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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