tax economic strategy pushed by Truss's team.

Yet insiders such as former Secretary for International Development Rory Stewart say that Truss showed little enthusiasm for foreign affairs, let alone development economics.

That impression was reinforced on 5 September when speaking outside Downing Street after becoming Prime Minister, Truss promised to help Britain 'ride out the storm'.

Since the Department for International Development was folded into the Foreign & Commonwealth Office in 2020, and Britain's aid budget cut from 0.7% to 0.5% of national income, Whitehall has been seen as moving away from Africa and cutting its diplomatic presence there as other states such as India, China and Turkey sharply increase theirs (AC Vol 61 No 13, Retreating from the stage). Whitehall's direction of travel looks set to continue: Truss has said during the campaign that aid levels will remain as they are.

As Foreign Secretary, Truss saw global politics through the lens of great power rivalries, in which African states are second tier players. Launching her international development strategy in May, Truss told MPs that aid should be used to challenge 'geopolitical efforts by malign actors' like China, as well as bring more countries into the orbit of free-market economics. The idea was to do 'more with less'; in particular, working specifically on trade and investment partnerships with a handful of states. South Africa, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Kenya and Ghana were named as 'key strategic partners' (Dispatches 19/5/22, Whitehall focuses on business and aid for trade as it cuts budgets).

In a speech to the Chatham House think-tank in London in late 2021, Truss mentioned Africa once, and then in passing. At the time, the UK changed the name of its Commonwealth Development Corporation (CDC) fund, rebranding it the British International Investment (BII). This signalled a change in policy: while CDC had focused on projects in the poorest countries, BII promised to pivot to the Indo-Pacific, away from Africa.

The new PM visited Africa once during her year as Foreign Secretary, going with Boris Johnson to Rwanda in July for the Commonwealth Heads of Government summit just as his own premiership hit serious trouble (Dispatches 21/6/22, Political intrigue and economic recession haunt Kigali summit). There, Johnson showed an increased enthusiasm for the Commonwealth as alliances in Europe come under strain. That may continue.

Scheme on
Truss also pledged support for Johnson's and former Home Secretary Priti Patel's most high profile involvement in Africa: their scheme for processing asylum-seekers bound for Britain in third countries. Once it emerged in April that Rwanda was going to be a processing centre – and those given asylum would have to stay there rather than be allowed to reside in Britain – a storm of controversy broke (AC Vol 63 No 9, Refugee deal faces delays as legal and political challenges grow). The first asylum-seekers flight to Rwanda was blocked by the European Court of Human Rights in June. The day Truss became prime minister, a group of asylum-seekers argued at London's High Court that the policy was unlawful because of Rwanda's 'authoritarian' laws.

Truss's new Home Secretary Suella Braverman says she will reinforce the Rwanda policy, and favours replacing the Human Rights Act with a Bill of Rights, designed to make it easier to deport failed asylum-seekers and foreign criminals. Braverman had advocated withdrawing from the European Convention on Human Rights during her own leadership campaign, but is not expected to push that as Home Secretary.

Braverman and International Trade Secretary Kemi Badenoch have been accused of stoking 'Culture War' issues, with Braverman describing the British Empire as a 'force for good', while Badenoch challenges the idea that there is institutional racism in Britain. Truss's appointment of climate change sceptic Jacob Rees-Mogg to Business and Environment Secretary doesn't open the prospect of much progress in Whitehall either on climate finance or backing a green transition in Africa.

In a 2020 speech in her previous job as International Trade Secretary ahead of a Britain-Africa Investment Summit, Truss lauded her country's investment in Africa and praised women entrepreneurs on the continent. But her biggest trade deals during that period were with Australia, Japan, and New Zealand.

Britain's lack of long-term policies in Africa is shown in the discontinuity of ministers for the continent: since 1989, there have been 22 ministers for Africa, an average tenure of around 18 months. In the latest reshuffle, the Africa minister changed again, as Vicky Ford, who was beginning to gain some popularity in the job, was moved after a year in post to Minister for Development. A replacement has not yet been announced.

