Britain’s treatment of the Windrush generation and attitude to its colonial past means it is struggling to retain the same influence across the African continent as China, a cross-party group of peers has said.
In a new report, sharply critical of a lack of a clear UK government strategy for Africa, the Lords International Relations and Defence Committee said the Home Office’s treatment of Africans seeking visas to the UK was close to humiliating.
Following a six month inquiry into UK relations with Africa, the peers warned that “the UK’s domestic policies affect how it is perceived in sub-Saharan Africa. The Windrush scandal and the ‘hostile environment’ have damaged the UK’s reputation”.
They also warned the UK’s historic engagement with Africa had had a lasting impact on its relationships in the region, and that it had to be more open about its negative aspects, “including ongoing tensions over the history of how it colonised many countries in Africa, and in some countries its role in the slave trade”.
The committee was told by Lady Amos, the former UN official and Labour peer, that the UK would have “an ongoing problem … in our relationship with a number of African countries” until the UK acknowledged “the important role that the slave trade played in building Britain, and its consequences for the dehumanisation of people from the African continent”.
By contrast China is seen as a partner across much of Africa, offering itself as a growth model for other sub-Saharan countries.
Overall the peers found the UK’s Africa strategy falling short, saying much of it was vague, full of jargon or part of a continuum in which the Foreign Office committed to making Africa a priority and then, in the face of competing demands, failed to do so.
Although the UK Foreign Office has increased staff serving in Africa, and has set a new priority in the Sahel, once a French preserve, the peers pointed out there had been 20 Africa ministers in the past 31 years, an average tenure of 18 months.
The peers said they were surprised to hear that no detailed work had yet been done to identify ways in which the UK could offer better access to African exporters than was possible when the UK was in the EU. The bulk of Britain’s post Brexit trade work is focussed on Asia and the US.
Plans for the UK to become the top G7 investor in Africa by 2022, a target set out by Theresa May in 2018, have been quietly dropped by the current prime minister in favour of the UK becoming Africa’s partner of choice, the committee noted.
The current Africa minister James Duddridge told the committee that the target had been crass since “as Africa expands massively, the cake expands more”. China was “eating up a lot more of that investment opportunity than before”, which made hitting such a target “harder and harder”, he said.
In one of the report’s strongest passages the peers said: “[The] UK’s visa policies are damaging its reputation and the ability of international departments to build and strengthen relationships across Africa, and in some cases fall below the standards of basic human decency. One witness described the process as ‘arbitrary, expensive, time-consuming and … humiliating’.”