May’s Africa trip: was the sole achievement a dance move?
Theresa May’s decision to go dancing not once but twice in a week suggests a surprising level of confidence on the part of the embattled prime minister. Her three-day quickstep around Africa last week may be the last time before Christmas that a week in politics will be dominated by anything other than Brexit negotiations and questions about leaders.
But the reality is her short stay in the continent underlines the scale of the task Britain faces in reinventing itself as an influential global player after quitting the European Union.
In Africa, there is little doubting the opportunity. The continent boasts five of the world’s fastest growing economies – in Kenya, the growth rate has been 5% to 6%. Poverty and, increasingly, inequality remain problems; so is the need to create jobs – about 18m a year – in a continent full of young people.
It is this kind of thinking that prompted May to emphasise a trade-first strategy in her keynote speech in Cape Town, and even the optimistic goal of overhauling the US as the leading G7 investor in Africa, during the first visit by a British prime minister to Africa since 2013. Britain, for all the historic links, has latterly been increasingly absent from economic development, allowing others, most notably China – not a G7 member – to seek to expand their influence by building infrastructure and trade. A week after May’s visit, which took in South Africa, Nigeria and Kenya in three days, Beijing will host a two-day China-Africa summit chaired by president Xi Jinping.
There are concerns about the debt load African countries are taking on to service Chinese infrastructure projects, such as the Mombasa-to-Nairobi line in Kenya, completed last year to replace the old British-built railway, and the new airport terminals being constructed in Nigeria’s capital, Abuja, and elsewhere. Yet while May did bring construction companies in her trade delegation, her pitch was focused on a mixture of security cooperation – training for soldiers fighting Islamists in Nigeria and Kenya – and providing financial and professional services, meaning the City of London. During a threehour stop at Lagos in Nigeria, May briefly met Aliko Dangote, Africa’s richest man, soon after the government had highlighted a commitment he has made to list his $10bn cement business in London.
It is too much to expect a three-day tour to transform Britain’s post-Brexit trading prospects in Africa, but the fact that the most memorable aspect of the trip was May’s attempts at dancing demonstrates the limits of what can be achieved on most foreign tours. But No 10 was not unhappy that her awkward efforts made her seem at least more human.
Theresa May breaks into dance while with scouts in Nairobi