On Britain's military presence in Africa, its 2021 Integrated Review on Defence downplayed the continent's importance to the London, suggesting that its efforts should be focused in East Africa. Since then, Islamist militias have stepped up attacks in the Western Sahel, and Russia's Wagner Group mercenaries are offering help to regional governments. This might prompt a rethink in Whitehall.

Some in Truss's team have past interests in Africa. Her new chief of staff Mark Fulbrook, who also ran her campaign, has previously lobbied the UK government on behalf of Libya's house of representatives. That parliament has worked with the rogue General Khalifa Haftar in his attempts to overthrow the UN-recognised government of national unity in Tripoli.

Her new Foreign Secretary, James Cleverly, then Deputy Chair of the Conservative party, tabled questions about alleged vote rigging in Nigeria's elections by President Muhammadu Buhari's All Progressives' Congress in 2019.

Truss's main foreign policy objective will be focused on Moscow's war with Ukraine but she may try to win friends and influence people in Africa on that issue. That would require more diplomatic agility than shown so far. She is said to be willing to give up the Chagos Islands, claimed by Britain in defiance of the International Court of Justice which urged the islands be passed to Mauritius in 2019 (as expertly documented in The Last Colony by Philippe Sands, Orion Books, London 2022).

How the African diaspora dominates the cabinet

Prime Minister Liz Truss has evinced little interest in Africa but three of the great offices of state are now held by people of African heritage. 

New Chancellor of the Exchequer Kwasi Kwarteng's parents emigrated from Ghana as students in the 1960s. He has a doctorate in economic history and co-wrote a pamphlet 'Britannia Unchained' with Truss arguing for the primacy of free markets and power of capitalism. Kwarteng has been a consistent supporter of Britain's exit from the European Union.

Home Secretary Suella Braverman's parents also came from Africa: her mother from Mauritius via India, and her father from Kenya via Goa. In her maiden speech to parliament in 2015, Braverman described how her father fled Kenya in 1968. Another ardent Brexiter, Braverman favours tougher immigration controls.

Foreign Secretary James Cleverly's mother is from Sierra Leone and has kept in touch with his heritage, visiting Freetown in 2016. After a stint as minister for the Middle East and North Africa, he served as under secretary in the Department for Exiting the European Union, and then as Education Minister.

Kemi Badenoch, the new International Trade Secretary, spent much of her youth in Nigeria, though she was born in Britain. And she has ties to Abuja's political elite: her mother is a first cousin of Nigeria's Vice-President Yemi Osinbajo. Badenoch's tough position on capitalist economics and culture war issues earned her backing from Tory rightwingers at the grassroots.

Britain's political links to Africa in this generation are widening: Rishi Sunak, who lost to Truss and will not be in her cabinet, also has African links through his parents. Kenya's Daily Nation backed him for Prime Minister, as his father Yashvir was born and went to school in Nairobi. Outgoing Home Secretary Priti Patel's parents also lived in Uganda before emigrating to the UK.

Many of these appointments reflect the Conservative Party's attempts to improve its diversity. In 2005, then opposition leader David Cameron launched the 'A-List' to find prospective parliamentary candidates who would appeal to a more diverse electorate. That had some success, as a wider range of candidates were selected; several are now senior ministers.

Next month, former special advisor to the British government Samuel Kasumu is leading a launch of the 2022 Group, which aims to increase numbers of black Conservatives in national and local government, as well as influence party policy. Kasumu quit as a race advisor last year, citing frustration over increased culture wars. But he seems to have been brought back into the fold, perhaps to inspire the next generation of Tories with African connections.

This diversity in the Truss cabinet have unsettled many in the opposition Labour Party which has prided itself on taking a more progressive stance on race and migration issues. The harsh truth is that Britain's two main parties fail to reflect the country's diversity. Some 97% of Conservative Party members are white compared with 96% of Labour Party members. But less than 87% of the general population define themselves as 'white British'.

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