18 July 2011
Alex Vines

Dr Alex Vines OBE

Research Director, Area Studies and International Law; Head, Africa Programme


David Cameron's first visit to Africa as prime minister is significant. The Prime Minister is visiting Africa's two economic giants, South Africa and Nigeria. Both have robust cultural links with the UK and also offer promising new trade opportunities. The business delegation that Cameron heads is an important statement of the coalition government's objective to have a more balanced relationship with Africa: trade and aid.

It is an important political statement that David Cameron did not cancel his trip, despite the phone hacking scandal at home. The Foreign Secretary, William Hague cancelled his visit in early 2011 because of the Arab Spring and an additional cancellation would have seriously damaged bilateral relations. The best elections in recent years merited a visit to Nigeria: engagement with President Goodluck Jonathan is important to encourage reform in this increasingly influential emerging power.

The shortening of the trip to visit just South Africa and Nigeria is wise anyhow. A visit to Rwanda would have been contentious given rights and governance slippage. In May two Rwandan dissidents in Britain received 'threats to life warning notices' by Scotland Yard saying that their lives were in imminent danger from assassins sent by the Rwandan government. Furthermore, a visit to South Sudan is not urgent: the Foreign Secretary attended the independence ceremony in Juba and the UK's minister for Africa, Henry Bellingham visits Khartoum later this week.

This Africa visit not only symbolises the shift into a more trade-focused approach by Britain in Africa but also that London is re-investing in its diplomatic network in Africa, with the opening of a new embassy in South Sudan, and the reopening of embassies in Madagascar and Côte d'Ivoire. Work still needs to be done to underpin this commitment, especially with UK Trade & Investment which is poorly equipped in Africa to respond to the government's pro-trade agenda.

Britain's Johannesburg based Trade Commissioner has a tough job given the UK's slipping trade share with South Africa. The UK was South Africa's third biggest source of imports from 1998 until 2003 but dropped to sixth position in 2008. Compared to ten years earlier the UK has been overtaken by Germany, China, USA, Saudi Arabia and Japan as South Africa's biggest sources of imports. The story is similar with Nigeria, where Britain's market share has declined over the last decade.

At long last Britain is breaking away from neo-colonial guilt and beginning to engage with African states as a normal international partner. It was the right decision for the Prime Minister to continue with his visits to South Africa and Nigeria and promote bilateral relations. Despite the growing parochialism of Britain's media and chattering classes, the UK's future requires strong international partnerships, including with South Africa and Nigeria.

The Africa programme has an ongoing focus on the changing nature of UK policy in Africa. More.