London's new African best friends

Angola, Cote d'Ivoire, Ghana, Mozambique and Tanzania are to form “High Level Prosperity Partnerships” with the UK. But this odd collection of new partners has one thing in common: all have oil or gas deposits.

“I want to get away from the narrative of coups and corruption,” Britain’s African Minister, Mark Simmonds told businessmen, as they tucked into a full English breakfast at Simpsons on the Strand.

It was the Minister’s chance to provide the first glimpse of what is being described as “High Level Prosperity Partnerships” in Africa. A full launch will take place (this evening) at Glazier’s Hall, on the bank of the Thames, appropriately looking North to the City of London. The initiative is being sold by the Foreign Office as a “cross government initiative”. Led by the Foreign Office it will include the ministry’s commercial arm, UK Trade and Investment and has the backing of the development ministry, DFID.

The government has singled out are Angola, Cote d'Ivoire, Ghana, Mozambique and Tanzania for this treatment. Each has agreed to put up a named minister with whom Britain can link up, to develop trade and investment.

So what about London’s traditional "best friends" on the continent – Nigeria, Kenya and South Africa? “We have a big footprint there already,” a spokesman told the New Statesman. “The idea is to work with business to develop new markets.”

This odd collection of new partners has one thing in common: all have oil or gas deposits. Angola has long been a major partner for BP. Ghana is important for London-based Tullow oil. Mozambique and Tanzania both have gas fields. So too does Cote d'Ivoire. As the North Sea runs down Africa is becoming an important source of hydrocarbons and an excellent place for Britain to sell its oil expertise.

The list also raises other questions. What role will DFID play in these relationships? Justine Greening, Britain’s development minister, will be at the launch. The suggestion that aid money would be used for military ends has already raised eyebrows. Should it now be channelled into winning new markets?

And what of the choice of partners? Mozambique is facing a fresh challenge from the Renamo rebels, who have begun attacking government targets. Mark Simmonds said this morning that he’d personally phoned President Armando Guebuza, calling on him to spread Mozambique’s wealth more evenly and allow room for dialogue.

Angola, which is reputed to be among the most corrupt and least equal country on the continent, also presents difficulties. There is little room for dissent and journalists have been routinely beaten up and jailed. Responding to the news that Angola was to be on the list, Leslie Lefkow of Human Rights Watch tweeted: “Angola?? Presumably the criteria for the partnership doesn't include transparency or respect for media and civil society.”

Tanzania and Ghana present fewer government issues, but Cote d'Ivoire is just emerging from an appallingly divisive civil war. Laurent Gbagbo, the country’s former president, is now in the Hague, facing charges before the International Criminal Court.

Africa has grown rapidly in the last decade and there are certainly greater opportunities for trade and investment. This has been seized on by China, which is moving rapidly to shoulder older partners from Europe and the United States out of the way. Developing a “High Level Prosperity Partnerships” backed by diplomatic muscle and with the wheels oiled with aid funding is David Cameron’s answer to this emerging challenge.

An oil platform off the Angolan coast. Photo: Getty

Martin Plaut is a fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London. With Paul Holden, he is the author of Who Rules South Africa?

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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle